An Expression Extraordinaire
Compiling a bold body of work composed of the inner-workings her mind on a canvas, Shaikha Hala Al Khalifa reveals her perspective on life through art
By Anaam Ikram
mbedded in the culture of The Kingdom, art is one of the most eminent factors that brings to life its rich past; its history laid bare on a canvas, or shot through a lens, bringing into perspective the days gone by and how with passing time, Bahrain’s social and cultural fabric has evolved over time, but still draws its natives back to their ancestral beginnings. With the formation of the Bahrain Arts and Literature club in 1952, founding of the Bahrain Arts Society in 1983, the organisations served as a platform for both professional and budding artists in the country to display their talents in various arts disciplines. Throughout the years various exhibitions were held locally and internationally that showcased the talent produced out of the Kingdom and was acclaimed rightfully so. The growing interest in art also gave birth to the Annual Fine Art Show, which held its first showcase in the 1970’s, and celebrates its 44th edition next year, making it one of the most important part of the art scene in the Kingdom. Evidently, art is deemed as a significant part of Bahrain’s identity, and the Bahrain National Museum is also home to a permanent contemporary art exhibition, and heading the rising art and culture movement in Bahrain, is Shaikha Hala Al Khalifa. An artist herself, Shaikha Hala Al Khalifa was befittingly appointed as the Director of the Culture and Arts at the Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiquities, overseeing the cultural events, performances held at the Bahrain National Theatre, publications, festivals, art exhibitions, and workshops. Shaikha Hala spoke to Perle Magazine about her love for art and she explored various subjects and media through her captivating art.
Finding an affinity for art from the tender age, Shaikha Hala was attracted to the medium of drawing, and by 10 years of age, she started to receive her formal training with oil paints. “My early lessons taught me to work with a lot of discipline”, she says, adding working in the classical style allowed her to form a solid base for practicing her art. Crediting her tutor for teaching her to work in a clean and focused manner, Shaikha Hala says she learnt how to paint and draw from still life and nature, which set strong foundations for her to practice all forms of art. “Explorations and creativity follow as you evolve as an artist”, she says. Recounting one of her first experiences with creating art, Shaikha Hala’s first work was an open Qur’an, with a rich red background and a burning candle and was exhibited in a group show. Upon being purchased by her uncle, Shaikha Hala says as a young girl that was an incredibly achievement – to have worked on something that was not only appreciated but also bought. Her attention then spanned towards food, and taking the time to draw food and coffee shops in great detail, to truly capture on canvas what her eyes were witnessing in real life. Going on to receiving her BFA from Tufts University and The School of the Museum of Fine Arts, in Boston Massachusetts, and her MFA from Slade School in UCL, UK, Shaikha Hala worked diligently in the field of arts before assuming her position at the Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiquities.
Alongside her roles in art institutions and at the BACA, Shaikha Hala has always simultaneously worked on her own personal art, compiling an impressive portfolio that serves as a window to the inspirations behind her work. Working in series, Shaikha Hala says she is inspired by many elements around her, from the human figure, to chairs, and adds that she enjoys experimenting with different media from canvas to video, and installations. “I like to explore and have the freedom to do as I wish. I do like experimenting, and art does not always need to be balanced and correct – the beauty is in the grotesque sometimes.” Although having been trained in a traditional manner, Shaikha Hala adds she does not shy away from producing art that may not necessarily be seen as “beautiful”. “I have had an incident when a curator came to visit my studio, and I was working on a series of large paintings and she gasped…and told me that she would them, ‘The Ugly Beauties’!”
Among her expansive body of work, one of Shaikha Hala’s most distinguished work is her series called “Sea”, through which she pays an homage to the heritage and legacy to the trade the Kingdom came to be renowned for: pearling. The series focuses around the dome shaped metal mesh that used to be a common sight on the shores of the Gulf. Used to catch fish, the mesh domes were used metaphorically to represent entrapment of the rich yet dangerous career as a pearl diver, yet a source of survival for many on the shores of the Arabian Gulf. Invoking thought amongst each viewer by presenting a chilling narrative of what her art depicts, Sea urges onlookers to think about: “if the sea could speak about who dove in and never saw the light again…if thoughts and prayers of these last moments before death could be told or shared.” Both a tribute and a memorial, Sea marks the memory of those who lost their lives at sea as well as the legacy and heritage of pearl diving.
Following the theme of paying an ode to those who laid the foundations for the Kingdom upon which each passing generation built upon, for the 15/15 Exhibition that took place at Shaikh Ebrahim Centre for Culture and Research in March 2017, Shaikha Hala presented her work, “Light”. Reflected on the façade of the Centre, Shaikha Hala’s piece was commemorated the legacy of the place as it served as a hub for scholars and intellectuals from the 18th century to present day. Producing a simple but rich and powerful piece, hundreds of names of those who passed by the space and left their impression were reflected on the walls of the house, creating a veil of names – even for a short while – and once again bringing to life their legacy. The bond between Shaikha Hala and the centre goes deeper, as the centre is named after her great grandfather and one of the greatest leaders of education, and the socials sciences in the Kingdom, Shaikh Ebrahim bin Mohammed Al Khalifa, and has been brought to significance through the efforts of her mother, Shaikha Mai bint Mohammed Al Khalifa, whose vision of preserving Bahraini culture and heritage was the driving force behind the institution. “I am honoured to use this house as a blank canvas for my creative process, honouring not only the legacy that he has left behind; yet another main role player which brought back awareness to the cultural scene in the Kingdom”, she says. Alongside her great grandfather’s efforts, “Light” also looked at those who played an eminent part in shaping the cultural and social fabric of Muharraq in the past and present.
Shaikha Hala’s most recent work was of an entirely different aesthetic, focusing on wings, and the different forms and shapes that create the silhouettes of wings. “Scattered, dense, and light shapes map out a journey of a healing process”, Shaikha Hala explains, and adds, “they reveal different elements that tell a story without words; here the key characters are brush strokes, colour, and dripping paints.” She adds that one of strongest tools of expression is a brush stroke against a white blank canvas. Using art as more than just a means for expression, the art maestro adds that brush strokes have an amazing ability to heal, whereas the completed art itself is an invitation to share the story with the viewers and allow them to come to their own conclusions about what draws them to the artwork. Exhibiting her work in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Shaikha Hala adds she was thrilled to be a part of the Jeddah’s art scene, and was excited to be surrounded by the rising talent within Saudi Arabia.
As an artist, Shaikha Hala says she has been fortunate enough to use art as a form of healing, and uses whatever negativity or sorrow or pain that befalls her and transforms it into creative expressionism. Being able to express herself through art, Shaikha Hala says she is always working on a series of small-scale drawings to keep her art going, as well as working towards completing a body of work of paintings and an installation for upcoming shows. Actively partaking in local and international shows, Shaikha Hala’s art has made a prominent statement about her vision and signature as an artist – one that does not shy away from using the dark elements and turning them into light.
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