The third edition of Art Bahrain Across Borders (ArtBAB) is open to the public from 14 to 18 March 2018.
Art Radar speaks with the fair’s director and curator, Kaneka Subberwal, about embracing and cultivating Bahrain’s cultural heritage as an intimate and multicultural marketplace.
Since its founding under the name ArtBahrain, the nation’s hub of commercial art market exchange has undergone a conceptual re-imagining. With as much aesthetic rigour as previous years have brought forth, the 2018 rendering caters to a curious and critically engaged audience, an audience which asks that the art fair be more than the sum of its visuals. Bahraini visitors, and those who travel far and wide to attend, will be met with a selection of international exhibitors alongside an expanded – both quantitatively and qualitatively – programme of lectures and conversations.
By providing dynamic space for the exchange and discussion of ideas and promoting smaller art communities within larger art market sectors, the sixth edition of what is now called Art Bahrain Across Borders (ArtBAB) promises to make Bahrain a focal point for contemporary art in West Asian scenes. The intermingling of internationally renowned artists and local practitioners does just this.
Art Radar interviewed the fair director and curator Kaneka Subberwal about the fair’s mission, globalisation and Bahrain’s cultural economy.
Could you speak briefly about your motivation behind changing the fair’s name from ArtBahrain to Art Bahrain Across Borders (ArtBAB)?
ArtBahrain launched in 2015. We added another vertical to it in 2016, which was our Artists Programme (launched at the V&A in London), where we take the artists of Bahrain across borders to share their works [and] experiences and synergise with the global arts community. Since both the verticals are a part of the same programme and have the same essence, it was a natural brand extension.
How does ArtBAB and its themes relate to its geographical context, of being presented in 2018 Bahrain?
Art is not new to Bahrain, it has always been a very integral part of the country and its people, which has contributed to there being a huge plethora of talent. Though contemporary in form is at home and with tradition and heritage.
It is exciting to see Amal Khalaf, Serpentine Gallery Projects Curator, be appointed this year’s ArtBAB Head of Talks Programme. What were the primary thoughts behind inviting Khalaf and why is it important to have her, one of the only female curators from the region, return to Bahrain this year?
Our theme for this year is education: “the more we learn, the more we grow”. Amal was a great fit to spearhead this key focus and is bringing in seven key speakers from various art institutions in the United States and a panel on Middle Eastern art collection by Rebecca Anne Proctor, Editor in Chief of Harper’s Art.
In a country where tradition is the common thread in all aspects of creative enterprise, how did this fair come about? Could you share with Art Radar the genesis of this idea?
Art Bahrain Across Borders has been conceived, created and curated by me, my inspiration being the blend of the traditional values that perfectly blend with modern education, passion, the understanding [of] the arts and, above all, the will to learn and grow.
As a proponent of the arts, how do you draw from Bahraini tradition in your curatorial practice and directorship? Do you see the thousands of years of inherited history and civilisation as an advantage or is it a challenge that artists face in modern and contemporary art practices?
Legacy cannot be a challenge, our translation of it is imperative. One of Bahrain’s biggest strengths is that art and culture have been a key factor of Bahrain’s legacy. Bahrain did not acquire art; it is an automated inheritance over generations, for every artist. While [they] step up to new forms, ideas, experiences and experiments, it is important that he/she retain their identity, as in their identity lies the authenticity that separates one artist from the other. To me that is what sets them apart: tradition keeps us grounded [and] connected to our roots. Then no matter how high we soar, or how far, you can always trace back to our base, thus making it a huge asset. That this asset be moulded in translation to restriction is in the hand of the individual. It must not be forgotten that we challenge ourselves to move forward, thus making challenge a choice.
Amal Khalaf speaks frequently about radical pedagogical theory and the “frames” that are imposed upon communities, artists, museums and their curators. Whether these confines are conjured by geographical borders, finance, stereotyping or emotional boundaries, how does ArtBAB seek to address international audiences in a globalised industry?
As I mentioned earlier, one of the reasons to have Amal […] is that her vast knowledge balances itself across borders, personal views being separate. As for ArtBAB, having curated it over three editions now, my aim is to grow what set off as a movement when I started this project. To build bridges and break barriers. And I see us progressing successfully towards it – small but firm steps to keep the balance.
How do you feel the Bahraini art scene has developed in the past several years, and what do you think may be in its future? Are there any media that you think artists tend to favour?
