Karen Dabrowska

Arab Weekly Article

Originally published: 26th June 2016

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Bahrain’s varied contemporary art showcased in London


Untitled oil on canvas painting by Ebrahim Busaad

Untitled oil on canvas painting by Ebrahim Busaad.

London - Having art transcend the borders of the small Gulf island state of Bahrain was the aim of an exhibition that showcased a collection of more than 50 pieces from Bahraini artists at London’s Gallery 8.

The artwork selected under the umbrella of Bahrain Art Across Borders (BAAB) greeted visitors with a magnificent explosion of colour, showing a well-developed art that features figurative, abstract, realistic, decorative, spiritual and religious creations, exhibition curator Janet Rady said.

“The theme of the BAAB London 2016 exhibition was Bahraini identity in all its forms. Many of the artists reflect on their childhood and there is a lot of blue in their work because Bahrain is an island surrounded by the sea,” Rady said.

BAAB is a new arts venture designed to expose Bahrain’s rich creative talents to an international audience and promote cross-cultural dialogue, broaden the artists’ horizons and introduce art collectors and enthusiasts across the world to the vision of Bahraini artists.

The project is steered by Art Select, an international art investing consultancy firm, in partnership with Tamkeen, a Bahraini semi-government organisation that assists the private sector by providing financial, advisory and training support to enterprises and individuals.

The 17 artists whose work was exhibited ranged from veterans of the Bahraini art scene to early career artists who ventured into international events for the first time. They specialise in many areas of the visual arts, from painting to sculpture and photography, and their London portfolios reflected the influence of Bahraini identity on their work.

Kaneka Subberwal, founder of Art Select, said in a release: “The opportunities and exposure that the BAAB initiative offers is instrumental in stimulating the local arts scene and turning the spotlight on to the multitude of talent we have in the kingdom of Bahrain.

“Bahrain is one of the richest in the region in terms of history, culture and heritage and this is manifested through creative minds who have done a tremendous job in profiling their country with the highest respect and admiration.”

The most unusual art works, in black wooden sculptured frames, were Ghada Khunji’s photo montages on canvas with wood, lace and incense. Born in Bahrain in 1967, Khunji attended a pre-school associated with the Sacred Heart church, an experience that explains the iconography in most of her work.

She said she traces her fascination with photography to the moment she found an old suitcase that belonged to her mother stuffed with portraits of many generations of her family. Besides the surviving prints, she discovered stacks of negatives. She has since used some of those images in her work, to “revisit family moments that I was not around for”, she explained.

In her mixed media, sculptural artworks, Noor Ahmed Alrafaei makes references to old Bahrain, particularly the historic former capital, Muharraq. One key piece of her Bicycle Bench installation is made of recycled wood, an old-fashioned bicycle and mixed media images of Muharraq – from its buildings to its road signs.

“This art piece strives to capture the identity of Muharraq as a place in which many artists have found a home. With technology everything changes, so my bicycle would take me through Muharraq – old and modern,” Alrafaei said.

Ghassan Muhsin’s brilliantly coloured abstract works capture landscapes, birds and trees. After living and painting in various cities in the United States and Asia, the former diplomat settled in Bahrain. He said his artwork had been influenced by the ancient city of Babylon in Iraq and the mysterious country of Dilmun, often mentioned in historic records as one of the Middle East’s most ancient civilisations, which included Bahrain.

Muhsin said art is more successful than diplomacy at bridging gaps between cultures. “Diplomacy is the kind of tool which may be sinister some of the time and good at other times. But I believe art always meant to reflect bridges between different people and different cultures and can bridge the gap between nations,” he said.

Tabia Faraj’s work with calligraphy showed that it is an evolving and developing art form. She said she immersed herself in calligraphy at the age of 12 and is familiar with seven styles of Arabic and Persian script.

She has moved from traditional calligraphy, in which she used bamboo pens and Indian ink on paper, to working on canvas with brushes and sponges. Using liquid paint, she has striven to create backgrounds on canvas that evoke the effect of marbled paper. Her ambition is to develop a new script.

BAAB London 2016 showed that Bahrain’s art scene is both unique and promising. “We are influenced by so many different communities in Bahrain,” Khunji points out. “The art scene is getting better and better.”