Camille Zakharia’s series of works “Belonging” is one of the highlights at Art Dubai 2013

More to discover at Art Dubai 2013

DUBAI – Hürriyet Daily News

The seventh edition of Art Dubai opened yesterday, showcasing 500 artists from across the world and with the goal of making a difference in the lives of Syrian families through a special collaboration with the World Food Organization

The Turkish art galleries are presenting Turkish contemporary art from established artists at seventh Art Dubai, which is particpated by over 500 artists from around the world.

The Turkish art galleries are presenting Turkish contemporary art from established artists at seventh Art Dubai, which is particpated by over 500 artists from around the world.

Hatice Utkan Hatice Utkan 

This year, in its seventh edition, Art Dubai hopes to be a “fair of discovery,” presenting visitors with 75 galleries from 30 countries and displaying works by over 500 artists. Starting on March 20, visitors to the fair in the United Arab Emirates’ largest city will have the opportunity to discover an impressive array of artworks and artists from the Middle East, South Asia, Europe and America over the next three days.

This year the fair is hosting five art galleries from Istanbul: Galerist, Rampa, Rodeo, Mana and Gallery Non. The Turkish art galleries are presenting Turkish contemporary art from established artists such as Kutluğ Ataman from Gallery Mana, Erdem Ergaz from Gallery Non, Haluk Akakçe from Galerist, Nilbar Güreş from Rampa and Banu Cennetoğlu from Rodeo. Art from the Middle East and particularly from West Africa will be the main focus of the fair. Visitors keen to discover a wide range of artists and works from the global art scene will be able to take their pick of the many continents whose art the fair is exhibiting.

“A fair needs to have a strong identity, as well as having quality and diversity,” the curator and director of the fair, Antonia Carver, said, speaking at a press meeting held for the fair.

Carver said over 500 artists are participating in Art Dubai, brought together by the selected exhibiting galleries and the fair’s extensive noncommercial programming. The estimated combined value of all the works of art on display is approximately $40 million.

“Art Dubai’s emergence as a major global art event is representative of Dubai’s growing status as an international art hub,” Carver added.


Banu Cennetoğlu, Rodeo and The Artists

Given that Art Dubai 2013 hosts more artists and galleries from the Arab world than any other arts event, the international community has started to look to Dubai as the gateway to the Middle East.

“We provide a window into a very fertile regional art scene, while spurring discussions on the inspirations, process and industry involved in the making of art. Our aim in combining exhibition, education and conversation is to build on the current momentum and create a sustainable model that gives participants and visitors a global platform and a local perspective,” she said.

This year the festival’s eye is turned toward West Africa, with a set of concept stands located in the fair’s main gallery halls curated by Lagos-based Bisi Silva. Her curatorial concept focuses on the rapidly evolving nature of cities in West Africa and the way in which these changes impact society. She teamed up with artists from five artistic centers across the region, to produce collaboratively exhibitions for Art Dubai: Centre for Contemporary Art (Lagos, Nigeria), Espace doual’art (Douala, Cameroon), Maison Carpe Diem (Ségou, Mali), Nubuke Foundation (Accra, Ghana) and Raw Material Company (Dakar, Senegal). Working together with the curator and the fair, these local spaces are presenting works by artists such as Soly Cisse (Senegal), Ablade Glover (Ghana), Abdoulaye Konaté (Mali), Boris Nzebo (Cameron), and Taiye Idahor (Nigeria).

Artists and works

This year Camille Zakharia’s series of works “Belonging” is one of the highlights of the fair. In this series, Bahrain-based Lebanese artist Zakharia aims to focus on the word and the meaning of “belonging.”

“I have worked with expats living in Bahrain and wanted them to share their ideas about belonging,” Zakharia told the Hürriyet Daily News, explaining the work. The result that the artist achieved was very interesting, as he discovered unconventional notions of identity and place. While some felt that they had not yet achieved a state of belonging, others believed that only under the spell of love could they achieve this state, said the artist.

The images in his works include pictures of expats in Bahrain combined with images of murals and leaves of Bahrain. The deeper meaning of the work is conveyed through the expats’ words, contained in the artworks.

“In fact the aim in the work is to focus on the natural texture that Bahrain has to it, because the expats are a part of the society and they contribute a lot to the culture of Bahrian,” added Zakharia.

Gabriel Orozco’s work titled “Roiseau,” which combines hybrids of bamboo branches and feathers, appears as a sculpture installation at Art Dubai. The floating bodies evoke an underwater or aerial world and their unbroken ballet forms a fluid and shimmering landscape. While the work may partially result from Orozco’s love of nature, it is also influenced by ideas about geography, chronology and consistency.

The works of the artists (even if they come from different backgrounds and cultures) might be a part of the general idea of the Art Dubai, which aims to open dimensions to discover more and also look into culture and geography while also functioning as “a fair that is reflexive and [doesn't] take itself too seriously,” Carver said about the fair.

Artists set to feature at Art Dubai 2013 include: Abdul Qader al-Rais, Etel Adnan, Kutluğ Ataman, Yto Barrada, Daniel Buren, Annabel Daou, Wim Delvoye, Meschac Gaba, Wade Guyton, Zarina Hashmi, Mona Hatoum, Iman Issa, Idris Khan, Yayoi Kusama, MadeIn Company, François Morellet, Nasir Nasrallah, Otobong Nkanga, Michelangelo Pistoletto, Seth Price, Ibrahim Quraishi, Walid Raad, Anri Sala, Taryn Simon, Rirkrit Tiravanija, James Turrell, Joana Vasconcelos, Danh Vo and Akram Zaatari, among many others.

