Sylvia Smith

In tune with the movement towards giving exhibitions numbers as titles (21.39 Jeddah’s co-ordinates and title of the annual contemporary art show, and the London-based  contemporary African art fair 1:54, denoting the number of countries on the continent),  Bahrain’s 15/15 was right on trend.

Celebrating 15 years of achievement by the Sheikh Ebrahim Centre for Culture and Research in Muharraq by inviting 15 Bahraini artists to create 15 art works that resonate with the restored houses in which they are displayed, immediately evokes the central theme of the organisation’s work: instilling new life into old houses – bringing fresh joie de vivre into the restored fabric.

The Centre, built both metaphorically and literally on the foundations of Sheikh Ebrahim’s original majilis, provides a sizeable backdrop for a light projection of the names of philosophers, poets and thinkers who came to the polymath’s home. Artist Hala al Khalifa’s work ingeniously brings together those attracted to the intellectual milieu in the previous century  – a sort of precursor to the photographs of more recent visitors hanging inside.

Explaining that she has stepped outside her usual practice so as better to reflect the ethos of the majilis since the late 19th century, Hala comments that Sheikha Mai, who founded the Centre, has ensured that these remarkable buildings fulfill their cultural and educational destiny with their open door policy.
“I wanted to highlight the legacy of my great grandfather on the spot where he met so many forward thinking personalities from countries throughout the world,” she explained.

The centre interrupted its regular lecture series in favour of concerts featuring a classical repertoire with singers from Lebanon and Egypt and a pianist from Jordan. Music also featured in the newly restored Dar Al Muharraq, a tangerine dream of a building, where a local group performed lively songs and dances from the pearl diving era.

3 songs of the pearl divers

In a move away from the rather understated architectural approach to restoration so far favoured by the Sheikh Ebrahim Centre, this is a statement building exuding confidence while still retaining form and function. The metal “net” curtain raised at the start of performances allows a peek inside the usually hidden world of the Muharraq man’s club –  secret, conservative and unapologetically male – like men’s clubs the world over.

Traditional music was also heard at the Bin Faris House with Sut music enlivening the band, dancers and audience. The cultural jots were joined again at the Ibrahim Al- Arrayed House where poetry was added to the mix with an artwork entitled The Word Whisperer, a reminder of the poet’s stature in translating verse.

Ghada Kunji , inspired by a verse found in the late poet’s study had the lines hand embroidered on to a typical sun shade seen in the souq.  Using the same camel hair as A- Arrayed’s cloak left on a coat hook in that same study to make the huge protective covering that keeps the glare of the sun off pedestrians Ghada creates a site specific piece that seamlessly blends with the house while drawing in the surrounding streets.

4 Ghada Kunji - The Word Whisperer

Rashid Al Khalifa conjures up the Bahrain of his childhood in An Encounter, a sculpture and sound installation. But the piece would have been better placed in a house on the narrow streets where kids kick footballs and generally enjoy themselves. It is an evocative piece, referred to as interactive – so let it live up to its potential.

5 Rashid Al Khalifa - An Encounter
6 Rashid Al Khalifa - An Encounter

An opportunity is lost in positioning Adnan Al Ahmed’s work, Muharraq Nights so that the element of surprise is all but gone. Slightly reminiscent of Edward Munch’s The Scream, Al Ahmed’s work best challenges the on-looker when  catching them off-guard, slightly alarmed to be stared at by a group of featureless faces. This effect can be seen while whizzing by in a car (the Saudi tunnel) causing passengers to crane their necks,  or suddenly being confronted by a group who have no eyes but are keeping watch.

7 Camille Zakharia - Stories from the Alley

“I have recorded the rich traditional Bahraini architecture, ” says photographer Camille Zakharia of his series “Stories from the Alley” hanging in the Bin Mattar House. The collaged photos collect images from the narrow back streets and tell a universal story. ” I am hoping to encourage people to appreciate and preserve their architectural heritage and feel protective of it.” he adds. “Rather than being part of this globalised world.”

Camille Zakharia’s words resonate with groups throughout the world striving to protect buildings and monuments from the steamroller of globalisation and anodyne architecture.

” There is now a force behind all these traditional houses here to ensure they remain standing ,” he says. “You can see the level of restoration that has been done to regain their beauty.” The words capture the spirit of the Sheikh Ebrahim Centre suggesting the on-going effort is gaining momentum.

But it was, perhaps, the comment of a foreign visitor that best sums up the 15/15 event. “We’ve just had  an extraordinary preview of what to expect in 2018 when Muharraq becomes Arab capital of culture,” she said with conviction.


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