LONDON: In a world of instant global communication, rapid urbanization and identikit cities competing to build high and sweep away the traces of the past, how do you hold onto your cultural identity while embracing change?
A recent ArtBAB (Art Bahrain Across Borders) exhibition at the prestigious Saatchi Gallery in London, featuring the works of 15 artists from Bahrain, gave some insights into dealing with this challenge.
All the works, shown under the theme of “Diversity,” were completely unique in style, but each gave a sense of emerging from deep-seated cultural awareness.
Arab News spoke to some of the artists participating in the exhibition to learn more about their thinking and artistic approach.
Our Diversity snow is still up at Saatchi Gallery, and will be up until Dec 12. The work in the exhibition consists of a variety of styles and talents, ranging from emerging artists to established professionals, video installations to 3D printed models, oil paintings and mixed media. The show is being hosted in the gallery right next to the shop — make sure you stop by! @saatchi_gallery #ArtBABinLondon #londonart #bahrainiartist #artistsonig
Maryam Al-Noaimi talked about her striking installation “Salt Enriches.” The rack of black garments stained with salt from evaporated seawater act as a metaphor for a lost way of life and a warning about the dwindling precious resource of fresh water, without which it is impossible to wash the salt stains away.
Al-Noaimi, who undertook her master’s degree in urban design at the University of Colorado and her bachelor’s degree in interior design at the University of Bahrain, spoke about the dangers of isolating populations from their natural landscapes and resources.
Referring to the new urban patterns and developments in Bahrain, she noted that, in the past, most of the people living on the 33 natural islands forming the biologically-rich and diverse archipelago lived in close harmony with their surroundings.
“People used to go to the seashore every day in a very easy way with no need for a car or a long commute. Today, with the built up environment — big highways and commercial projects — there is a gap being created between people and their natural environment. Even the sweet, natural springs are disappearing,” she said.
It is clear that Al-Noaimi cares passionately about the natural resources of Bahrain, which she fears are being eroded with negative physical and psychological impacts on people, nature and wildlife.
Zain Al-Kooheji expressed similar sentiments through her works “Modernization’” and “Ruins.”
“The architecture of the Arab world plays a big part in my identity — I try to embody that in my art works. Typically the areas in Bahrain which have the old traditional buildings are within the ‘ruins’ area and the buildings are old, damaged and tarnished. My view is that in this modern world we are forgetting a lot of the authenticity and (the) sense of home and unity with all the big skyscrapers.
“I appreciate the marvels of the world, but I do think we are losing a bit of our authenticity and originality and what makes our culture so rich and diverse. I try to mix a contemporary art style with a traditional feel,” she said.
Salman Alnajem said his aim was to “redirect attention from mortal desires in the form of importance of social status, cultural stigma, Westernization and modernization to the shedding of light on the beauty and importance of culture and traditions.” Two works from his “Blackened Series,” “House” and “Help” were on display.
Proud of how successful our Diversity opening night has been! It was officially opened by Bahrain’s Ambassador to the UK Shaikh Fawaz Bin Mohammed Al Khalifa and attended by Tamkeen Chairman Shaikh Mohammed bin Isa Al Khalifa, Art Newspaper Founding Editor & CEO Anna Somers Cox, with a speech delivered by Shaikha Sabeeka’s office director Shaikha Maram Bint Isa Al Khalifa. The turnout has been wonderful and we can’t wait for the public to see the show tomorrow #ArtBAB #ArtBABinLondon #londonart
Somaya Abdulghani had a thought provoking video installation in the exhibition. It showed hands reaching into a container filled with stones wrapped in shiny paper. When the wrappers came off, the stones were seen to be inscribed with words depicting positive or negative traits or actions. These included envy, swearing, kind words, or a smile; an accumulation of negative deeds led to hell and positive to heaven.
The work “Al Meezan,” which translates into “the scale” in English, is a concept that symbolizes the spiritual weight of good deeds against bad to determine the consequences during the afterlife.
Abdulghani explained: “This is inspired by the Holy Qur’an; it’s about the judgment day — about the good deeds against the bad. I believe that the way we treat each other really affects the balance of good against bad.”
She also had two beautiful works with intricate patterns. She said: “I strive to introduce Islam’s theological and philosophical beauty to my audience by developing delicate, rhythmic and organic patterns in my art.”
Marwa Al-Khalifa’s stunning mixed media works incorporating LED lights encouraged the viewer to reflect.
“My work broaches a spiritual level that invites the viewer to meditate upon and interrogate their own personal life,” she said.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Essa Al-Khalifa, chairman of Tamkeen, commented on the significance of the exhibition: “It is extremely important. We constantly have to make people aware of the richness of the culture of the Gulf. Sadly, today, perceptions are clouded due to the reality of life. You see a lot of passion from artists from across the Gulf region concerning art, culture, history and tradition that we are proud of. This is a way to help reach across borders and show people the Gulf in a different light. We are human — we are like everyone else.”
Sheikh Fawaz bin Mohammed Al-Khalifa, ambassador of the Kingdom of Bahrain to the United Kingdom, said: “This is an opportunity to showcase Bahraini artists here in London — for our artists to mix with artists here in the UK, display their art and get feedback on their paintings. Art is a universal message.”
Maram bint Isa Al-Khalifa, director at the Office of Her Royal Highness Princess Sabeeka bint Ibrahim Al-Khalifa, wife of the King of Bahrain, said she was delighted by the strong turnout at the opening and about the way Bahraini artists are increasingly being showcased globally.
“Bahrain’s art movement started back in the 1950s. It’s very well established and highly developed. It’s time we started to take it to the world and showcase it at every opportunity we get. That’s why we created Art Bahrain Across Borders.
“’Bab’ in Arabic means ‘door’ or ‘doorway’ — a doorway for our artists to reach the world. It allows our artists to broaden their networks and also to grow themselves by meeting other artists, or collectors or people who will contribute to their experience.
“We also bring international art to Bahrain through the fair that takes place in March every year. It’s a two way initiative. We are only at the beginning, but there is so much potential for growth.”
Lulwa Al-Khalifa showed through her striking images of women painted behind lines that resemble a blind how both the person looking out and the person looking in can make incorrect assumptions about each other through restricted knowledge.
“I wanted to examine beliefs and preconceived ideas, so I painted the faces of these women behind the white lines representing how the lines hinder their view of the world and how the world sees them through the white lines. Clarity is obscured on both sides.”
Amani Al-Hajjeri showcased two works representing London’s “Diversity.”
She said: “Both paintings convey the same message — no matter what your ethnic background or religion, we can come together and produce together. London, with its great diversity, is a role model for many other cities around the world that are suffering from conflict, sectarianism and racism.”
Seema Baqi’s paintings drew inspiration from Sufism. Her abstract pieces “Inspiration” and “Positivity’” tell the story of Sufi culture and its ideologies of selflessness, simplicity and the journey to self-actualization.
“I am not a Sufi myself, but I have drawn inspiration from the way they worship. I celebrate all religions, they all worship in their own way but they all go back to God the creator.”
The curators of the exhibition, which formed part of a series of events celebrating Bahraini art and culture in London, said the artists had responded very imaginatively to the theme.
Kaneka Subberwal, ArtBAB fair and program director, observed: “We make boundaries in our heads and there are certain perceptions, but we are building friendships and relationships. People are getting to know our artists and I couldn’t be more thankful to see such a wonderful response.”