Art Dubai works for Syria  

This year, the Art Dubai team is working with the World Food Organization. The aim of the fair team is to collect money for Syrian families that have been displaced from Syria. The money gathered from objects sold such as bags, notebooks and books will be donated to WFO for Syrian families to receive food. This is only a small project but it means a lot for the Dubai Art Team, said Carver.


The 4th part of a Four part essay about the art of Bahraini artist Nasser AlYousif | At Land III


At Land IV

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

[read Part I, Part II, Part III]

[The Wait, 1979]

“Every era has to reinvent spirituality for itself… In the modern era, one of the most active metaphors for the spiritual project is art.”Susan Sontag

There is a question. It always begins with a question. But the question is markedly different for the artist and for the reader.  In the painting, there are no answers. Hélène Cixous remarks: “A desire was seeking its home. I was that desire. I was the question. The question with this strange destiny: to seek, to pursue the answers that will appease it, that will annul it. Yet what misfortune if the question should happen to meet its answer! Its end!” Such are the demands of art. The answers are not included in the work; the work is simply the external result of a process that takes a minute and a lifetime at the same time. The procedure is always rigorous but doubtful. What is art? The reader asks, and Sarah Kofman answers with duplicitous clarity: “The question itself is replete with metaphysical presuppositions.”

Is this not the subordination of art to orders of truth that belong to science and knowledge? One does not know paintings, unless that is, one is an art historian. In paintings, things appear and disappear simultaneously, leaving behind them only traces of objects that were once familiar, only to be devoured by the painting. The work of Bahraini painter Nasser Al Yousif belongs to this kind of paintings that cannot be read by dissecting the work into units of meaning and significance; they are construed as whole universes. The real difficulty with his work does not necessarily lie with the innovative technique and the colorful but yet obscure references to the traditional culture of the Arabian Gulf that can mislead the viewer into thinking that he is confronted with folklore painting in the manner of a visual documentary.

At the center of his artistic production rests a cautious journey through the materiality of the environment in which his work unfolded: Earth colors, sands, woods, Arabian doors against Persian and Indian pastel colors, bamboo baskets, dances and drums. And Bahrain is all of that. The poet Qassim Haddad understood this better than any Bahraini of his generation: “We are not an island, except to whoever sees us from the sea.” You must travel to Bahrain for two reasons: First you must discover that the border of the waters encircling the island is nothing but a geographical convention; Bahrain is in the waters and is the waters. Second, you must realize that the colorful world of Al Yousif is nowhere to be found in this formless extension of sand and asphalt. Where did the painter learn to paint this country? Where is this country?

Did he imagine it? That would be an unnecessary burden for someone who was simply asking questions; for someone who kept asking questions about the colors of this island even after his eyes could no longer see the fulgurant and intoxicating light of the place where Mesopotamian mythology claims that the sun itself was born. To have painted scenes of history, to have painted the past, Nasser Al Yousif must have then embodied the historicist consciousness of a modernist, but that he was not. Although the word Modernism often has a negative connotation nowadays in the Arab world, it simply describes those painters trained in the European tradition and that learnt to see their native lands with the eyes of Delacroix and Monet in Algeria. First there were the impressionist landscapes and then the naïve portraits of the peoples of the Orient.

In this tradition, the question of art would be overarching because the Orient as an object of composition would reveal a plethora of ideological gestures that carried within themselves the snake of the tree of knowledge: Art would want to know itself, and to know itself meant to ask what is art, and to answer the question would mean to lead art back to its very beginning: The primal world of formless physicality yet rising out of a world devoid of magic; the gap between the fresco of the Ladies in Blue at Cnossos and Marcel Duchamp. Al Yousif’s procedure stands out of this tradition of modernism both in its Western and Arab setting: He created a universe of color and form – rather than content and form – from the very womb of the land where for three millennia the sounds of the European Orient and the exotic East met at once.

Contemporary artists in the Gulf region live in that mortal contradiction of wanting to soak in aluminum and neon the same colors that Al Yousif was committed in bringing to life; adopting a reckless modernity of which they have never been part, except, alas, in the modernist imagination. The melancholy inherent in the modernist Arab painting of depicting a world that is vanishing in the moment it is being painted or has already vanished, is absent from his work because he is not painting out of the vaults of the grand past; here understood as the rupture or discontinuity between memory and the present, so that everything is to be immortalized in a last inward gaze before everything evaporates. Memory – in orality and sound – is an overwhelming presence in his work as a present that never ceases from making itself present.

O Lord, Safeguard this Country, 1983O Lord, Safeguard this Country, 1983

To paint the past as the grand past, in order to remember it, is the safest strategy to discard it and forget it. Whereas the memory of Al Yousif – as it was proven in his later years when he went blind but continued working on linoleum – is the most careful and attentive observation of a world not vanished and not present; it is suspended in between so that it can always be accessed. The French mystic Simone Weil reminds us, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity”.In one of his best-known works, “The Wait”, being the first artist in the Gulf to work on acrylic, a generation before conceptual artists in the region discovered it; he stages a human drama in an archetypal manner: A bird in its cage is surrounded by restless felines, and both have waited long for the inescapable end – freedom or death. Art is always searching for humanity, and the philosopher Franz Rosenzweig insists that what is the purely human element in art and in life is that which is equal and common to us all, an element which is awakened by and in tragedy.

In her reading of Rosenzweig, conceptual artist Doris Salcedo tells us: “Rosenzweig said the hero of Greek tragedy embodies the solitary self, cut off from all relations to the world and his destiny is marked by two fundamental experiences: the encounter with Eros and the encounter with death. Death is silence, the impossibility of dialogue. Art is communication without words; art is silence. Art is also mediation; and therefore it enables a self enclosed in his own tragedy to awake another self, who is just as solitary.” Out of the conflict between the predator and the victim in the painting, is born a struggle pointing towards a humanizing lesson: In violence and conflict, there are no victories, there are no victors; there are only victims. Nameless victims. Faceless victims. And it is the realization that not to recognize personhood and identity in difference is already a form of violence.

