Bahrain Participates in the Venice Biennale for the first time this June
- an event many call the Olympics of the art world
artBahrain spoke to Melissa Enders Bhatia, the curator of Bahrain’s national pavilion about her choices of artists, themes and the process behind mounting such an important cultural event
artBahrain: As you are a German-born Western-educated curator, how did you approach the process of curating the Bahrain Pavilion for Venice this year?
Enders-Bhatia: I have a Master’s degree in Modern and Contemporary art. I have been working in Bahrain for the last eight years, initially for the Ministry of Culture and then curator and director of art and exhibitions at the Shaikh Ebrahim Center of Culture and Research. I have curated numerous exhibitions at the Bin Matar House both for Bahraini and regional artists and am therefore familiar with the Bahrain art scene and Bahraini artists.
artBahrain: Who in Bahrain did you consult regarding your choice of artists, theme and execution, and why? And how did they help you with your choices both with regard to artists and theme?
Enders-Bhatia: Throughout the process of preparing for the Venice Art Biennale, I conferred with the commissioner and Minister of Culture, Mai Al Khalifa, on the subject of procedural matters and theme and artist selection. As curator, it was my responsibility to define our exhibition both in terms of theme and artist selection, keeping in mind that the Venice Art Biennale is a platform dedicated to international contemporary art practices.
artBahrain: As there is such a deep pool of talented, committed and established artists who are Bahraini, and who would benefit tremendously from the amazing exposure participating in Venice would have brought them. I am curious as to why you chose Camille Zakharia a Lebanese artist to represent Bahrain?
Enders-Bhatia: I believe I have answered this question in my previous correspondence regarding Camille Zakharia’s tremendous commitment to Bahrain and the fact that he has spend close to 20 years of his artistically productive life here. In addition he has taught and mentored numerous artists in Bahrain and abroad.
artBahrain: I have spoken to several curators from countries in the Gulf that have far worse conditions for their artists and frankly, perhaps a less talented pool of artists. Yet many of them said that they felt that it was important to choose only artists from the Countries that they were doing pavilions for — as a matter of cultural patriotism.
Did you get any adverse reaction either within or outside of Bahrain for what could be construed as a choice (of Lebanese artist, Zakharia) that reflected your feeling that there were not enough Bahraini artists of the calibre needed to represent Bahrain?
Enders-Bhatia: If you take a closer look at what some of the other Arab, Middle Eastern or Gulf countries are doing, I think you will see that not all have chosen national artists this time around or in previous participations. Having said that, I believe nationhood can be addressed in a number of ways, and holding a passport of a country is not the only way. Artists and nations are not monolithic entities. Artists may live in different countries throughout their lives, study abroad or have a varied ancestry. The question is then really where you draw the line. A country’s desire to present itself can also be addressed by artists living in that country, i.e. residency, or through themes that are relevant to that country.
artBahrain: Tell me specifically about what the Bahrain pavilion will be — look like–feel like? What mediums will be used and what themes will be addressing?
Enders-Bhatia: The pavilion of the Kingdom of Bahrain presents the work of Mariam Haji, Waheeda Malullah and Camille Zakharia in a loose curatorial framework, tied together by the subjective exploration of culture and self that lies at the core of their art practices. With an emphasis on the importance of identity, the pavilion examines the expression of interiority and private meanings in these artists. The exhibition design and feel of the pavilion echoes this theme.
Mariam Haji – drawing on paper
Waheeda Malullah – photography
Camille Zakharia – photocollage
Mariam Haji’s current artistic practice is represented in the exhibition by a drawing entitled ‘The Victory.’ The last in an autobiographical series the artist has worked on over the last two years, ‘The Victory’ brings to a close a series in which the artist has explored personal and highly internalized conflicts relating to gender, spirituality and social norms and expectations.
