One must turn to the past to comprehend Bahrain’s compelling cultural landscape. Situated on the western shores of the Arabian Gulf, the archipelago was once the site of the ancient Dilmun civilisation—later evolving into one of the world’s most coveted sites for harvesting pearls during the 19th century. Considered a cultural pioneer in the region, the nation introduced the first art classes in the Gulf during the first part of the 20th century.
Rasha Yousif. Shield. 2017. Acrylic print. 59.4 x 84.1 cm. Courtesy of the artist
Through the winding streets of Bahrain’s former capital, Muharraq—a series of restored historic houses unveil a remarkable insight into the nation’s heritage. The majlis of the eminent pearl merchant, Salman Bin Hussain Matar has been revived into the Bin Matar House. From the conceptual compositions of Waheeda Malullah to the surrealist renditions of Abdullah Al Muharraqi—the center continues to preserve Bahrain’s artistic legacy.
Steps away from the Bin Matar House, lies the Shaikh Ebrahim bin Mohammed Al Khalifa Center for Culture and Research. At the turn of the century, the majlis was once a forum where Shaikh Ebrahim bin Mohammed Al Khalifa held weekly deliberations on matters of philosophy, literature, poetry and the arts. In 2002, the site was reinstated as a centre devoted to culture by the President of the Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiquities, Shaikha Mai bint Mohammed Al Khalifa.
Balqees Fakhro. The Red Field. 2008. Acrylic on canvas. 60 x 60 cm. Courtesy of the artist
As part of Bahrain’s continued efforts to develop its art sector—the second edition of Art Bahrain Across Borders (ArtBAB), took place from March 22-26 at the Bahrain International Exhibition and Convention Centre. The art fair is held under the patronage of HRH Princess Sabeeka bint Ibrahim Al Khalifa and supported by Bahrain’s economic development agency, Tamkeen. “Until recently, the art sector in Bahrain did not receive the required attention,” says the Chief Operating Officer of Tamkeen, Amal Al Kooheji. “Through initiatives such as ArtBAB we hope to steer it into new heights—inspiring entrepreneurship, art education and local skills development.” The fair is directed by Kaneka Subberwal, founder of the art consultancy firm Art Select. Since 2008, Subberwal has played an instrumental role in promoting Bahrain’s contemporary art scene with Art Select. “One of the greatest advantages we have here is that Bahraini art is inherited, it is not adapted,” notes Subberwal. “Another unique aspect is its steady evolution, which may look passive to some but in my view it is stable and sturdy, which today is a key imperative,” she adds.
Ahmed Anan. Ladies Talk. 2015. Mixed media on canvas. 85 x 85cm. Courtesy of the artist and ArtBAB
The second edition of ArtBAB featured three key platforms. The Gallery Arena hosted 35 international and local galleries; the International Artists Pavilion displayed works from artists across the world; and the BAAB Pavilion showcased the works of 30 Bahraini artists. Local galleries including Al Riwaq Art Space, Hend Gallery, Amina Gallery and Busaad Art Gallery also returned to the Gallery Arena for the 2017 edition of the fair. Of note, the International Artists Pavilion included a series of iridescent fiberglass sculptures by the Indian artist Rouble Nagi and the evocative Arabian horses by the Copenhagen-based artist Dorte Tuladhar. The BAAB Pavilion aims to anchor the fair with a showcase of established and emerging local talent. Among the highlights from Bahraini established artists were Ahmed Anan’s depictions of colloquial life in Ladies Talk and the enchanting abstract compositions of Balqees Fakhro. Representations from rising local talents ranged from Rasha Yousif’s documentation of the desert landscape in Oasis to Othman Khunji’s Her 2, provoking discourse on the role of Islam and gender relations in society.
Othman Khunji. Her 2. 2017. Stainless steel, steel. 3D printed ABS Plastic. 48 x 20 x 80 cm. Courtesy of the artist and ArtBAB
Despite its rich heritage, Bahrain has often been overlooked by the international art market. The nation’s artistic identity was pondered at a panel discussion held at the Capital Club in Bahrain on January 18. “Art across borders is what I have built my career on,” states the writer, curator and member of the ArtBAB international selection committee, Alistair Hicks. “I like the idea that art and artists are often trying to get across non-physical borders.”
He adds, “The art market is far too nationalistic.” The artist Shaikha Lulwa Al Khalifa concurred stating, “The fair is the perfect conduit for that. It brings people into our community, it shows our work and takes it out of our community—we need that link.” ArtBAB aims to build on the momentum of the fair’s inaugural edition. “What we have been trying to do over the past few years,” says Subberwal, “Is bridge our communication and collaboration with regional and international artists and communities. I believe it is just a matter of time until Bahrain leaves its mark on the global art map.”
Art Bahrain Across Borders (ArtBAB) ran from March 22-26 at the Bahrain
International Exhibition and Convention Centre. artbab.com