But the message of Al Yousif is nowhere near the pathos of the irreversible – his dramas are suspended before their untimely finality, and without hints at redemption to the very last moment, creating a tension manifesting that humanity is still possible. No wonder that in the language of Rosenzweig, the Orient is referred to as “Morgenland”, the land where the sun rises, opposed to the “Abendland”, or nocturnal lands of Europe. And Bahrain is like this too, as Cixous exclaims: “Let yourself go! Let go of everything! Lose everything! Take to the air. Take to the open sea. Take to letters. Listen: nothing is found. Nothing is lost. Everything remains to be sought.”

In his acrylic from 1983, “O Lord, Safeguard this Country” he depicts an optical theater in which Islamic motifs of his earlier piece, “The Land of Peace” (1979) reappear embedded architecturally, surrounded by fluttering birds. In this painting, the artist is expressing his view of how in moments of hopelessness, of disunity, of violence, it is but the armor of the heritage what will protect the nation, any nation. But again it is easy to be misled: One could be fooled into thinking that by heritage it is meant a specific religious tradition or even cultural uses; but the vision of the painter goes further: By the heritage he articulates what is expressed in “The Wait”; heritage means here what is common to us all, the purely human element that is awakened in the darkest hours.

It would be completely mistaken to understand Nasser Al Yousif’s pictorial work as either representational or literary – and both motifs are identical – but rather, he is doubling and upsetting the layers of correspondence between the world of the living and the colorful universe that he created with his own hands out of – literally – sand and soil. Sarah Kofman concludes a discussion about the nature of contemporary painting by saying what best articulates Al Yousif’s careful observation and exploration of Bahrain as it disclosed itself to him: “What we call representational art can no longer be thought of as the mere repetition of a preexisting model but only as an originary double that causes all our assumptions to waver – our assumptions about the identity of the “object” as well as that of the subject – by doubling every “real” thing with its unwonted and fascinating “presence.”

[Unity, 1982]


Arie Amaya-Akkermans is a freelance writer & occasional journalist. Story-teller about contemporary art from Lebanon, Turkey and the Arabian Gulf. Half in exile, half at home, always in transit; looking for inverted Odysseys.

The 3rd part of a four part essay about the art of Bahraini artist Nasser AlYousif | At Land III


The MANTLE newsletter

At Land III

Friday, January 25, 2013

[read Part I, Part II]

“We are not an island,

Except to whoever sees us from the sea.”Qassim Haddad

The transformation of the place of art that took place in the 20th century seems to have been slightly more than a mere transformation of art, and philosopher of art Arthur Danto has called his process the ‘transformation of the common place’. By common place we are speaking here about the relationship between objects and meanings that takes place in the world. The classical idea of art and life, deeply rooted in traditional metaphysics, can be summarized in the Thomistic passage “Veritas est adaequatio intellectus et rei” (Truth is the conformity of the intellect to the things.) According to this re-working of Aristotle and Avicenna, there is an exact correspondence between things that exist in the world and the concepts we have thereof. Although this theory does not account for so much that we ignore about pre-classical art (the royal seals of Dilmun, the frescoes of Knossos or the art of the upper Paleolithic period in Europe), it is relatively consistent with the figurative tradition of art developed in Greece and that sustained itself until the rise of contemporary art, in different variations.

What is striking about this art isn’t only the epic and mythical dimension – that somehow diluted over time and was already considered a luxury by the Renaissance – but the cunning realism that elevated the human figure to a proportion so big as to assume a godly status. The problem with classical realism, however, when seen from a contemporary perspective, is that realism achieves the opposite of what its intention is: Its loyalty to reality, with its concern for representing the real and the actual, carried to the extreme of a mathematical procedure, alters and subverts the orders of reality by applying scientific rigor to art, in such way that it is undistinguishable from surrealism. The “Greek” problem has many ramifications derived from a main tenet and the question of foundations in Aristotle’s philosophy: Firstly, the development of a notion of place based on points in the dotted line or plane, that is, misunderstanding the qualities of space; secondly, and closely associated with the first, the central problem of foundations in the Western tradition: The Greeks lacked not only an idea of time and a linear concept of history, but also a creation story.

The consequences for art – and philosophy – of the poor Greek understanding of time and space, while at the same time being, in retrospective, the founders of aesthetics and the canon of formal procedures to study art – although this is only implied, as the ideas of Plato and Aristotle hardly encompassed anything other than drama and sculpture – were visible already in times of Copernicus, with the discovery of celestial bodies and the astronomical viewpoint, when the first actual concept of space emerged, posing an ineludible challenge to the human condition or, at least, to our perception of its size. A more developed concept of space emerged in the modern era that was coeval with the [attempt at the] conquest of space and the discovery of scientific premises that ultimately challenged not only Aristotle but also Newtonian physics. Hannah Arendt answers the question “Has man’s conquest of space increased or diminished his stature?” with singular pessimism: “The conquest of space and the science that made it possible have come perilously close to this point. If they ever should reach it in earnest, the stature of man would not simply be lowered by all standards we know of, but have been destroyed.”

Art from this period – in particular Kandinsky – also reflected on the nature of these new spaces emerging with the particular achievement of science and its non-Euclidean geometries. There seemed to be something primitive about this highly modernist art: Clear lines, absurd inner lapses of space, as if in some sort of archaic writing, rather than the composite visual topographies of Impressionism. The work of Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum poses a set of important questions about maps and the mapping of subjectivity in general: For Hatoum maps are unstable and boundaries somehow internal conditions summed up in the metaphor of Edward Said borrowed by Hatoum to title one of her works: “The Entire World as a Foreign Land.” Space is not properly represented by the earthly grid, and her sculpture “Globe” (2007) gives us the impression that the grid, rather than a space for freedom of movement (considered one of the fundamental human rights) is more of an encircling, boundary and metaphor for imprisonment: “You’re still here” (one of her famous works) means also “You’re behind bars.”

