Art Radar profiles 10 of Bahrain’s most influential contemporary artists.
Bahrain boasts a thriving and vibrant art scene. The country’s numerous artists and varied institutional infrastructure reinforce each other to create an artistic community that is rich in contemporary experimentation, yet historically grounded.
In many ways, Bahrain was a 20th century cultural pioneer in the Gulf region, leading the way with the first informal art instruction in the region in the 1920s and the first art exhibition in 1956. Recent forays into the international arena, such as the 2013 national pavilion at the Venice Biennale, participation in international exhibitions, gallery and art fair representation, and the recently launched artBahrain/The Nest art prize, have led to increased international recognition and have energized the Bahraini art world.
Art Radar looks at some of Bahrain’s most prominent artists (in alphabetical order by last name).
1. Rashid Al Khalifa
Trained in England, Rashid Al Khalifa’s (b. 1952) artistic journey has taken him from landscapes and figurative paintings in the early years, to abstract and colour field painting, mounted on unique convex canvases. Through his retrospective at the Bahrain National Museum in 2010, Rashid Al Khalifa came to the attention of the wider art world. The artist has recently expanded his colour field work to enamel paint on chrome convex structures. Al Khalifa’s creations have been exhibited internationally, and reached the 56th Venice Biennale and the Rio Biennal in Rio in 2015. Rashid Al Khalifa is a leading figure in Bahrain’s art world – as an artist, an avid supporter of the arts and founder of the Bahrain Art Society. He is represented by Claude Lemand Gallery in Paris.
2. Jaffar Al Oraibi
Jaffar Al Oraibi (b. 1976) is one of Bahrain’s younger artists and works mostly in oil on canvas. Featuring towering male figures and an array of animals, his large canvases explore issues relating to social pressures and gender expectations. With a fluid and gestural technique and dominant use of black, his works are a strong voice in Bahrain’s art world. His exhibition “The Man” at Al Riwaq Art Space (Bahrain) in 2010 brought the artist to wider attention, followed by two shows at Cuadro Art Gallery (Dubai, UAE) in 2011 and 2012. Jaffar Al Oraibi has participated in international artist residencies in Paris, London and New York.
3. Mohammed Al Mahdi
The painter Mohammed Al Mahdi (b. 1976) has made childhood dreams and trauma the main theme of his work. Characteristically working in acrylic on canvas, his scintillatingly colourful works evoke the dreamlike worlds of children, often with a dark and menacing undertone. The artist’s style evokes children’s scribbles and graffiti art to display disconnected memory fragments in various arrangements.
Mohammed Al Mahdi’s work is variously light-hearted and dark. His last major solo exhibition in Bahrain (Al Riwaq Art Space, 2015) explored the glorification of action heroes and their place in childhood memories. Al Mahdi’s works first gained wider recognition through solo exhibitions at Albareh Gallery (Bahrain) and XVA Gallery (UAE) in 2009, which were followed by auctions at Christie’s, Sotheby’s and JAMM Art (Kuwait).
4. Hasan Hujairi
Educated in Japan, the UK and South Korea, Hasan Hujairi (b. 1982) is a composer, curator and writer. He is one of the most experimental artists in Bahrain and one of the few in the Gulf region focusing on sound art. Hujairi’s research centres on music composition and performance across different cultures. His musical projects have explored the soundscape of his native Bahrain and re-interpreted traditional Arab instruments, resulting in a number of sound installations that have been exhibited in Bahrain, South Korea and the UK.
In April 2016, Hasan led a collaborative project entitled “Red Bull Music Academy Presents: Symphonies of the Self” that celebrated the legacy of late Bahraini composer Majeed Marhoon (1945-2010). Hasan Hujairi is currently completing a PhD in Musicology at Seoul National University in South Korea.
5. Mariam Haji
Educated in Australia, Mariam Haji (b. 1985) works in multiple media, ranging from video to installation and performance, drawing and painting. Her work is strongly autobiographical and depicts the artist’s explorations of sexuality, gender relations, spirituality and social norms. Artworks can be explicit and provocative, such as her 2010 video Hundigkeit or her 2012 series of drawings “The Muse”.
Haji first came to the fore in Bahrain in 2012 on winning the country’s most prestigious art prize and then went on to represent her country at the Venice Biennale in 2013. Her artworks have been shown internationally and the artist frequently speaks at international symposia.
