My first encounter with art came at an unlikely place and time for me. I was only seven. We were on holiday in France. And I was in this humongous old building, like a fairytale palace. And a throng of people huddled in front of a wall, with a frame.
I could only see glimpses of it through the crowds. Later, when I asked my mother. She told me that the painting on the wall was called the Mona Lisa. That didn’t make much sense to me; it only freaked me out that the lady in the painting seemed to follow me with her eyes as I moved!
Twenty-three years later, I now realize the significance of that moment. Many people in Bahrain never have such encounter with Art at an early stage. The way society perceives art means that it is mistreated, misinterpreted and misplaced.
There was never any true interaction with art at school and if there was any, it was limited to grade one level of drawing nice pictures of nice houses and happy people. Once you hit puberty, drawing becomes something of a disease rather than a passion. This meant that those who felt this strong, undeniable passion towards art had to find their own way. Many of today’s established and well-known artists were ones who have taken it upon themselves to follow their passion, even when there was little to go by.
During the 1970s and early 80s a new wave of artists began to emerge, some who had the privilege managed to travel to Europe to get their dose of art history and knowledge. It was only in 1986 that the Bahrain Arts Society was formed and the longest running annual art showcase in the region was born (it has been running for 34 years now). It paved the way to this generation of artists to leave their mark and artists such as Abbes Al Mosaic, one of the country’s most prominent and celebrated artists, Rashid Al Oraifi and others, made it happen for themselves.
But since then, it became increasingly difficult for a new generation of artists to make their presence felt, the art movement died down and emerging artists found it more challenging to get their break. Until recently.
Bahrain, even though the first in the Gulf to introduce education, and is to this day considered one of the leaders in the field, still doe not have a certified art and design school. This has contributed in limiting the interest of art education, that combined with the fact that art was never truly seen as a career move. Rather it was always the hobby that can’t be taken up professionally due to various reasons, one being the inability creating a sound and strong financial setup.
The establishment of new art galleries by the late 90s such as Alriwaq Art Gallery and Albareh Art Gallery injected a new shot of energy into the scene. Slowly but steadily, with the exposure of the local community to more international art, it became clear that it was a matter of time until a new movement was born.
Art galleries have over the past few years been more adventurous and daring, attempting to break away from the standard understanding of what art is. Giving opportunities to more conceptual and new artists to showcase their work. And with the establishment of such initiatives as Elham, which I launched in 2006, helped alter the perception of art and triggered a new grassroots movement for emerging artists. The need to reform the art scene was evident, and the desire for change was shared by all parties involved.
Bahrain as a country is known for its diversity. In spite of its small scale, it’s cultural construct is vast. A range of influences from pop culture to contemporary concepts, and from European art and Asian design, can be felt when observing the art that has come out of Bahrain over the past couple of decades. But it got to the point where the influences were more evident that the artist’s unique fingerprint and it seemed that for a while, artists were restricting themselves to certain schools of style – perhaps it was more of a self imposed restraint in consideration of social and cultural boundaries.
It’s almost as if the new generation of artists have finally found the confidence and courage to be themselves, create their own brand of art, and stamp their personal style on the scene. And this can’t be further from the truth for such artists as Mohammed Al Mahdi, who immediately established a name for him self by winning the country’s prestigious annual art award. Bahraini young artist Waheeda Mallullah is another example. The conceptual artist is fearless when it comes to expressing her ideas and conveying them to the public and her experimental attitude brings a fresh prospective to the table.
The timing couldn’t be more appropriate, as the eyes of the world is now more and more turning towards the Gulf region, it’s art is what will paint a brighter and honest portray of it. Specifically in Bahrain, a country that in spite of its limited resources, has always managed to produce a pool or talented artists who are not shy of challenging perceptions, and stereotypes, with conviction.
*this essay first appeared in the Across The Gulf book.