[Mona Hatoum, Globe, 2007]

Space – as it can verified through learned astronomical observation – is a complex texture, and if there could be a visual metaphor for it, it would be an ocean reef rather than a flat grid on a textbook.  There are different layers to which different ecosystems belong, imperceptible depths, vast uncontrollable voids out of which vital energy emerges miraculously, the light is always travelling throughout giving an impression of a horizon that yet multiplies in size and surface, depending from where you look at it. That is space.  And clearly place is not space: The earthly grid would be an accurate representation of the planet if only we didn’t live our lives suspended in space and would instead move orderly across a Cartesian plan. But life is terrible, is chaotic, is uncertain, and is beautiful. It is not possible to locate adjectives on the Cartesian plan.

The realities of war, conflict, occupation and post-colonial governance make artists from the Middle East especially preoccupied with the notion of space; how do you make space your own? In the absence of strong state institutions, and the inability to distinguish between power and authority, artists often travel to imaginary lands in their work to find a fence to surround an ever so unstable and yet claustrophobic space. Many contemporary artists from the Middle East that received their art training in Western schools usually take salutary pauses to come out of what is known as the “blind spot” of the Western tradition, or in more sophisticated vocabulary, the tension – out of which the living space known as “Modernity” was born – between types of spaces and types of time: Modernity as an homogenous time, almost neo-Platonic, a “stans aeterninatis” in which paradoxically an ever recurring present swallows all the tenses without an specific geographical topology or destination.

Many of these artists find solace in Islamic art, or in classical cultures of the Ancient Near East, or in early Christianity, etc. The search for an historical home is part of a quest of acquiring an identity – as if such were possible. The challenge of the pictorial space is a crucial element of the praxis of contemporary art in which philosophy, or at least theory and art have become merged. The pictorial space that was born officially born in the Italian Quattrocento with the introduction of the canvas, those close to the revolutions of the Renaissance, still remained a highly conservative notion not only in terms of the demand for realism – that even the Romantics practiced – but also the geometrical uniformity of sources of light. To test the limits of a pictorial space without leaving the margins of painting proper is that Bahraini painter Nasser Al Yousif attempted in his watercolors(*) from 1989, conceived as academic studies on color, texture and balance. It would be a mistake to call these paintings expressionist or abstract, as the painter remains firmly anchored in a tradition in which signifiers are never lost and formal criteria of identity between the painting and its interpretandum are established.

[Rashid Al Khalifa, "Fabric of Society", 2011]

His gesture here is not the sublimity of the gaze, as much as it is a lens – or a microscope – into what color fields would have appeared as in the architectural configuration of unstable spaces. Although the concept of color fields – a technique that has been practiced in Bahrain only by Rashid Al Khalifa and Nasser Al Yousif – is indebted to abstract expressionism, the watercolors of Al Yousif rescind abstraction in such a way that the clear lines of Kandinsky become concave and oblique surfaces that overlap with each other in the manner that a tapestry is woven rather than a lacquered painting. There is an overbearing presence of human limbs-like contours and rough-edged symbolic forms that yet aren’t archetypical or geometrical but somewhat tilted volumes. The small size of these works might be disappointing for the viewer, but that only reinforce their microscopic quality; a lens is necessary to view it properly, but the lens isn’t necessary one of the kind that enlarges images as much as one that expands signifiers until the point they become entirely palpable; this is what takes place in the rest of his paintings.

The random exercise in consciousness or the lack thereof – the myth of a disembodied self which art somehow espoused until Structuralism and that somehow has been inverted now into its total opposite – that established itself as a tour de passage from the symbolic order to the figurative order to the abstract order or that of the Absolute spirit – using Hegelian terminology – is looked upon with suspicion by Al Yousif, safely anchored in a two-fold paradox: The theme of Islamic harmony also inherited from pre-classical art thrives side by side with the doubt over the uncertainty of place and the risk of dislocation that resonates throughout the turbulent and nomadic history of the Arabian Gulf. But the Arab peoples are a consciousness without a body, and in spite of the geo-political facts, this consciousness extends beyond know borders and screams out loud in the soft quarter tones of Al Yousif’s watercolors that somehow resemble the oil paintings of Lebanese artist Mouna Sehnaoui but replacing her symbology with a full display of iconography, as if it were an Acadian syllabary.

These watercolors are often translated into the rich backgrounds that permeate his land paintings as if it were necessary to deconstruct the entire range of formal possibilities in order to arrive again at the cleanest form of presentation that is not representation: Representation – as in classical figurative painting – closes the orders of interpretation of reality, replacing them with the formal principles of art, in a dialectical relationship in which the imaginary and the narrative is absent.  What does Al Yousif do if not represent? What kind of painting it is that refuses to represent?  There is a search for truth here which resembles cartography, the cartography of truth! Not truth conceived as in the Western Thomistic fallacy but in the way that theologian Philip Goodchild proposed: Truth as a shared form of public power. Thus, as a vehicle for memory. Hannah Arendt insisted that it is a fallacy to believe that Truth is a result which comes at the end of a thought-process but rather starts with an experience of truth as both the beginning and a priori of all thinking.  But visual thinking is different because the process – lasting just one second and a lifetime at the same time – requires wholeness and unity of experience rather than broken units; Al Yousif’s cartography maps lands in a way that access is not denied – what usually happens in abstract painting.

