The Bahraini artist draws upon Christian iconography and artists ranging from Leonardo da Vinci to Frida Kahlo, creating striking re-interpretations.

Ghada Khunji is a multi-award winning documentary photographer from Bahrain whose work has, in recent years, shifted towards photomontage. Art Radar learns more about the evolution of her creative process.

Ghada Khunji, 'FaRIDA 3', 2017, photomontage on fine art paper, 90x 68 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Ghada Khunji, ‘FaRIDA 3’, 2017, photomontage on fine art paper, 90x 68 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

This article was written by a participant in our art writing diploma programme. Do you want to write for Art Radar too? Click here to find out more about our Diploma in Art Journalism & Writing.

Ghada Khunji (b. 1967) is a graduate of the Parsons School of Design (1995) and the International Center of Photography’s documentary programme, both in New York. Her career as a documentary photographer blossomed whilst residing in New York from 1991 to 2013. For this, she received a number of awards, including the Lucie Discovery of the Year (2006), American Photo Magazine’s Image of the Year Award (2007), as well as the Golden Lights Award for Travel (2006).

In recent years, Khunji has shifted her lens from the peripheral to explore her deepest contemplations on cultural identity and the perspective of women hailing from the Arabian Gulf. Her most recent work, FaRIDA (2017), has received acclaim internationally, while Our Last Supper (2017) will be touring the United States.

Ghada Khunji, 'Cuba 45b', 2007, C-Print photograph, 101.6 x 101.6 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Ghada Khunji, ‘Cuba 45b’, 2007, C-Print photograph, 101.6 x 101.6 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Stories through a lens

Khunji’s early documentary photography highlights her aptitude for capturing beauty in places often overlooked. She embarked on a number of documentary expeditions, and her body of documentary work is a result of her hopping on a plane, armed with a camera, and her adventurous spirit. She has photographed people residing in remote and often overlooked communities of the Dominican Republic (1993), Cuba (2005 and 2007) and India (2008), amongst other destinations.

With each of these projects, uncertainty was a deciding factor in how her photographs turned out. In the catalogue of IN THE OPEN, a group exhibition of Bahraini artists at Edge of Arabia in 2013, she is quoted as saying:

Most of my projects start as simply picking a country…arriving there and seeing where the wind wants to take me. In general I like where uncertainty takes me. Sometimes […] I find myself magnetised to an unanticipated journey and creating photographs of a different nature and story.

Khunji’s main ethos was to document honestly. Shooting in large part with a 50mm lens, limiting her Photoshop usage to what is possible to do in the darkroom, and prioritising the give-and-take between her as photographer and her sitters as subjects were Khunji’s own rules that drove her work. They ensured the “thread of honesty”, as she calls it, that runs through all of her projects.

Ghada Khunji, 'This Is Now', 2016, photographic print on canvas. Image © and courtesy the artist.

Ghada Khunji, ‘This Is Now’, 2016, photographic print on canvas. Image copyright and courtesy the artist.

Homeward bound

In 2013, Ghada Khunji drew the curtains on her time in New York and returned to Bahrain. As she settled back in her family’s compound in the heart of Adliya, she spoke with Brownbook magazine about the new chapter in her life:

I’d done everything I needed to do there, and it was time to go home. [… ] We’re located in the Manama neighbourhood of Adliya. I like to call it the SoHo of Bahrain. It’s central to everything.

There was a notable shift in the artwork Khunji now began to produce. A group exhibition in 2015, titled “Vantage” and shown at the Al Riwaq Artspace, showcased her first foray into photomontage. Here she debuted “This is now…, “ (2015) and “That was then…, “ (2015) – both pieces that were mimetic of Christian religious iconography, but more importantly, were self-reflexive and recited her own personal story. She called this series her “Dark Ages”, utilising her skills and her art to document the often dark and harrowing stories she held inside herself.

Ghada Khunji, 'Our Last Supper', 2017, photo collage on canvas, 52 x 100 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Ghada Khunji, ‘Our Last Supper’, 2017, photo collage on canvas, 52 x 100 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Khunji’s nod to Christian medieval iconography continued for two more years, culminating with Our Last Supper (2017), which is touring with Caravan’s “I AM”, a peacebuilding travelling exhibition featuring women artists from the Middle East. Khunji explains this work on Caravan’s website:

I lost my father at a very young age. […] ‘Our Last Supper’ explores the identity of being a woman; of yearning for the father that left me too soon and the frustration of mishandling the true idea of religion. In my work, I photograph fragments of personal objects and then stitch together the visuality of questions I ask myself.

“I AM” premiered at the National Gallery of Fine Arts in Amman, Jordan in May 2017, and then travelled to London in July 2017. It began its US tour in Washington DC at the American University Museum, Katzen Arts Center (5 September to 22 October 2017). It will tour cathedrals in the United States from 21 October to 25 November 2018, concluding at the Cathedral of St. Paul, Vermont.

Ghada Khunji, 'FaRIDA 5', 2017, photomontage on fine art paper, 55.8 x 83.8 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Ghada Khunji, ‘FaRIDA 5’, 2017, photomontage on fine art paper, 55.8 x 83.8 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

From Frida to FaRIDA

Ghada Khunji’s work further evolved when she revisited the oeuvre of Frida Kahlo during a point in her own life when she was experimenting with montage techniques. This led to Khunji’s creation of the persona “FaRIDA“, who features in a series of photomontages appropriating the compositions of Kahlo’s paintings. However, Khunji makes her works her own by weaving personal motifs and objects owned by herself or her family into them.

Reviewing the series for TRIBE magazine, Sulaf Derawy Zakharia wrote:

[…] In telling the story of her own pain, she [Khunji] recounts the suffering of all women and describes its transmutation into strength and beauty. She tells of limiting taboos and confronting realisations: women’s relationships with their own bodies, societal restrictions imposed by gender, heritage, and class, the pain of loss, as distinct from that caused by physical or emotional violation.

T. Khalifa

2223

This article was written by a participant in our art writing diploma programme. Do you want to write for Art Radar too? Click here to find out more about our Diploma in Art Journalism & Writing.

Related Topics: Bahraini artists, photography, profiles, collage, religious art, Art Radar Institute, Certificate in Art Journalism & Writing 101

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Brittney

By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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