Bahrain may not be home to the big international art brands we see in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, but for a small country, it certainly punches above its weight.
Enter Kaneka Subberwal and Art Select
Kaneka Subberwal, founder of Bahrain’s consultancy firm Art Select, has a two-fold mission: to bring Bahraini artists to the world, while also bringing the art world to the tiny island nation. Through a series of art weeks in cities around the world and Art Bahrain Across Borders (ArtBAB), an annual international art fair in Bahrain, Subberwal is shining a spotlight on the country’s art scene, hoping to attract the sort of international attention received by its larger neighbours in the Gulf. “When you come from a country the size of Bahrain, people are not anticipating the wealth of art we have,” says Subberwal, who is Indian, but has been living in the region for more than 10 years.
When we talk, she's in the British capital for Bahrain Art Week in London, an exhibition displaying the work of 11 Bahraini artists, from young, emerging talents such as Aysha Almoayyed to established names on the Middle Eastern art scene such as Balqees Fakhro.
It was the third art week that Subberwal had organised in 2018, with different groups of Bahraini artists having shown in Paris in September and Singapore in October. Each exhibition is put together by the Art Select founder and local co-curator, who selects artists from among the applicants to an open call in Bahrain.
Meet Amal Khalaf
In London, that person is Amal Khalaf, a Bahraini-Singaporean curator at the Serpentine Gallery. She lives in London, but returns to work in the Gulf regularly, mostly within the Kuwait and Dubai art scenes. Khalaf responded to this year's overarching ArtBAB theme of "legacy" with a show titled Accumulation: Legacy & Memory. "I'm interested in framing the work on a wider scale," she says. "How do we think about this accumulation of not just things, pollution, cities, growth, buildings, but also memories and these historic practices and traditions?
"You'll see in each of the practices and works, it's not just in how it looks, it's in the form." That might mean Hala Kaiksow's delicate hand-woven textile pieces, or sculptures like Taiba Faraj's Unseen, a set of scales made from rough wood that references Bahrain's past as a trading nation.
Bahrain has a “strong [art] scene that knows its history, that knows its grassroots artistic community”, says Khalaf. “There’s this balance between top down and grassroots, which is quite unique and doesn’t exist in other Gulf contexts as much.”
A 'debilitating' patronage system
By “top down”, Khalaf is referring to the work of the Bahraini Ministry of Culture, as well as to organisations like Art Select, which is funded by Tamkeen, a semi-autonomous government agency tasked with supporting Bahrain’s private sector. Interventions like these, Khalaf says, are helping to shift the focus away from an old model of artistic patronage towards “more of a mix between independence through the commercial art market, as well as eventually establishing more independent foundations”.
It’s a shift that needs to take place, she says, if we are to see Bahraini artists pushing themselves with new ideas, new practises, new forms. Subberwal agrees, calling the patronage system a “comfort zone” and “debilitating”. Encouraging Bahraini artists to work outside their comfort zones is central to the Art Select mission. The international programme – which comprises a presence at art fairs such as the India Art Fair in New Delhi and Russia’s Cosmoscow alongside the art weeks series – is designed to expose participating artists to new collector bases in established markets, as well as providing them with opportunities to experience the work of other artists and curators.
With income and confidence both bolstered from foreign sales and new experiences, the thinking goes, the artists up their game and the whole Bahraini visual arts ecology benefits. It’s still early days, but Subberwal is delighted by the results so far, citing approaches by international galleries with a view to working with particular Art Select artists, and an increase in foreign sales of 149 per cent since the start of the programme in 2015.
Art Bahrain Across Borders
She is also seeking to expand opportunities for Bahraini artists through ArtBAB, the fair she organises at the Bahrain International Exhibition & Convention Centre in Manama each March. She does this not just by exposing them to new work via the international galleries that come to exhibit at ArtBAB, but by letting them exhibit themselves. Including artist-run stands and a curated space featuring the work of dozens of unrepresented artists alongside the usual selection of local and international galleries, ArtBAB is far from your standard international art fair.
Mixed reviews, mismanagement and artist booths
Subberwal's unorthodox approach has had its detractors: an article in The Art Newspaper published in June this year reported that after the first edition of the fair in 2015, a group of participating dealers "penned a scathing letter to Subberwal describing the fair as 'a very disappointing experience'", and complaining about the practice of letting artists book their own stands. The article also reported on a series of payment disputes with exhibitors and former collaborators and included accusations of "chronic mismanagement" of the fair.
Subberwal professes herself confused as to why The Art Newspaper would waste its time on discrepancies concerning such small sums of money (£2,700; Dh12,545 was the largest amount owed) that were already in the process of being resolved. She puts the accusations of mismanagement down to the fact that a few individuals were "disgruntled" at having been let go and decided to kick up a fuss. And she stands by her decision to do things a little differently at ArtBAB.
“Artists are allowed to participate in a curated space – it’s not like you can bring anything you want, whatever’s lying around in your house. That’s how they make it sound. Why are we not allowing the artist to communicate?”
Khalaf, who curated a series of talks at this year's event, admits to initially being "shocked by the idea of artist booths" but found herself won over. "I started to realise how empowering it was that that was even a possibility."
Artist booths that allow artists to communicate directly with potential buyers is just one of the ways that ArtBAB encourages greater engagement between the art world and the public in Bahrain, with the KIDS@ArtBAB family space, and Khalaf’s series of talks providing additional routes of connection.
For Subberwal, it all amounts to the same thing. “It doesn’t have to be like another fair. It is a niche art fair which fits the character of the place where it’s happening. There are real interactions and real conversations.”