The modern transformations of the place of art – and of common relationships between objects and signifiers – are not forgotten in his paintings, but rather, are dealt with in a way that does not accept at face value the rupture between symbols and signs that characterizes modern art and semantics, and this relationship re-emerges in a comprehensive narrative that evaluates critically the transformations of art with the radical openness of the bard that has been silenced nowadays by the contradictory tensions between the Greek model of representation and the aesthetics of silence – or of shock – that characterize contemporary art. There is a land, bleeding itself out of the canvas in greens as in a dance of fabrics coming out of their own margins; this land is not invisible or abstract, it is named being, with faces, with names. His cartography does not recreate maps, but a simple under-title: Bahrain is here. It will not go anywhere. A poem of Dan Pagis has a line that asserts the obvious: “Travel, travel far. You are not permitted to forget.”


(*)Watercolors by Nasser Al Yousif, Color Composition (Sleeping Feline), 17×28 cm; Color Composition #3, 10×18 cm. 1989.

Arie Amaya-Akkermans is a freelance writer & occasional journalist. Story-teller about contemporary art from Lebanon, Turkey and the Arabian Gulf. Half in exile, half at home, always in transit; looking for inverted Odysseys.

The 2nd part of a four part essay about the art of Bahraini artist Nasser AlYousif | At Land II

The MANTLE newsletter

At Land II

Thursday, January 17, 2013

[read Part I]

[Unity, 1982]

“I long to hear the story of your life, which must captivate the ear strangely.”-William Shakespeare, The Tempest

A land is more than a geographical encircling or an extension. Living in an island constantly challenged by the marker, the boundary, the danger of the waters, gives you a better sense of perspective connected to disruption: Islands dispel the myth that surfaces of the earth are continuous and the geometrical idea that extension is infinite. Boundaries transform an encircling into a locality, specificity and entity. But a boundary is human as Julia Kristeva explains: Corporeal inscription is unstable and the body emerges only when we begin to recognize a boundary between “me” and “another”. The new proportion is not geographical but anatomical: Islands as bodies.

A body is a consciousness, a consciousness of the boundary. Bodies of earth, bodies of sand, bodies of soil, bodies of mud. Inundated bodies too. In her experimental film from 1944, At Land, avant-garde filmmaker Maya Deren is metaphorically re-born in mermaid-like form on the waves of a beach in an island (in this case Long Island) and begins a strange journey in the format of a dream, encountering different versions of herself and others, in what is said to be a struggle to maintain personal identity throughout the instability of freedom. A land is also that, a sense of safety. This safety comes not through dwelling alone but through the umbilical cord of communities of memory that are permanently eroded by time.

A short film from Bahrain, Mohammed Bu Ali’s 2009 The Good Omen, poetically narrates the struggle of Mohammed, an old Bahraini fisherman from the island of Muharraq who refuses to part from his old house and cross the bridge into the now modern main island of Bahrain, as he is awaiting the return of his long-departed wife and in the traditional local ritual of the good omen (al-bishara) he hangs the highly elaborate woman’s dress (thobe al-nashal) over the roof of his home as the joyous announcement of the return of a family member after a long absence. In his refusal to cross the bridge – a metaphor for modernity – he is binding himself to the memory of the island rather than letting it become diluted by time. There is a safety of space.

The film opens with the question, “Who would leave the sea and build his house in the desert?” that brings to mind the disappearing fishing huts along the coast of Muharraq documented in recent years by Bahrain-based Lebanese photographer Camille Zakharia. It is also in Muharraq where the painter Nasser Al Yousif stages his childhood memories before crossing into Manama at the age of eight, and the house with a large gate, the wooden cylinders in green and yellow, green and red, and the textures of bamboo and wicker; all of which entered his paintings dealing often with traditional society and architecture, Islamic concepts of harmony, the life of pearl divers and fishermen. The brush of Al Yousif never left the contours of the land, the body of wholes.

A parallel trend emerges here between the young filmmaker and the legendary painter, with the former’s films “Absence” (2008) and the latter’s masterpiece “The Wait” from 1979. Bu Ali’s “Absence” makes a reference to “The Lonely Alone” of celebrated Bahraini poet Qassim Haddad, with a score by the composer Mohammed Haddad who in 2009 collaborated with the poet Ali Abdullah Khalifa in the recital “Washaej”, setting to music some of his poems, in the same way that Al Yousif inscribed onto oil on board a poem of Ali Abdullah Khalifa back in 1968. Haddad and Al Yousif also meet at the intersections of poetry and music, having long established the strong relationship of Al Yousif’s work to folkloric music as broken parables and myths.

[Memories of a Pearl Diver, 1977]

It is Kafka, Al Yousif’s fellow traveler in the grammar of soundless music who best interprets the paintings of the Bahraini master that attempt to grasp the inner life of the land:  “Art flies around truth, but with the definite intention of not getting burnt. Its capacity lies in finding in the dark void a place where the beam of light can be intensely caught, without this having been perceptible before.” It is also the colors of this body, absorbed in the early days of Muharraq and Manama, where Al Yousif’s palette is indefinitely formed: Muds, earths, soils, clays, sands, woods. Those are his basic colors. One is reminded here of Shakespeare’s play “The Tempest”, in which a magician is stranded on an island for twelve years; the painter is that magician, observing life day after day in the way of Monet, but depicting it in the way of ancient frescos, miniatures and murals.

In his watercolor “Memories of a Pearl Diver” (1977), he begins to depict the pearl diver’s longing for home in the dangers of the sea, far away from the marker of territory into a freedom too vertiginous to be controlled and recalls the long pearl hunting trips, often lasting months at a time, and that at the end of the 19th century, long before the oil era, constituted the backbone of the working class economy, risking their lives for the precious keep. The pearl diver is afraid of not returning, as in Bas Ya Bahar (The Cruel Sea, 1972), that little known Kuwaiti film and the first made in the Gulf, in which the young son of an impoverished diver is forbidden to go to the sea by the father, but as he falls in love with a merchant’s daughter he goes into the sea looking for pearls for a dowry and is ultimately killed as she is forced into marriage to an older man.

