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From Bahrain to Singapore: Taking Art Across Borders

By Kames Narayanan

 
 

Art is often said to be found in even the most unexpected of places. Yet, learning that Bahrain — an island country in the Persian Gulf that ranks as the third-smallest nation in Asia after Maldives and Singapore — boasts a thriving art scene does warrant surprise.

The kingdom, that counts a population of less than 2 million, is acknowledged as the first in the Perisan Gulf to diversify its economy beyond the rich oil industry. Since the late 20th century, Bahrain has channelled its efforts towards the banking and tourism sectors, most recently dipping its arm into the art sector. In fact, the city’s public-government organisation, Tamkeen, tasked with zooming in on the economic potential of Bahrain’s private sectors, sees its largest contributions to the art realm in its support of the three-year old international contemporary art fair, Art Bahrain Across Borders (ArtBAB).

While its governmental bodies may only have taken to art recently, artists have always found a welcoming place in Bahrain. “The arts have been prevalent in Bahrain for a while. We have an annual arts exhibit, which is in its 45th year. Bahrain is diverting its attention to where its due and it wasn’t a very difficult thing to do, considering we already had the artists,” says Kaneka Subberwal, fair and programme director of ArtBAB, which debuted in London two years ago.

Despite its small population of about 1.6 million, Bahrain has had no lack of artists. And granted the existing pool to tap on, Subberwal’s job was halfway done. “In my multiple trips to Bahrain over the years, I noticed the country’s art scene growing from strength to strength in numbers. I then wanted to find a way to connect the global art world to the artists of Bahrain and the artists of Bahrain to the global art world,” says Subberwal.

The ArtBAB fair is designed to bridge this very gap that isolates a city brimming with unique artistic talent from the larger world. Looking across the portfolios of the fair’s exhibitors, a keen sense of Bahrani identity and unwavering loyalty to its rich culture is a common thread that grounds the diverse art effusions. These works are distinctive masterpieces imbued with a sense of the place it originates from.

Now in its third year, ArtBAB, continues to extend beyond its boundary. This year, the fair marks its ASEAN debut with a showing of a heterogeneous set of 18 artists in Singapore from 23 to 27 October. Here are five artists whose works will be on view at the Museum of Contemporary Arts. 

 

Ahmed Anan

Artist Ahmed Anan holds a reputation as a veteran in Bahrain’s contemporary art scene. Beyond being an artist himself, his contributions to the country’s art endeavours extend to a societal level. A member of the Bahrain Contemporary Art Association since 1989, he has since risen in the ranks as the association’s head. There he works towards creating a support group for like-minded artists in search for artistic avenues within the country.

Throughout the course of his art career, Anan’s works have delved deep into the role of women in the society — Bahrani women are his often visited subjects. In depicting their endeavours at various stages through life, Anan’s shapely, female abstract figures are rendered in mosaics of paint and materials: some complete, others fading into the canvas.

 

“I paint women because I think they play a very important role in the society and my works aim to portray the many sacrifices that they make,” says Anan.

Anan’s acclaimed works have traversed the globe beyond the Gulf nations to major cities such as London, now making its first Asian stop in Singapore. 

 

Amina Al Abbasi 

Artist and entrepreneur Amina Al Abbasi is amongst the younger set of artists exhibiting at this year’s ArtBAB — a sensibility that shows in her repertoire of creations. Abbasi’s canvases are where timeworn Bahrani traditions meet contemporary strokes of paint.

Abbasi’s body of work draws its inspiration from one of Bahrain’s ancient fabric weaving techniques coined “Naseej”. The placement of each thread is carefully considered to convey a spectrum of intimate emotion and the overwhelming beauty of the larger world.

 

“The threads that I use in my paintings represent thought. I think they are like threads, they take you from one place to another and once all these threads are connected, you feel a certain feeling. That’s the concept of my latest exhibition,” explains Abbasi.

