ABDEL ELAH AL-ARAB, Interwind-Letters (detail), 2015, mixed media on paper, 54 × 54 cm. Courtesy Albareh Art Gallery, Manama.


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A small 33-island archipelago near the eastern coast of Saudi Arabia, the Kingdom of Bahrain has experienced instability since 2011 when mass protests by its Shia community erupted, and were met with increasing violence. Since then, normalcy has returned yet the country remains in a partial political deadlock. 

Bahrain has long been a pioneering Gulf country in the arts, establishing painting classes in 1917. The Annual Fine Arts Exhibition held its 41st edition (3/4–5/4) at the Bahrain National Museum. The country is home to an energetic, modest-sized art community that receives limited government support, and has a small number of nonprofit and commercial spaces primarily in the capital Manama. 

A significant institutional change with long-term consequences for art and culture took place early in 2015, when the Ministry of Culture was suppressed from the ministerial cabinet and a new office was created, the Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiquities (BACA), under the leadership of the former minister, Sheikha Mai bint Mohammed al-Khalifa. The step was a welcome policy change, as the new authority would fall directly under the Crown Prince’s office, allowing it to operate more independently of the cabinet. Also in 2015, BACA debuted a small local art fair, Art Bahrain (10/13–16), along the waterfront at Bahrain Bay, under the patronage of Princess Sabeeka, the Crown Prince’s mother. 

The Bahrain National Museum, under the governance of BACA, primarily displays archaeological artifacts from Bahrain’s ancient and premodern history, and also has a hall that features artworks from Bahraini modern and contemporary artists. The museum hosted the exhibition “Modern and Contemporary Saudi Art: The al-Mansouria Collection” (11/6/14–3/6), which traced the evolution of Saudi contemporary art from the 1960s to the present through the work of 30 artists, including Ahmed Mater, Dia Aziz Dia and Nasser al-Salem.  

Al-Riwaq Art Space, a commercial gallery turned nonprofit, holds exhibitions and organizes arts events, such as the successful outdoor festival for young local designers and musicians, “Market 338,” now re-branded as “The Nest,” which is accompanied by a new art prize (12/10–1/9/16). Al-Riwaq hosted a number of solo exhibitions of local artists such as Lobna al-Ameen (3/3–31) and Mohammed al-Mahdi (5/17–6/17), as well as the group exhibition “Vantage” (4/12–5/12), presenting seven women artists from Bahrain. 

Also in the Adliya neighborhood is the established Albareh Art Gallery, which organized, under its project space the Albareh Centre for Art, Design and Visual Culture, the third but much-reduced edition of its educational platform, the Artists Leadership Program. In the gallery, its exhibition highlights included “Alphabets and Sculptures” (4/27–5/27) by Bahraini artists Jamal Abdul Rahim and Abdel Elah el-Arab, and the group exhibition “Innerscapes” (10/6–20) by Lebanese artists Annie Kurkdjian, Semaan Khawam and Charles Khoury. It also featured a solo show of young Bahraini artist Zuhair al-Saeed, “On the Road” (12/8–30), who used found materials such as worn tires to express darker aspects of life. The gallery returned again in 2015 to Art Dubai (3/18–21) and participated in the Beirut Art Fair (9/17–20).

As local galleries become less active beyond exhibitions, spontaneous shows and spaces are starting to appear. Bahrain seems to be taking a new grassroots approach toward targeting younger audiences by combining art, design and advocacy.

Abroad, Seoul-based Bahraini sound artist Hasan Hujairi published a short artist book, Nosebleed: Structurally, an Opera with the online platform Ibraaz in October.    

Bahrain did not participate in the 56th Venice Biennale, as the country was preparing to participate in Expo Milano 2015. Nevertheless, the Kingdom is expected to join the 15th Architecture Biennale in Venice, which begins late May 2016.