Asia’s ascendency in the international art world sees no sign of abating. This week saw the opening not just of the high wattage Art Basel in Hong Kong, but also of the second edition of Bahrain’s art fair. Hot on the heels of Art Dubai, which concluded last week, the third smallest country in Asia showcased an upgraded, spruced up fair called Art Bahrain Across Borders (ArtBAB). Held in the capital city Manama from March 22-26, it includes 60 participants from around the world, including India. It may not have the flash or cache of the bigger, more established fairs in the region but ArtBAB certainly doesn’t lack in ambition. Designed to promote local artists, by forging links between the nation and the rest of the world, the fair had a few wow factors, from the significant presence of Bahraini women artists to the impressive number of video art installations.
Thirty-two large scale, 6mt wide screen projections show videos by international artists. Titled ‘Floating World,’ the projections were conceptualised and curated by Jonathan Watkins of Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery who is chair of ArtBAB’s international selection committee and Alistair Hicks, former senior curator at Deutsche Bank and a selection committee member. “We were told about the art fair and then we saw the venue and thought if it were just the idea of booths, it perhaps wouldn’t have the same sort of dramatic impact,” Watkins said at the VIP opening on Wednesday. “I was very keen, since we have so many art fairs in the world, to create something that was different, so that the relationship with art is much more intimate and direct. So one half of the fair is paintings and sculptures in the conventional form of an art fair, and on the other is this very free, fluid environment.”
This sea of moving imagery is an apt homage to Bahrain’s tradition of strong cross-cultural ties, cemented by its trading history with the rest of the world.
One area is devoted to exhibiting 36 Bahraini artists, including HRH Princess Sabeeka bint Ibrahim Al Khalifa, the King’s wife, who happens to produce art on an iPad. Her prints were on display, alongside a screen displaying how she creates. Artist Somaya Abdul Ghani’s uses art paper stitched with thread, combined with acrylic paint, to reference the first word of the Qur’an. Abdul Ghani was shortlisted for Dubai’s international emerging artist award two years ago.
The Indian connect at ArtBAB is strong. The fair’s director is Kaneka Subberwal, founded and managing partner of Art Select, an art investment and consultancy based in Bahrain. Subberwal, who moved to Bahrain in 2009 after running galleries in Dubai for many years, said, “There’s something about Bahrain that is so simple and humble. It’s an old culture. The Bahrainis are known to have some of the best art collections, the best porcelain and china and they don’t talk about it. I want to introduce art collectors and enthusiasts around the world to the talent of Bahraini artists.”
At the gallery level, India had two galleries showing: Mumbai-based Project 88, and Ahmedabad-based Samara Art Gallery. Indian artists Rouble Nagi and Bhanu Palam displayed their works. The well-known Indian art-focused Galerie Charraudeau from Paris had Reza and a number of Hussains, including from his Arab Series. Incidentally, ArtBAB’s financial backers, the semi government agency Tamkeen, presented Samara Art Gallery’s horse sculpture, made by Sonal Ambani, to princess Sabeeka.
There was considerable buzz around Maddox Gallery, which had eye-catching works by Bran Symondson, a former British soldier who adorns de-commissioned AK-47s with various objects, like butterflies, alongside bespoke handmade bullets. The idea of his work is to take a thing of violence and turn it into something beautiful. New York based artist Bradley Theodore, also at the gallery, paints celebrities, including Queen Elizabeth II, Anna Wintour, Karl Lagerfeld, Kate Moss and Mick Jagger in poses that embody their personas.
Also at the fair was a stall featuring fashion items made from paintings, made primarily by Bahraini artists. The sister duo of Nada and Noor Alawi founded their company Annada in 2011 to promote art via fashion. They make scarves, shawls, belt buckles, bangles and leather jackets based on art. I ended up buying a yellow silk scarf based on a work by Jamal Abdul Rahim, a leading Bahraini artist who had told me he spent a number of years idling away in India. “The idea was to have people learn about art through fashion since art can be intimidating.” said Nada. “With fashion, it can be less so, since people are more open. Through their appreciation of these art works on clothing, people then want to meet the artist, and learn more about their work. That’s what I find satisfying.”
Art Bahrain Across Borders 2017 is on till March 26, 2017
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