Bahrain’s leading contemporary artist, Rashid Khalifa has been actively involved in the arts for nearly 50 years. Always experimenting, Rashid has developed a unique style of creating abstract paintings on shaped aluminium structures to sublime effect. In advance of his October solo show at London’s celebrated Saatchi Gallery, artBahrain contributing editor Paul Laster spoke with the artist about the evolution of his painting and his recent experimentation with sculpture and installation art, which smartly conveys his interest in architectural forms.
You started out as a figurative painter, but quickly began experimenting with non-representational imagery. What motivated you to work abstractly?
It developed gradually. I began by making landscapes and figurative works. Over time, I started removing some of the details in the work. I found it to be more moving, more interesting to the eye and to me, so I stuck with it.
Yet you still went back and forth between abstraction and representation for some time. Were you still discovering yourself as an artist and deciding what interested you the most or were you using whatever style you thought fit the circumstance?
I continue to make figurative works, as needed and when there is a reason for it. As a whole, however, I simplified the work and began working more consistently with abstraction in the late-1990s.
What attracted you to working in a more abstract style?
Basically, it was the subtleness of the work itself. I feel more comfortable working with simplified forms rather than having something that’s too busy.
What’s your point of departure for making work?
It usually starts with an idea and then I begin sketching and experimenting with materials to find the right solution. I sometimes develop an idea in a smaller piece before realizing it on a larger scale.
Your earliest abstractions were very expressive and then your painting moved into more patterned landscape and still life imagery. Was your approach to painting more of an emotional one at the time, more of an expression of feelings through colour and form?
It’s always been a product of the moment. Working and experimenting has always inspired what I do. It takes my work in new directions. Moving from landscapes and figurative works I added pattern, colours and pitch. I had to decide whether the texture should be thicker or thinner, and so on. It’s all part of the process.
How did you begin working on shaped canvases?
Sometimes these things happen by accident while I’m seeking solutions. I had the idea to doing a painting on three similarly sized canvases that were slimly shaped. I wanted a form that could stand on the floor on its own. This led me to the idea of making convex shaped canvases. I made a small one as a test and found it quite interesting. I tried stretching a canvas that had been painted on a flat surface on to convex stretcher bars and really liked the three-dimensional feel and look of it. It brought the work closer to the viewer.
These works also started out expressionistically, but over time became more cerebral. Do you think you were letting go of aspects of the real world as you went deeper into abstraction?
Yes, I started to remove more details and experimented with other materials for the structure and the medium.
I see a big breakthrough in your oeuvre when you started working on these aluminium and stainless-steel structures. How did your move in this direction come about?
When working with the convex canvases I liked the way the shaped structure pushed the painting into the physical space of the gallery. I began to wonder what other materials I could use, which led me to aluminium, stainless steel and glass. These new materials required different paints, such as enamel instead of oils and acrylics. These supports required another type of action, another finish. I abandoned the glass, however, because it was too heavy and just too fragile. Spraying a smooth plane or splashing enamel on the aluminium and stainless steel surfaces provided different effects, different painting styles. It gave me a new way of thinking about painting. Each new material requires its own set of solutions.
At a certain point in working with these materials you became quite focused on circular forms. What was the concept behind your serial exploration of these globular shapes on the convex metal surfaces?
The circle has all of the elements of creation. It’s a very relaxing, very spiritual form. It’s at the beginning of many things—the world, the time…there are a lot of philosophical sides to it. It’s never-ending, whether it’s time or movement or a passion that you never want to end, whether its love or good times that carries on. There’s motion and movement, no matter the outcome.
When you are experimenting in this way are you seeking to invent new forms of art making or to reject old ones?
It’s not about rejection, because whatever has been done is amazing and inspiring to artists around the world. It’s just trying to find a material or medium and form that suits my liking—ones that I’m satisfied and happy with.
In the past few years you’ve modified the convex structure by making it more monochromatic and more about pure form, through the use of cut-outs and the layering of geometric shapes in your Hybrid series. What motivated this leap into the sublime?