She approaches the complexity of thought not as a bane of existence but instead as the beauty of existing. What comes through in her delicate, gold threaded creations is a refined elegance that speaks of a sleek modernity. In further developing her craft, Abbasi is in the midst of creating her own jewellery line that has been a long time coming.

“When people saw my works, they started asking me if I sold the jewellery that I would at times weave on the canvas. That made me realise that there was a demand and later, led to my venture into an accessory line,” says Abbasi.

With an exciting line-up of projects in the works, it is little doubt that Abbasi is a burgeoning force in Bahrain’s art realm.  

 

Faika Al Hassan

Veteran artist Faika Al Hassan’s interest in the arts stemmed from an early age. Yet, it wasn’t until her later years in life that she was presented with the opportunity to pursue her passion.

Growing up at a time when the Bahraini economy was flourishing in the banking and finance sector, Hassan’s initial plans to pursue art were foiled by the scepticism of her parents. “For my generation of artists, our families wanted us to pursue banking. When I expressed my interest in art previously, people would immediately question what good it was,” says Hassan.

Although it took time, Hassan fell back into art and today, is one of Bahrain’s admired artists. Like the works of some of the greatest artists our time has seen, Hassan’s creations are instantly identifiable — her signature aesthetic are paintings filled with dozens of miniature human figures that echo her sentiments on the insignificance of an individual on the grand scheme of life. 

 

Her exhibit in Singapore, however, deviating from the norm, explores her use of unbleached cotton that was once the bedding from the days of her childhood. In these pieces, the fabric is a visual rhetoric, at times her miniature figurines are clothed in them and at other instances, it is laid out below the material possessions painted on the canvas. An austere turn from her stereotypical use of vibrant hues, her collections are reflective of her awareness of the refugee crisis that plagued the world today.

“I think I might have been somewhat been affected by the refugees problems that we have happening at the moment. I might live a good life but I know that there are many people out there today who continue to suffer,” says Hassan.

 

Linda Mattar 

A working professional by day and an artist by night, Linda Mattar is a young multi-hyphenate whose talents span the fields of architecture, finance and art.

“I was always fascinated by art. As a kid I used to draw a lot but most of the companies that I have worked with are a part of the banking sector of some kind. It’s a very hectic world where I faced a lot of pressure and I really needed something to bring back the balance to my life,” says Mattar.

 

This was a balance that she found in her rediscovery of her love for art and her innate flair for it. To Mattar, art is a medium of expression and an outlet for emotions. Her keen observations of the world around her, particularly her inclination towards geometry, spirited hues and nature are rendered as awe-inspiring works of art. What initially was an outlet to de-stress eventually became a more serious foray. 

Over the last decade, art has evolved into a natural extension of Mattar and a way of life for her.

“I have always considered myself an artist. Art exists in many forms and can be expressed through an array of mediums. I am lucky that I am today able to pursue art and I think it is the best time for it,” she says.  

 

Mariam Ali Fakhro

“I consider painting in my studio to be my oasis to disconnect. My passion for drawing and the pleasure it brings me is what started my career as an artist,” reflects Mariam Ali Fakhro, a veteran in Bahrain’s contemporary art scene.

With an artistic career that began in 1985, Fakhro has an impressive resume that ventures beyond exhibiting, into a curatorial role. Between 1991 and 2000, she had a hand in curating more than 25 art exhibitions at the prestigious Bahrain National Museum and Arts Center. Her works have also travelled beyond the borders of Bahrain to Morocco, London, Indian and most recently the United States of America.

 

Fakhro’s acclaimed works have over the course of time explored a myriad of themes. “In the beginning I enjoyed painting landscapes, figures and portraits. In recent years, I have begun to paint from memory, with a woman figure repeated often. Some of my abstract work is also linked with the female presence,” explains Fakhro.

Her works that will be shown in Singapore bear the unifying motifs of houses. Drawing from the recesses of her memory, Fakhro goes back in time to recall the traditional houses of a bygone era — particularly the memories of her childhood growing up in her grandfather’s house.

Visit ArtBAB in Singapore from 23 to 27 October at the Museum of Contemporary Arts.