6. Ghada Khunji
US-educated photographer Ghada Khunji (b. 1967) has recently returned to her home in Bahrain after a 20 plus year sojourn in New York. Khunji’s photographs document both landscapes and people from all over the world and are known for the inherent dignity of their human element. After a career focused on fashion and then documentary photography, the return to Bahrain has led to a substantial shift in the artist’s focus.
In a reversal of perspective, Ghada Khunji’s works of 2015 and 2016 focus on the artist herself, her identity, gender and own mortality. Using photocollaged images printed on canvas, these artworks are precious objects, framed in elaborate antique frames.
Ghada Khunji is the recipient of numerous international photography award, including the Lucie Award, the Prix-Pictet and the Julia Margaret Cameron Award.
7. Waheeda Malullah
Playful exploration is the hallmark of Waheeda Malullah’s (b. 1978) photographs, videos and interactive installations. Malullah examines the world of girls and women in her community as well as the cultural and religious norms, rules and systems that govern their life. The female body is central to the artist’s work – whether as subject matter, actor, object or quite literally the canvas to her brushstrokes. Characteristically, Mallulah produces her artwork in extensive photographic series, which are presented in a stop motion format.
Waheeda Malullah was invited to participate in the Sharjah and Cairo Biennials in 2009, culminating in her participation in Bahrain’s national pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2013. A recent retrospective “Little Voice” at the Bin Matar House (Bahrain, 2016) showed the full scope of her impressive photographic oeuvre for the first time.
8. Faisal Samra
Educated in France at the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux Arts, Faisal Samra (b. 1956) is a leading Arab artist and pioneer of conceptual art in the Middle East. The artist’s oeuvre spans painting, sculpture, photography, video and installation. Always one to break with conventions, the human body is central to Samra’s work as he explores existentialist and political themes and questions the status quo and our perception of ourselves.
His recent exhibition “Global Warming” (PDF download) at the Bin Matar House (Bahrain, 2015), critically explored the events of the Arab Spring through a juxtaposition of paintings, installation and video. Faisal Samra is represented by Ayyam Gallery.
9. Abdulrahim Sharif
A precocious talent, Abdulrahim Sharif (b. 1954) studied Fine Art at the Ecole National Superieure in Paris and Parsons School of Art and Design. As one of Bahrain’s leading artists, Abdulrahim Sharif is a formidable painter. Figurative and at times verging on abstraction, the artist touches on themes of alienation and indifference, and equally well explores and experiments purely and formally in the realm of colour.
His most well recognised image is that of the artist with a cigar and hat. A longtime favourite with Christie’s, the artist is well sought after by collectors in the Middle East. As a founding member of the Bahrain Art Society and lecturer in fine arts at the University of Bahrain, Sharif plays a central role in Bahrain’s art world.
10. Camille Zakharia
Camille Zakharia (b. 1962) is a documentary photographer and collage artist. Born in Lebanon, Zakharia has led an itinerant life that has taken him to the US, Greece, Turkey, Canada and finally Bahrain, where he has lived and worked for over 20 years. His collage work focuses on memory and displacement, identity and belonging. Additionally, the artist has one of the largest archives of documentary photographs on the changing urban landscape in Bahrain.
Camille Zakharia is regularly featured in prestigious photography exhibitions and biennials worldwide and was one of three artists representing Bahrain in its first national pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2013. Camille Zakharia is represented by Cuadro Gallery.
- Preview: ArtBahrain 2015 – October 2015 – Manama’s Bahrain Bay hosts the inaugural ArtBahrain, with a showing of local artists and galleries from the Middle East and beyond
- Top Middle Eastern art commentator breaks down Western clichés – The National – May 2012 – journalist and art commentator Anthony Haden-Guest recently sat down with The National to reveal some of his insights into what makes the region’s cultural scene so unique
- When art meets literature: “Its a Mad World” by Kuwaiti artist Shurooq Amin – May 2016 – the artist’s long-awaited homecoming show features 18 paintings and one installation that parody both real life and fiction
- Recording, resisting, reframing: Contemporary Middle Eastern photography at V&A Museum – curator interview – April 2013 – Art Radar talks to curator Dr Marta Weiss about “Light from the Middle East: New Photography”, an exhibition held at the Victoria and Albert Museum
- “A sliver of history”: Sultan Sooud Al Qasemi and Suheyla Takesh on Barjeel Art Foundation – interview – April 2016 – Art Radar speaks with Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi and curator Suheyla Takesh to learn the story behind the Barjeel Art Foundation
Subscribe to Art Radar for more from the Middle Eastern art scene