Tamadher Al Fahal is a co-founder of Bahraini art collective Ulafa’a Initiative and curator of I am ‘Khaleeji’, a programme of events at the International Project Space that aims introduce western culture to contemporary art in the Gulf.
An artist, curator, TEDx speaker and PhD candidate, Tamadher splits her time between Birmingham, Bahrain and a host of international cities. Her current project, I am ‘Khaleeji’ features an exhibition of contemporary Bahraini art and events that give a true insight into the breadth of contemporary art practices that are flourishing in the Gulf.
Parkside Gallery caught up with Tamadher to discuss the international project and the exciting relationship between British and Bahraini art.
Chris Ansell: A major part of I am ‘Khaleeji’ is by the book, an exhibition that features 13 artists from Bahrain. This must be one of the largest exhibitions of contemporary Bahraini art to take place in the UK. How did you approach selecting the artists that you wanted to work with?
Tamadher Al Fahal: I’ve been working and exhibiting with Ulafa’a Initiative since 2012. by the book includes work by current members of the initiative and artists who I invited because their work responds to similar topics.
In the initiative we normally come up with a concept as a group – something that seems relevant to us at the time – and then each artist in the initiative responds to that theme.
More recently we’ve started inviting artists that we identify with to submit works.
We normally accept all submissions and allow everyone to exhibit their work alongside each other. In our last exhibition we had everything ranging from work by established artists to a piece by a four year old child.
This time we have been a little more selective and created something a bit different.
CA: And have any themes arisen that you weren’t expecting? Things that you only noticed now you’ve bought the work together.
TAF: We haven’t been able to install the exhibition just yet so I’m just as excited as you are to see what happens when we bring all the work together in one space.
All the work shares its relation to the social and cultural aspects of Bahrain but it comes from different perspectives, different people’s perspectives. It is always interesting to see what comes of putting two different views side by side.
A lot of the artists are from different regions and this brings different views, and different views on religion.
Religion plays a big part in the exhibition. Religion, particularly in the Gulf, is influential in how culture is constructed. It forms the spoken, and unspoken, rulebook. A lot of the exhibition focusses on the boundary between religion and the conventions that are often disguised as religion.
CA: It’s important for you to provide a true reflection of the contemporary art scene in Bahrain. What do you hope to teach people about contemporary Bahraini art in the exhibition?
TAF: It’s diversity. There’s such a range of contemporary art in Bahrain and I want to give people an insight into this. It’s important that people are aware that this is only a glimpse into a niche type of contemporary art in Bahrain and that there is so much more out there.
Art in the Gulf is normally characterised under one umbrella and this is how it’s normally perceived, especially in western countries. But there is so much variation. Different countries in the Gulf are taking different directions and even in each country there are so many different takes and approaches.
The Bahraini art scene is still shaping and morphing. This state of flux makes it really exciting and produces some extremely interesting outcomes. The movement is in its infancy so it’s really youthful, colourful and different. Art in Bahrain has a complexity that is underexplored and dimensions that are unexpected.
CA: Do you see many similarities between contemporary art in the Gulf and western countries?
TAF: Yes – experimentation. In both regions experimentation is at the heart of most people’s practices. And they share the understanding that often the attempts that are “incomplete” are the most successful.
But they differ a lot in the processes and materials that are used. Each place has their own cultural history and own material history so different techniques have been inherited. This informs the way that contemporary artists work and how they think about different materials.
The relationship between the art and the audience also differs. This may have something to do with the difference in exhibition spaces – in Bahrain we don’t have as many whitewall galleries.
For Ulafa’a Initiative community engagement and the audience is always at its heart of every project that we work on and this influences how we make art.
We try to create a social space, a space for interaction. At each exhibition that the initiative curates every artists brings their favourite chair and puts it in the gallery space for the private view. It helps create a lively, relaxed atmosphere that allows for conversation. Everyone normally ends up sitting and talking late into the night.
Obviously, this is specific to our group but there is a connection between art and the community that runs through a lot of contemporary Bahraini art. The creative process and the audience tends to be much more integrated than you see in most western art practices.
CA: In a time when foreign relations all over the world are precariously balanced, what part do you think art and exhibitions can play?
TAF: I think that both curating and creating are political acts.
One piece in the exhibition is very political but as a collective we always try to express our individual opinions without hurting others.
As we are constantly talking to each other about our work we tend to produce pieces that have subtle references which are open to interpretation.
The group was formed on ideas of reconciliation and we always try to remember this. We each have strong opinions but we do not want to upset anyone just prompt questions and discussion.
CA: And what do you hope the exhibition programme will bring to Birmingham?
TAF: I want to help connect with Bahraini people living in the UK. Since I’ve been living in Birmingham, I’ve seen an increase in the number of Bahraini people living in the area and I hope that this exhibition helps connect an international community.
But then I think that the themes of the exhibition can talk to people from all cultures. It talks about belonging, or not belonging, and how people live in relation to a community’s set of rules. And this is a universal feeling.
I am ‘Khaleeji’ runs from 9th October – 23rd October 2017. Please visit http://blogs.bcu.ac.uk/parksidegallery/2017/09/15/by-the-book-at-international-project-space/ for more information.
Interview date: 21 September 2017