In picturesque manners that almost resemble comic strips, cut into frames, the painter aims to delineate the land with his brush, and to delineate here means to appropriate rather than to set in free motion. As is for Maya Deren, the painter looks at the barren land of the developing country and finds under the void the true raw materials of the land, and to be at land here is not a question of memory as much as it is a matter of identity. But to have an identity is not really to know who we are, because that privilege is probably barred from this earth, but rather, to establish a community of the future, of the not yet, a community of hope. This is what is achieved in his painting “Hope” (1978) showing the struggle between danger and reconciliation, and the reconciliation comes not from living in the past, but with the past. Be as it might.

But it is difficult to be at home as a painter and even more as a human being. The temptation of exile is given in to easily. Exile is always the unfamiliar territory, the minimal distance, any discontinuous moment, every rupture in the boundary; yet Nasser Al Yousif refuses to be in exile, vehemently, and as a painter he returns to a time that is not past but primeval, a time that speaks in archetypes and basic forms, in the way a child dreams of the world before he has entered the linguistic code, free from abstractions. Like him, the writer Hélène Cixous, resists exile: “Exile makes one fall silent/earth. But I don’t want exile to make silence, I want it to make earth; I want exile, which is generally a producer of silence, extinction of voice, breathlessness, to produce its opposite… I lost Oran. Then I discovered it, white, gold, and dust for eternity in my memory and I never went back. In order to keep it. It became my writing.” The painter wants to make earth.

And a painter that wants to make earth needs to leave a land in order to never forget it. He needs to enter it through the backyard of the text and the brush, to reach a place not susceptible to the dangers of the present while looking at them straight in the eye. The umbilical cord is never broken that way. In his painting “Unity” (1982) he discovers not what is absent now but that was never completely present; the warmth and harmony between the old society that disappeared with the huts and the dancers and the drums. White, gold and dust. It is this memory, primal and timeless, what in words of Hannah Arendt, gives unity and wholeness to their existence. When the dangers appear, the earth leaves no empty spaces, there is an enclosure, and the land becomes a hand that becomes a body that becomes a home. Home never is; it is always becoming.

As Bahrain dissolves into an abstract mass of conurbation, planks of concrete cover the land and shape the earthly palette of memory into vague, very vague soundscapes, confusing memory with the past, and conversation with controversy, the painter Nasser Al Yousif left behind the open text of a contemporary mythology that can be read not as a lamentation but as a museum of the mind in which everything can be touched, everything can be heard, everything can be told. The train of modernity has taken off and his world is to remain unavailable for us but it is up to the viewer to decide how far he wants to travel. As Hungarian philosopher Agnes Heller remarked, “Where are we then at home? Each of us in the world of our self-appointed and shared destiny.”

[Hope, 1978]


Arie Amaya-Akkermans is a freelance writer & occasional journalist. Story-teller about contemporary art from Lebanon, Turkey and the Arabian Gulf. Half in exile, half at home, always in transit; looking for inverted Odysseys.

The 1st part of a four part essay about the art of Bahraini artist Nasser AlYousif | At Land I

At Land I

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

[The Land of Peace, 1979]

“And the lesson is: One does not paint ideas. One does not paint “a subject.” One does not paint water lilies. And in the same way: No writing ideas. There is no subject. There are only mysteries. There are only questions.” –Hélène Cixous

Art history does not designate places or outline maps. What do you see in a map? Coastlines, water depths, or other information of use to navigators.  They serve to create an optic illusion about the world: Space is built strictly along geometrical lines and from here we derive the notion that all space precedes us. “It has always been there”, one would be tempted to say. There was a time when art history mapped certain things of the world; species of spaces, trajectories, traces of physical places. These apparently linear sequences can be easily replaced with dots – moments in time that emerge sometimes simultaneously in different places, defying the traditional notion of geographical mapping.

The question of how space is really configured when we dwell in it isn’t only a metaphysical commodity, but rather, it provides a framework for art and history to occupy a room of their own. French writer Georges Perec asks the obvious: “What does it mean to live in a room? Is it to live in a place to take possession of it? What does possession of a place mean?” And perhaps the answers are not necessarily satisfactory.

For Perec, acquiring or appropriating space is a form of knowledge, a making sense of the world, and one could say also, bridging the gap of the Kantian distinction between knowing the world and having a world. Space appears and manifests in its reality as our gaze travels through it and gives us the optical illusions of distance. In Perec, “The surprise and disappointment of travelling. The illusion of having overcome distance, of having erased time. To be far away.” But he is also audaciously careful to note that, “My spaces are fragile: time is going to wear them away, to destroy them.” The arresting sense of time that we derive from his proposition is a warning for the instability of geography.

When you travel to a country without an established art history that can map the contours of modernity, how does art help you to make sense of the world from that place? If you want to really absorb a place, to take it as a whole in one stare – in the same way one admires paintings, without “reading” – and circumventing the illusion of historical knowledge, one needs to learn how to stare rather than simply seeing things ordered hierarchically and chronologically. Susan Sontag instructs: “A stare is perhaps as far from history, as close to eternity, as contemporary art can get.” Eternity here is not identified with the unrestrained and total consciousness of God but with a distinction between memory and history. In the words of Pierre Nora, “memory as a perpetual actual phenomenon, a bond tying us to the eternal present and history as a mere representation of the past.”

The Kingdom of Bahrain is one of those fragile places where the historical viewpoint only distorts visual possibilities: Even a brief contact with the land will show you the extent to which a map is only an enclosure rather than merely a physical boundary. Whatever is understood as memory in the visual culture of Bahrain is more often than not a strict framework of reference not to the singular ease with which tradition overlaps with lived moments but rather to the enormous burden of an abstract past that needs to be immortalized, memorialized and monumentalized. This dislocation of time finds its shape in the spatial topography of art as a fast-forwarding movement rather than as a self-reenacting remembered present.

