A little girl clutches a bunch of keys. She’s foisted, mid-air, upon the shoulders of a loopy donkey. A rat with outsized whiskers holds fort atop a ladder balanced, seal-like, on the girl’s delicate head. Butterflies launch into the horizon. Child-like and dreamy, this imagery can easily be mistaken for that of an imaginative five-year-old. Instead, it belongs to artist Majid Kurdieh, a Syrian refugee who, apparently, lives close to a forest in Lebanon. Far away from modern civilisation and closer to nature, wildlife and insects, he dreams up his paintings as like an alternative world – or rather, as the world should have been – where man and animals co-exist peacefully. Kurdieh was one of the many talented artists whose work took the audience by surprise at the recent Art Bahrain Across Borders (Art Bab 2018), held in Manama. Most of Kurdieh’s work was accompanied by quotes in Arabic. The one described above was bookended by: “We will start a gang. We will call it The Scary Butterfly Gang. The Very Scary Butterfly Gang. And what will we steal? The grief of the neighbours.”
Though many lauded Kurdieh for his sincere vision and utopian dream, what some of us may have missed is its political and social context. Despite the Paul Klee-like simplicity and naivety, the young Majid Kurdieh’s art is deeply political. “He’s taking away all the Syrian sadness and converting it into a beautiful story,” explained Noor Alasker from The Workshop, the Dubai gallery that represents Mr Kurdieh. “His job as an artist is different from that of a reporter. He does not portray the Syrian war and conflict as it is. He recycles. He dreams of a more equal world.”
It’s the sheer beauty of a fair like this that a relatively young Kurdieh can compete with a veteran like Zurab Tsereteli for the viewers’ attention. Tsereteli’s work is no less political, though. “He’s socially responsible and an eternal optimist,” smiled Stephan Stoyanov of Art Agency, Ltd who represents Tsereteli. The Georgian-Russian painter, now 84 and according to Mr Stoyanov “still very active and one who paints and sculpts with an open mind,” is fond of flowers and colours. And that’s exactly what you get at Mr Stoyanov’s gallery. The unique flower enamel sculpture, a technique that Tsereteli developed after years of research, finds a pride of place. “Zurab’s art is cheerful, just like the artist himself.” Vasili Tsereteli, executive director of Moscow Museum of Modern Art (MMOMA) said that Zurab Tsereteli met and befriended Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall in the ‘60s. And indeed, the influence of Picasso, Chagall and French painters like Fernand Léger was evident on Tsereteli’s canvasses. Like Vincent van Gogh, his favourite flower is the sunflower.
For the art cognoscenti, Art Bahrain Across Borders (ArtBAB 2018) has emerged as a place to walk and talk art – and not just of the European tradition but also the art produced by local Gulf artists. At ArtBAB, a major hub for the GCC artists as well, the likelihood of running into a Bahraini female photographer and canvasses celebrating Arabian horses is as sure-footed as seeing the vibrant Indian art or reverspective, history-knowing twists on Mondrian by Britain’s Patrick Hughes.
Hasan Hujairi, a Bahraini artist and composer now living in Seoul, South Korea, admitted that the art scene in the Gulf region has, especially over the last two decades, grown rapidly. “There are more artists in the region with formal education in art, and there are art institutions and art galleries that have made important contributions to art in the region.” Among the GCC states (Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar), he says, “Bahrain has a particularly long history in the arts. I have seen works as early as the 1930s coming from Bahrain, and it started without artists being educated in art per se. It was in the 1960s/1970s that the first people from Bahrain started going to study art abroad (in places such as Damascus, Baghdad, and later, in Paris and the United States). The earliest examples of 'art' (in the Western sense of the word) seemed to be landscapes of Bahraini villages and markets in Manama). Over time, especially after a growing exchange between artists from Bahrain and other parts of the world started to grow, art in Bahrain started to change drastically.”
Indeed, the Gulf region is a rapid climber in the contemporary art and cultural scene. And though ArtBAB showcased the Gulf art in abundance, it could do well to give coverage and representation to other art-producing regions of the world. Particularly, the presence of Indian art left one underwhelmed. More so because of Bahrain’s long-standing ties with India. (There were Souzas, Ram Kumars and Padamsees but merely small sketches. What about their key works? That never travels.) For an event of such ambitious scale, there were no European or American masters. Neither were there any sculptures or conceptual art to sink your teeth into. But as Hujairi said, “Art Bahrain is a new platform, and it is my hope that it would improve in the future by engaging both artists and art spaces/galleries from Bahrain.”
He ended with another note of optimism, “I liked the inclusion of the talks this year, with some of the speakers being more engaged in conceptual work, and by bringing speakers from the US talking about public art policies and policy-making in the US in each of their respective contexts. I was also happy to see young artists and curators from places such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and that female artists/curators were included in the dialogues.”