Bahraini artists share their creative vision as they prepare for ArtBAB

1 / 2
2 / 2
From left, Fair Director Kaneka Subberwal, Lulwa Al-Khalifa and Somaya Abdulghani.
Updated 24 February 2017

Bahraini artists share their creative vision as they prepare for ArtBAB

With just weeks to go before Art Bahrain Across Borders (ArtBAB), the participants are fully immersed in their preparations for the event.
The contemporary fair, supported by Bahrain’s economic development agency Tamkeen, will be held in Manama from March 22-26 at the Bahrain International Exhibition & Convention Center. Twenty-five international galleries and 10 Bahrainis will participate.
Arab News caught up with two Bahraini artists taking part to learn more about their creative vision.
Lulwa Al-Khalifa, whose paintings radiate energy through their colors and textures, works from her balcony overlooking the sea, and takes inspiration from the ever-changing light from sunrise to sunset.
“The view of the sea puts me in a positive state of mind. There is a joy that comes from the setting itself,” she reflected.
Al-Khalifa will show her most recent work at the fair.
“I have been working on some new paintings for a while now, so it is a matter of deciding which ones I want to present. I will have my own booth at the fair. This is an exciting time,” she said.
Asked where her love for art comes from, she said that it had been a vital element of her childhood.
“I grew up in a family where art was a very important part of our lives. We grew up appreciating it — not in the sense of ‘come on, let’s visit a museum’ — but as part of our daily lives. We were immersed in it. My father sketched — it was a way of expression for him and we grew up seeing that. He was the first person to help me with my sketches. As a kid when I drew ballerinas and princesses he would make a big deal about them and hang them on the wall and really encourage my creativity. Sadly, he passed away when I was very young — aged just eleven.
“I then did a course when I was at High School with an Italian painter and he taught me how to work with oils. But after that I didn’t do anything — except I always sketched.”
So what changed to make art integral to her life again? As Al-Khalifa explained, it was a tragedy that proved a turning point.
“In 2014 I had a very sad experience when a first cousin the same age as me passed away. I didn’t know what to do with myself to cope with this loss. As a way of dealing with the sadness my daughter suggested that we paint together on the balcony. I initially resisted the idea but she insisted.
“She went out and got canvases and paint and something happened — we painted for five hours. Then the next day we painted again and I used it as a coping mechanism,” the artist explained.
She appreciates the creative culture in her home country.
“I am very inspired by the art scene in Bahrain which is relatively old compared to the rest of the region. It started in the 1950s and is continuing to grow. The problem is that it is not widely publicized. It’s very layered and diverse and there is real talent here,” she said.
Looking ahead to the fair next month, she observed: “I think an art fair is essential for any country that is serious about its art. It’s a platform for local artists and international galleries to show their work. It’s a dialogue that needs to happen.”
Also exhibiting at ArtBAB is Bahraini artist Somaya Abdulghani. She described the inspiration behind her work.
“I’m presenting three mixed media pieces from my ongoing project, ‘Iqra’. Most of my work is inspired by the Holy Qur’an. I had been in my Qur’an club for almost a decade when my mentor asked the group to try sharing what we’ve learned with others. That night I went home and thought about the best way to communicate my message. Since art was always a hobby of mine, I felt that combining the two would be a good idea. So, I started incorporating my knowledge of the Qur’an into my art work.
She feels the upcoming art fair will be extremely beneficial to the country.
“It’s important because Bahrain can become an important hub for artists to express their imagination and showcase their talents and be a meeting point for art enthusiasts.
“Bahrain has always been a country full of creative artists and recently there have been more opportunities for these artists to grow and showcase their abilities,” she said.
Jonathan Watkins, director of the Ikon Gallery in the UK, who has extensive international experience of curating major events including the Sydney Biennale (1998), Shanghai Biennale (2006) and Sharjah Biennial (2007) has recently returned from a visit to Bahrain to explore the ArtBAB space and meet up with some of the artists.
“My role is to select artists exhibiting in the Bahraini section and to hang the work that has been sent from abroad in the international stands.
“This is a real voyage of discovery for me. I am coming at this from a not-for-profit point of view — I’m not in the commercial art world — I am a museum curator essentially. I am really interested in taking art out of conventional spaces. When we were confronted with this vast exhibition space your imagination runs riot with the possibilities,” he said.
Watkins explained that alongside the artworks there will be a fascinating display of moving images from video installations and films projected onto 40 large screens. Work by internationally renowned artists including Marcel Dzama, Cristina Lucas, Raqs Media Collective, John Stezaker, Beat Streuli, Gillian Wearing and Ming Wong will be shown alongside excerpts from Bahraini-produced documentaries.
The “Floating World” video installation will surround the ArtBAB exhibition spaces which will include a dedicated Bahraini art pavilion, gallery and individual artist stands and merchandise outlets and cafes.
“The combination of the architectural structure for the fair itself and the 40 large screen projections will be captivating. People will go for the fair and be surprised by the moving images and then they will find themselves in the fair — a cross fertilizing of audiences,” said Watkins.
Janet Rady, ArtBAB’s head of planning and development and a specialist in contemporary art from the Middle East, said: “ArtBAB will create a bridge between Bahrain and the world.”
The newly rebranded fair builds on the momentum of the Bahrain Artists Across Borders project launched at the Victoria and Albert Museum last May by the art adviser Kaneka Subberwal, who also established ArtBahrain.

Saudi Venice Biennale debut follows Cannes

Updated 25 May 2018

Saudi Venice Biennale debut follows Cannes

  • The Saudi pavilion illustrated the evolution underway as the country embraces a new era of change, powered by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 blueprint for the future
  • Communication is the overriding aim for the creators behind the Saudi pavilion

VENICE: In its debut appearance at Italy’s leading architecture fair on Thursday, Saudi Arabia unveiled a sweeping exhibition exploring the country’s progress over the past five decades. 