A singular exception to this practice is the work of early painter Nasser Al Yousif (1940-2006) who is to be counted among the pioneering figures in the art movement in Bahrain and in the Arabian Gulf. The Muharraq-native artist whom I discovered while researching the early beginnings of art movements in the Gulf region represents what is now absent from the visual culture of the Arabian Gulf and one of the explanations for the cultural crisis that plagues the identity of local artistic production, perhaps not in terms of galleries, collectors and exhibitions but in the making sense of local space (what is one’s own?) and appropriating it, to which Perec refers.  Space in Bahrain remains not only an unstable notion but an unfinished patchwork in which different types of modernities, histories and counter-histories convene chaotically.

Todd Reisz speaks about space and public space when trying to visualize Bahrain:  “Even while it has urbanized, Bahrain has consistently challenged the legitimacy of architecture. Its urban centers remain defiantly stretched out on plains of un-delineated space. Open space is not park or public space. Open space is vastness, non-distinction, void. Bahrain expresses a resistance to fill every void.” Space is not an orientation or horizon of the gaze as much as an amorphous field of ungraspable geometric isonomy.

There’s an obvious question for the visitor to Bahrain: What is it that this island wants to tell us? One is looking for the story-teller. Could it be this building? Could it be that enclave of palms abandoned in a corner between traffic junctions? Could it be the reclaimed land? Is it the void? Walk from Juffair to Adliya on a warm day and interrogate the absent signs. The visual presence is overbearing, geometric and flat. All the lines are clean and clear. No symptoms of history, which is usually rough-edged, circular, humorous and frantic. But Nasser Al Yousif is one of such story-tellers. Words of caution are necessary. Sarah Kofman warns us that: “And so it is not the painting that speaks. A painting does not mean to say anything. Were speaking in fact its aim, it would certainly be inferior to speech and would need to be sublated by language to receive meaning at that. Between the figurative order of the painting and the discursive order of language there exists a gap that nothing can bridge.” Being a story-teller here, as a painter, comes in two different forms; first there is the detective work, second there is the assembling of the signs.

The painter as a detective: Nasser Al Yousif has gone to the coastlines, to the water depths, and he has heard the soundscapes; he has seen what no one else remembers. He has seen the houses, joined to one another by threads of color and form, long before the void began to appear. And then there are the signs. He paints through epiphanies as Hélène Cixous has told us about Monet: “I would like to break your heart with the magnificent calm of a beach safe from man. But I can’t do it. I can only tell it. All I can do is tell the desire. But the painter can break your heart with the epiphany of a sea. There’s a recipe: ‘To really paint the sea, you have to see it every day at every hour and in the same place, to come to know the life in this location.’ That’s Monet. Monet who knows how to paint the sea, how to paint the sameness of the sea.” What is it that the painter is seeing here every day and in the same place? He sees through concrete walls, finds a land sometimes ancestral and sometimes mythical; bathed in green and coated by the traces left in the air by a mirwas and a jahlah.

Even in his later years after he went blind, it was in his linoleum prints – in black and white, and the first of his works that I had the opportunity to see in Bahrain – that he depicted traditional life in the island in the way that music would do it, and to borrow an expression from Adorno, treating the meaningful content of orality and signifying language as if they were broken off parables.

But it was that painting that I eyed in Janabiyah, “The Land of Peace”, hanging from a rather rustic wall in the home of a collector, what opened my eyes to the Bahrain that I had always wanted to see.  Taking a bird’s eye view from above, the neighborhoods of an old Manama unfold in a convex nearness that reflects the nature of a society very closely knit together as if one could hear – from the painting – the interwoven stories that are now silenced in the formal principles of abstract art. The careful observer will notice that the houses are tied to one another in the form of a verse from the Surah Al-Fatiha, the first chapter of the Koran expressing the greatness of God and that plays an essential role in daily prayers, swirling out of the center to form the community.

There’s little doubt that this is a Bahrain that few have had the privilege of seeing and it is not a matter of nostalgia over the loss of the traditional home for the more homogeneous living spaces of modernity, but rather, a radical openness towards what Pier Paolo Pasolini called, the scandalous and revolutionary force of the past. The past is in his paintings, a lived memory, as if it were something one can still hear, and not merely dead historical time but what is most absolutely present: The signs, the loud absent signs. One can almost hear the stories and the drums coming out of the painting in wholes.  Historical paintings, just like historical novels, are no longer what we demand from art, now we demand more, in fact, we demand everything. As Cixous puts it: “I want to take hold of the third person of the present. For me, that is what painting is, the chance to take hold of the third person of the present, the present itself.”

And why would one travel thousands of kms to an island in the Gulf armed with no other navigation maps than some vague indications about its art history to hear the stories of Bahrain from a painting hanging on a rustic wall in a house in Janabiyah? To take hold of a present that is not a historical tense but something concrete: What is present, and what is present, never ends. Or, in the words of Perec, to remember that the earth is a form of writing, a geography of which we had forgotten that we ourselves are the authors.

[Our Green Land, 1977]



Arie Amaya-Akkermans is a freelance writer & occasional journalist. Story-teller about contemporary art from Lebanon, Turkey and the Arabian Gulf. Half in exile, half at home, always in transit; looking for inverted Odysseys.