One of the things that inspires me about Bahrain is the humility; however, to communicate a message, one needs to step out. That has developed over the years and is only going to increase as the artists’ fraternity grows. As a whole new section of emerging artists set in with new ideas and techniques, they have platforms and a lot of support to assist them. I see mixed media [work] being a huge pull and I understand why: the play of different material is interesting yet challenging.
What are you hoping to achieve with this year’s rendition of ArtBAB? How do your current goals differ in this year, given current (local and international) political climates?
It is imperative for focus to remain constant, the constant here being [to connect] the global art community to Bahrain and [to communicate] our expertise across borders. The achievement of it grows, with goals and focus verticals each year. As I said earlier, “you can never learn enough”. This year at ArtBAB we have a kids’ section (starting them young) called Kids@ArtBAB, running alongside education on [fine] art, collecting art and with special projects focusing on building bridges and new dimensions of installation. The sum of it will certainly add another step up to us reaching our goal. Politics is unfortunately not specific to a country or a region, its expanse has the widest outreach.
What were your expectations when moving to Bahrain and jumpstarting what is now an internationally-renowned fair?
One of my closest friends told me once [that] “expectations lead to disappointment”. I am grateful and humbled and cannot thank Bahrain enough for the faith it has instilled in me. The credit for ArtBAB’s success is the wholehearted, selfless, gracious support, focus and guidance of our Patron HRH Princess Sabeeka Bint Ibrahim al Khalifa, Wife of the King of Bahrain, President of the Supreme Council for Women. Being an artist herself, HRH is a guide, creating and supporting opportunities to develop and grow the artists’ base, strengthening their exposure [and ] empowering them to grow their skill set.
ArtBAB is a reality because of her belief in the project. Her guide is complemented by the astute vision of Sh. Mohammed Bin Esa Al Khalifa the Chairman of Tamkeen, our Strategic Partners. He identified art and the artists as a core focus, aiming to strengthen their base, outreach and appreciation. This exemplified our efforts and has set a milestone. Whilst a lot of focus all around is put on acquisition, ours is [on] strengthening the base and creating opportunities, thereby supporting the human resource capital of a very vast, core segment. I am truly proud to be spearheading this initiative.
How does the fair bridge the gap between commercial buying and selling and a humanitarian platform or community project?
We have a focused sponsored pavilion that creates a platform for Bahraini artists to exhibit. When we started, it was 25 artists; we now have 30, plus an emerging artists section and [a segment on] photography in focus. We have two not-for-profit organisations working with artists’ communities, one hailing from Italy [and] the other headed by Rev. Paul Gordon who brings in a special project inspired by the poet Khalil Gibran. I have always believed the commerce of art to be a huge component. It is beyond individuals, it is for the sustained existence of the cultural economy, the rotation of creation. Exhibition needs to converge into acquisition for the motivation of the artist, for his growth to strive harder to self-sustain.
You have previously noted that culture came to Bahrain long before it arrived elsewhere in the Gulf, meaning culture was inherent and not absorbed or appropriated from elsewhere. Considering the array of artists that have been present at previous ArtBAB fairs, how do you find the international selection settles within the Bahraini setting? How do you feel the creative infrastructure in Bahrain is helping artists develop their practices?
How does art from a particular region settle in another? Bahrain is as versatile as any other [nation]. Therefore, it absorbs diversity. All of our efforts today are to promote, educate, grow and foster the arts community, making it an integral segment on the global art map. As I tell the younger artists in our Q & A sessions, these are interesting and encouraging times to be in, as opportunity is key and all our focus is on [the] optimisation of opportunities to create, establish and grow.
What do you see for the future of ArtBAB?
When I started the project there was a sea of doubt [and] speculation, and yet there was a strong arm of support and faith. Faith in me and in the artists. Today we stand tall at a sold-out [third] edition. After [bringing in] sales of BHD235,000 [(USD623,290)] last year, we see an increased participation of 30 percent this year. A small step, but sure steps will be the way forward. Consistency, substance and development are crucial whilst being connected to our roots. Art Bahrain Across Borders is ‘One world, One Canvas, One Bahrain’.
Art Bahrain Across Borders is open for public viewing from 15 to 18 March 2018 at the Bahrain International Exhibition and Convention Centre, Building 158, Avenue 28, Sanabis, Block 410, Kingdom of Bahrain.
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