Holding its own among the 65 national pavilions at the 16th Venice Biennale’s International Architecture Exhibition, the Saudi pavilion illustrated the evolution underway as the country embraces a new era of change, powered by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 blueprint for the future.

It is the first time the Kingdom has had a presence at the Venice event, which is considered one of the leading forums for international architecture and draws hundreds of thousands of visitors from across the globe to the city.

At the heart of the display in the Venetian Arsenal — the historic shipyards that house some of the most prominent pavilions at the fair — a set of screens on opposite walls flash clips of Saudi cities showing people wandering along the Jeddah Corniche or drinking coffee at a Bujairy Park cafe in Riyadh.

The reels illustrate the way urban sprawl has unfolded across the Kingdom, where rapid urbanization resulting in settlement-driven growth has skipped over spaces in Saudi cities, leaving vast lots vacant between buildings.

With more than 40 percent of urban land unused, communities are dispersed, creating a sense of fragmentation between neighborhoods connected only by cars.

“The vacant lot is a highly prevalent typology in Saudi cities: anyone passing through them will notice the empty tracts of land everywhere,” said architect Turki Gazzaz, who co-created the pavilion space – which is named “Spaces in Between” — with his brother Abdulrahman Gazzaz.

The duo, who founded Jeddah-based architectural studio Bricklab, beat 70 other entries to secure the commission to create the Kingdom’s first biennale pavilion, which shows the role design can play in restoring the social and structural fabric of Saudi cities.

While outlets for creative expression have previously been limited in the Kingdom, attitudes toward design-led solutions are becoming increasingly favorable. 

“People are becoming more conscious about these critical issues that exist within our urban fabric … this is beginning to spill out into our society and affect it in a positive way,” Abdulrahman said.

Recent reforms rolled out under Vision 2030 have created a channel for creativity to fuel the country’s growth as it looks beyond the oil sector — a turning point highlighted by the pavilion’s use of resin, which is a byproduct of the petrochemical industry.

This has been mixed with sand — a material that both symbolizes Saudi Arabia and links it to the rest of the world — for the giant curved screens that frame the exhibition.

Inside, projections show digital maps of the Kingdom’s main cities, beginning with aerial perspectives that convey their fragmented growth before moving down to street-level snapshots of everyday life in the city.

These pictures have been drawn from social media and most are taken from cars, the dual axis of urban life for city-dwelling Saudis.

Below, old mobile phones, a walkie-talkie and broken motherboards are showcased beneath a glass panel of fragmented electronics to “create a conversation about consumer culture” and comment on the “virtual public space” that people increasingly congregate in at the expense of public places, said Abdulrahman.

Speaking to Arab News at the launch of the Saudi pavilion in Venice on Thursday, Dhay Al-Dhawyan, project manager at the Ministry of Municipality and Rural Affairs, described the need to “humanize” Saudi cities, something Vision 2030, and the more immediate targets for 2020, are moving toward.

“We want to bring back city centers, walkability, accessibility, connectivity and rework the visual aspects of our cities to make them more lively and functional,” he said.

The overall theme at this year’s biennale is “Freespace,” selected by the Irish curators Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara to encourage architects to explore how “a generosity of spirit and a sense of humanity” can contribute to the urban environment.

Tapping into this ethos, the Saudi pavilion curators have compiled a display that blurs the boundaries between development and desert, city border and boundless expanse.

In demographic terms, Saudi cities have always been diverse, but in many cases they lack the infrastructure to encourage interaction, said Jawaher Al-Sudairy, one of the exhibition curators and director of Nahda Center for Research as well as senior program manager at Harvard Kennedy School.

“There are public spaces, but they are under-utilized, so that’s where the conversation should be.”

Communication is the overriding aim for the creators behind the Saudi pavilion, which invites visitors to explore the evolution taking place in Saudi Arabia’s skyline and engage with the social shift underway as the Kingdom steps on to the world stage.

“We’re tackling a global issue here; this is not unique to Saudi Arabia,” said Dr. Sumayah Al-Solaiman, the other half of the female curatorial team at the exhibition.

In keeping with the spirit of the biennale, literature distributed at the Saudi pavilion errs on the side of the aloof and arty, but the experience created by the exhibition is firmly grounded and accessible.

The teams want visitors to identify with the issues raised, which have a global resonance in an era defined by rapid urban growth. “We’re more similar with other nations than we are different … and this is a great way to have a conversation that is not necessarily bound by national boundaries,” said Al-Solaiman, dean of the College of Design at Imam Abdulrahman bin Faisal University.

“The Venice Biennale is an excellent platform to start a conversation around architecture and how were designing and building, and we want to have this discussion with other architects around the world.”

“Our participation in the International Architecture Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia is an unprecedented moment for Saudi Arabia’s creative community. It’s an opportunity to bring pioneering Saudi thought to an international platform through our creative vernacular,” said Ahmed Mater, executive director of the Misk Art Institute, which organized the Saudi pavilion.

“Coupled with the allocation of an incredible pavilion space, we are very excited about our presentation this year at the Biennale Architettura, but are also looking forward to future years and presentations and what they will draw on from our own community.”

For Al-Sudairy, one of the most interesting projects on the horizon is the Riyadh Metro, which she believes will change a lot more than mobility in the capital. “I can’t wait to see how it changes the way people move around … it’s going to transform the city physically and socially.”

The Metro is one of many large-scale projects underway in the Kingdom that aims to bring a sense of cohesion to the country’s urban environments and unite diverse communities.

The Saudi pavilion opens to the public on Saturday, May 26.


The Saudi pavilion exhibition ‘Spaces in Between,’ above and top. (Valeria Mariani)