While Mariam Haji’s compositions depict imaginary landscapes and encounters with animals, these settings are very real to the artist’s experience and understanding of her world and surroundings. The artist uses art historical references as a departure for her own creations, questioning traditional modes of thinking and cultural stereotypes. This was also the case with the Muse series and ‘Premonition.’ ‘The Victory’ is inspired compositionally by Henry Renault’s 1868 painting of ‘Automedon with the Horses of Archilles’ (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston).
Considering heroic victory in battle as an essentially male concept, the artist questions this idea as adopted by great warrior women and feminist heroines from both eastern and western traditions, including Shahnameh, Rabaa Al Adawiah, Sharat Al Durr and the likes of Joan of Arc of France, Queen Artemisia of Caria, Persia and the mythological Brunhilde, from the German Nibelungen legend.
In a feminist framework, Mariam Haji rejects the notion that victory should imply the adoption of male constructs. The animals the artist has chosen to depict in her work have strongly personal symbolic meaning, representing the essence of Haji’s conflicts, the other, the primal and unpredictable. In ‘The Victory,’ Mariam Haji has chosen to contrast the purebred nobility of Arabian horses with the humility of herself riding a donkey.
‘A Villager’s Day Out’ is a series of photographs encapsulating the art practice of Waheeda Malullah. Reverberating with feelings of excitement and apprehension, the series chronicles a day’s outing to the big city by a young girl from the villages in Bahrain.
Whether exploring a local souq or engaging playfully with a painted mural, the artist’s protagonist displays curiosity and a desire to connect with the world around her. Alternately, the images of the girl in the black abaya walking down a large cement pipe and standing awe-struck in front of a skyline under construction reveal a sense of isolation and estrangement. This inherent duality is characteristic of much of Malullah’s work.
Playful exploration is the hallmark of Malullah’s art practice. However, through a careful staging of her photographic compositions, the artist explores deeper issues regarding the role of women, dress and religion in her more traditional community.
Many of her projects are set in the private location of the home or studio, where issues relating to dress are explored. Alternatively, the artist places herself directly in settings that are traditionally the domain of men, such as in her project ‘Stopped Ball!’ (2003).
Through a careful use of the formal elements of shape, color and light, the artist transforms the traditional dress of women, the figure-covering abaya, into a canvas for human creativity. In the photographic series ‘My Face’ (2009), Malullah literally projects images of her face onto two women clad in colorful clothes.
‘Red and White’ (2011) sees the artist use a figure clad in white as a canvas of her stop-motion series presenting the development of a fetus inside the human body.
The camera has been a constant companion in Camille Zakharia’s nomadic life, taking him from his native Lebanon to the US, Greece, Turkey, Canada and finally Bahrain, where he has spent close to twenty years. The act of documenting this journey and his surroundings in the form of family, friends, the people he encountered and the architecture and landscapes he saw is central to Zakharia’s work.
While his photography practice represents the act of recording and documentation, it is in his collage practice that the artist addresses questions relating to belonging, identity and memory. Qualities of fragmentation, contradiction and multiplicity are inherent in the medium of collage and as such it is ideally suited to convey Zakharia’s experience of dislocation and resulting hybrid identity. Elements of chance and lack of control over one’s destiny feature strongly in the artist’s work. The issue of belonging is present throughout his oeuvre, including the project ‘Assembling Places’ (1996) and ‘Elusive Homelands’ (1999/2000), a series of individual and family portraits of Arab
artBahrain: As you know Bahrain was a winner in 2011 with their first ever participation in Venice in the architecture category with the wonderful exhibition based on the traditional Bahraini fishing culture. That’s a hard act to follow.
What are your goals this year with regard to the promotion of the fine arts in Bahrain, the artists involved and in general?
Enders-Bhatia: My goal is to present contemporary art practices in Bahrain in a truthful and straightforward way. I chose Mariam Haji, Waheeda Malullah and Camille Zakharia to represent Bahrain due to their artistic merit. In a context where there is as yet no tradition of breaking with tradition, each artist represents a kind of leadership in the search for innovation and self-questioning in their art practice, which is the foundation of a developing contemporary art scene.
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