Renowned Bahraini artist Sheikh Rashid Al Khalifa will exhibit his work in the upcoming Mediterranean Biennale, slated to open in the northern Israeli port city of Haifa on Tuesday.
Now in its fourth edition, the Mediterranean Biennale has been held every few years since 2010. Spearheaded by acclaimed Romanian Israeli artist Belu-Simion Fainaru and Israeli artist Avital Bar-Shay, this year’s theme is “Living Together: Crossing Borders.”
The event will highlight the works of some 60 local and international artists, including three-dimensional paintings recently created by Rashid Al Khalifa.
I think art should be shown and also shared with everyone
Born in Manama, Bahrain in 1952, Al Khalifa has been a major player in the Middle East’s cultural arena since his art career first took off in the late 1960s. After studying in the UK, he returned to Bahrain in 1978 and sometime later helped found the Bahrain Arts Society, a non-profit organization dedicated to bolstering fine arts in the Gulf.
Al Khalifa, a member of the Bahraini royal family, told The Media Line that he was “very happy” to participate in the Mediterranean Biennale.
“I think art should be shown and also shared with everyone,” he said, noting that he previously exhibited his work in Israel a few years ago, before the signing of the historic normalization agreements between Israel and its Gulf neighbors.
“I didn’t think of it as any sort of political issue; I looked at it from a cultural point of view,” Al Khalifa said, adding that he thought normalization was “long overdue.”
“If we don’t have peace we won’t have [economic] development or stability,” he stressed. “There’s a lot to be learned from each other.”
In this vein, and even though he has not yet had the opportunity to visit Israel himself, Al Khalifa hopes to see a flourishing cultural exchange between the two countries take place in the near future.
His aesthetic is clean but colorful. Though early on he veered more towards realism and figurative art, nowadays Al Khalifa has shifted increasingly towards minimalism and abstraction.
A selection of his three-dimensional paintings on aluminum will be on display in Israel during the Biennale. To create them, Al Khalifa first designs a shape, cuts a sheet of metal with a machine, and thereafter applies a coating of enamel paint.
The current art scene in the Kingdom of Bahrain is “quite active,” Al Khalifa revealed.
“Our [Bahrain Arts] Society when we formed in the 1980s was mainly for men,” he recounted. “In the early 1990s we encouraged women to take part and they were quite hesitant…but now they are overtaking everybody by storm. They are really active and the quality of their artwork is really good.”
Regarding the Bahraini royal family’s relationship to the arts, Al Khalifa says that many have become strong patrons of up-and-coming artists in the kingdom.
“[Many] members of the royal family have this knack for liking things that are nice and beautiful, so they have good eyes for art,” he related.
Though the veteran artist has taken part in countless exhibitions, fairs and biennales around the globe, his works are not found in nearly any permanent collection. The reason for this is simple: Al Khalifa says that he cannot bear to sell his own work.
“The paintings have always been like my babies so I haven’t parted with many,” he said. “What I produce I keep for myself so I have a vast collection.”
The Mediterranean Biennale will take place in several galleries and public spaces around Haifa up until the end of the Muslim holiday of Ramadan. Afterward, the event will be moved to the nearby Sakhnin Valley.
“The Biennale is a place for people to connect socially via art and education,” co-curator Belu-Simion Fainaru said in a statement that was shared with The Media Line. “It is a place for dialogue and to heal the rifts that divide Israeli society: the rift between Jews and Arabs, periphery and center, and between groups that are well-established economically versus those that are low-income.”
Another fascinating artist participating in the event is Kazakh-born Almagul Menlibayeva.
Born in 1969 in Almaty, Kazakhstan, Menlibayeva is a multimedia artist who divides most of her time between her native country and Berlin, Germany. Her works are found in the permanent collections of prominent museums across Europe, the United States, the United Arab Emirates and Kazakhstan, among other places.
Four of her video pieces will be on display starting this week. One of them, “Transoxiana Dream” (2011), is a haunting work that explores the ravages of the Soviet occupation on the Kazakh landscape. The video showcases the indigenous people of the Aralkum Desert, a vast desolate region that once held the Aral Sea. Formerly the fourth largest lake in the world, the Aral Sea began shrinking in the 1960s following massive irrigation projects that the Soviet Union undertook in the region.
Menlibayeva, who has visited friends in Israel on numerous occasions, told The Media Line that many of her works examine the massive cultural shifts that befell Kazakh society following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
“I grew up in the Soviet Union so it was a completely different way of living and looking at the past,” she said. “It was very ideological.
“When the Soviet Union collapsed, all these changes brought about different people than there were before,” she added.
Throughout her career, Menlibayeva has crisscrossed her way across Kazakhstan, documenting painful histories and exploring the relationship of female identity to landscape and heritage.
“[The Soviets] said they brought a lot of opportunities for women, like equal rights,” she said. “But in the end, it was a totalitarian way of thinking and nobody was free. We couldn’t travel outside of the Soviet Union.”
The Mediterranean Biennale opens in Haifa on April 6 and will run until June 15.