I wanted to see how far I can go with the structure and the materials. The aluminium is a much easier material to use than the stainless steel. I’m pushing what I can find in it, whether it’s a cut-out or an addition of other layers of aluminium or different shades of colour. There’s a lot of potential for experimentation with good results.
Are you interested in blurring the line between painting and sculpture with these Hybrid pieces?
It depends on the viewer, on those who appreciate this kind of work. I’m interested in creating art that doesn’t limit the mediums that can be used, but I like the idea of having a three-dimensional side to it. If people perceive it as combining painting with sculpture, that’s fine with me.
Did these works lead you to the three-dimensional constructions of pure colour and form that you are currently creating?
I’m getting there. I’m trying to find this image and structure that brings me to a stage where I actually could have some sort of mix between sculpture and painting.
How much are these new works inspired by your interest in architecture and design?
My love for architecture and design is very deep. There are a lot of similarities between art and design. Architecture cannot survive without art and art needs the right structure and materials to make it express what the artist wants it to express. Art needs composition based on good design.
Do you also look to past avant-garde movements, such as Suprematism, Colour Field, Zero Group, Op Art, Minimalism or Dansaekhwa as points of departure in making your work?
All of these movements had solid and strong foundations in terms of theories and philosophical thought. They all add to one’s way of thinking and studying and learning about art.
What about Islamic art and design?
Geometry is at the heart of Islamic art and design, where the circle is the foundation and a core part of its form.
Does literature or music play a role in shaping your thoughts about painting and sculpture?
Music has very subtle movements. When you create a design that’s subtle and pleasing to the eye it’s like silent music.
What does the title of your Saatchi Gallery show, “Penumbra: Textured Shadow, Coloured Light,” imply?
The exhibition is based on light and shadow. The show follows the idea of the sea I can see and not see—I can’t see the total image, and yet I can see parts of it.
I’m fascinated by the curving, chromatic wall pieces and the suspended and freestanding painted wire structures. Do you use digital processes to design these works?
Yes, everything has to be designed correctly and current technologies make it easier and more precise to do.
These works invite movement on the part of the viewer to fully experience them. How do you see these more architectural, installation works expanding your existing body of work?
I’m very satisfied with what I’ve been achieving for every exhibition, but these works could lead to similar or different works, as well as newer ones that are even more experimental.
Are there references to reality that you are conveying abstractly in these works?
Absolutely, yes. One in particular references the screen that we use in the Middle East, which is called masharabiya. It’s a room or house divider or a partitioned window that’s geometrically patterned. It’s used indoors or outdoors to create privacy and shield the sunshine.
The big sculpture that viewers can navigate in the show has an architectural feel to it, as though one is walking down a narrow street in an ancient city. Is there a kind of urban space being created in this installation?
Yes, there are two elements at work in this installation piece. The first is the masharabiya part, in which I see but cannot be seen or I can see them but they can see me. It’s this privacy part or sheltering part, and yet the pathway that you must follow is like a winding road. I’m using this type of traditional screening in a very contemporary way.
Lighting seems to play a role in the viewing of these pieces, with the light casting the colour on surrounding walls and shadows on the gallery floor to create an aura around the work. Is this a consideration in the making and display of these works?
Absolutely, the light plays an important part in the projection of the work beyond its physical form.
Do you work with assistants and collaborators, such as designers, engineers or fabricators to realize these pieces?
Yes, I work with fabricators to construct the larger pieces.
Is experimentation at the heart of what you do in all of your art?
Yes, but we experiment in life everyday. What I’m doing today may not be what I’m doing in five year’s time. It’s a continuation. It’s a beginning without an end, and it will never be the same. Art is continuous movement.
Now that you’ve made these larger works, do you see the possibility of expanding your art to include even bigger installations, public art projects and architectural and environmental works that transcend the space of a gallery?
I would love to have the opportunity to do such works. I’m already involved in architectural projects for the properties I own, but I would welcome the chance to do something at a larger scale for a public space.