Bahrain's art scene has been hit as hard as any sector during the pandemic, but a new gallery in Al Aali Mall, in the island's Seef District, is providing a much-needed boost to the region's artists.
Last Oil Well is the brainchild of Canadian gallerist Frances Stafford, who is also the owner and head curator of the space, and aims to give a platform to creatives whose work was disrupted in 2020.
Having already exposed the citizens of Berlin to Bahraini art through her 4:1 exhibition last year, Stafford gives the kingdom's residents and visitors the chance to see – and buy – works by established and promising artists from Bahrain and beyond with her newest venture.
The name of the gallery takes inspiration not only from Bahrain being the first Gulf nation to strike oil, but also from Stafford's home province of Alberta, which is famous for its oil production, too. She is keen for people not to overanalyse the rather apocalyptic connotations of the gallery's name, however, as her aim is to focus more on the work and its artists. "We want to give them that platform in these uncertain times," she says.
She also wants to attract a diverse pool of buyers, as prices for pieces range from 300 to 3,000 Bahraini dinars ($800-$7,980).
“We hope more people will start to recognise the gallery as a place where you can pick up an original artwork from a varying degree of styles and price-points.”
And its central location only serves to make it all the more accessible. “I really wanted a place to be able to showcase artists and offer visibility ... What better place than a mall?”
A diverse and eclectic group of artists are being showcased in the gallery's opening exhibition, which will run until the end of Ramadan. This includes French graffiti artist Arnaud Rothfuss, whose work references his adopted Bahraini culture and his European roots. "I think merging cultures is the future of our world, as it provides the freedom that will open up endless possibilities in the world of art," says Rothfuss. Works such as a stylised portrait of Spanish artist Salvador Dali in a traditional Arab ghutra reflect this point of view.
Bahraini mixed-media artist Hana Tawfeeqi presents her paintings, which she says are a way to understand her feelings about the world, and to embrace imperfection as a source of inspiration. "Everyone has their own struggles that others find hard to understand," she says. "This is why my pieces are not perfect. Being a unique person is an artwork by itself."
Viewers can see pieces by popular Bahraini caricaturist Ali Al Sumaikh, too. "For me, the art of caricature highlights the sense of humour in the character, employing elements such as exaggeration, expression and movement," he explains. "Drawing a smile is a universal language among people all over the world, so I try to find a visual dialogue between the painting and the recipient."
Abbas Yousif, a printmaker and calligrapher also in the exhibition, sees the gallery as a brave move. "I consider opening the space to be courageous in these difficult times. It works to highlight Bahraini artists and encourage them – especially younger ones – to participate in public exhibitions," he says. "At this particular time, Bahrain needs a gallery of this kind, with a variety of paintings, different styles."
In future Stafford plans to open the space to others as well. "If someone wants to do a temporary exhibition that's more research based, or perhaps showcase a fashion project, the space is open to be utilised in a multitude of ways," she says. "People can get in touch if they have an idea."
More information is available at www.lastoilwell.com