The Mantle Article | Pure Grammars featuring the work of Bahraini artist Mohammed AlMahdi




Pure Grammars

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

“It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.”-Pablo Picasso

Works of art are not only ensnaring objects of contemplation. Artworks are also ensouled things, to use a metaphor of Agnes Heller. Being “ensouled” as a thing is quite distant from the painting object that Manet discovered in the 19th century. Specific works of art acquire a “personality” so to say, or can be made “human” as Heller explains through a reading of Kant: “If a work of art is also a person, if it is ensouled, then the dignity of works of art can be described in the following way: The work of art is a thing that cannot be used as a mere means, for it is always also used as an end in itself”.

One could argue about the ontological status of things vs. objects without ever coming to a safe conclusion, but it suffices for now to speculate that objects (in painting) refer to self-standing entities that hang somewhat suspended, whereas things form within an ideography that could be very well conceptual, figurative, thematic or aesthetic. Contemporary art loves “things” without having a concrete hierarchy – not even an aesthetic one – to approach them. Yet to become ensouled, artworks demand more than to be contemplated; they must be experienced: The illusion of memory, loss of speech, re-enactment of pain, the contours of joy, the miracles of love.

I know some artworks like this; for example, the exhibition Black and White of Picasso at the Guggenheim and his “Guernica”, or Magritte’s “L’Empire des lumières”. These artworks speak to me with the weight of memory, and the illusion of being suspended in time.  I have not only contemplated them but have also participated in the experience of beauty – symbolic or not – that they emanate from, and this participation – just like participation in reality – demands the experience to be shared with others. These paintings are associated with concrete memories: The desire to travel to New York at a certain time in the fall, a journey to Bahrain, the birthday of a friend, the tragedy of loss.

When works of art become ineffable and inscrutable, we have entered a realm in which the narratives associated with them – for an individual – evaporate and leave only traces to be followed. Art is then experienced not as a configuration of things but as a morphological transformation. In the words of Julia Kristeva: “What is so terrifying about it is that it is so terribly clear and such gladness. If it went on for more than five seconds, the soul could not endure it and must perish.” Is it possible to stare at them directly once again without being protected by the comfort of interpretation? Perhaps not. But the interpretation of art is like the interpretation of dreams: It doesn’t cure; it only prevents madness.

The procedure of the artist is different. He must not be afraid. He must continue staring until the intoxication is ready to flow out into the universe of its own accord. In contemporary art, there is a certain vanity to state that creation departs from dots, lines and planes alone, opening the vaults of consciousness into primal forms and abstractions that are optically irreverent. Yet Picasso is quick to remark: “There is no abstract art. You must always start with something. Afterward you can remove all traces of reality”.  And this is how Bahraini painter Mohammed Al Mahdi has conceived his entire artistic production: Journeying unprotected through hostile and often fading memories.

On July 10th 2007, Bader Jawad Hussain Mubarak, a three-years old toddler vanished from his home in Samaheej, Bahrain, while playing outside. He was last seen by his family at around 1.30 PM and an hour later, disappeared without a trace. The local police began an investigation round-the-clock that lasted for several months, and as late as 2011, although the family had not given up hopes or the constant search and the police continued following leads, no signs or traces of Bader have been found. Simply vanished. The Bahraini painter was so touched by the story that he took on the task to capture the memory of the toddler onto a canvas.

The artist comments: “I was very saddened by the issue and needed to express my feelings so I did a painting with Bader’s photograph taken from a newspaper clipping and I drew symbols representing his mother and family members who are still looking for him”. Is this not a rather crude procedure? One would be tempted to ask. But upon questioning his paintings – And I did that only once, sitting alone for an entire afternoon in the storage room of a gallery in Bahrain – one is compelled to let go. To abandon. To surrender. It becomes necessary to enter the fragmentary universes that are presented to the eye as the drawings of a child, yet intensely charged with melancholy.

The relationship of the painter to children in general and to the child Bader is not born out of coincidence: As a child, he was hit by a speeding car and rested in a hospital bed for a long time, taking on the pleasure of drawing as a pathway to work out his traumatic experience. One can think of Frida Kahlo, struck by a car accident at the age of 18, sitting on her bed and painting through the night; however, as Kahlo’s characters turn crystalline but altogether icy, she circumvents her sense of loss through a process of disassociated selves. Al Mahdi, on the other hand, is an unrestrained topographer of his own life. “Painting is just another way of keeping a diary”, remarks Picasso.

“Childish” painting, mistakenly associated with fantasy and fairy tales, is a recurrent theme in great masters such as Picasso and Chagall, and to a lesser extent, Kandinsky. Picasso painted children from direct observation, leading the way towards symbolic forms that would unabatedly capture the consciousness of the eye without crutches to lead one through. The world of Al Mahdi, on the other hand, though sharing with Picasso the desire to shatter the equilibrium of stable living spaces, is created out of a syntactic imperfection; his own. From Chagall he might have learned the dream-like appearance of rooms and household items, but he allows them to retain their morphological independence from each other, as things.

There’s but little of infantile in painting through childhood memories: They attempt to re-locate the abstract boundaries of the self in a world of fundamental joy and innocence that yet is filled with the content of horror and pain, fear and lust, contingency and luck, without ever forgetting the initial vision. For the contemplating adult, his paintings liken those of the psychotic and the mad: They are unable to recognize the filters of reality and experience it without any of the mediations offered by comfortable interpretations and social norms. It is not possible to enter his paintings as a stranger and walk away from them in the same way. Against flat pastel-white and black backgrounds, lurks the uncertainty.

His acrylics unfold without specific time and location, suspended in a continuum of memory, from which it is impossible to flee into the safety of the historical and the chronological. In an informed essay about Al Mahdi’s painting, Farouk Yusuf explains that in the apparently innocuous images, “The creatures of Mohammed Al Mahdi are [set] as traps, set to capture specific preys”. Life is seen as a continuous re-birth in which the pastel-colored energy bifurcates into both creation and destruction, imploding from all directions. The procedure is at once gloomy, ethereal, ecstatic and mysterious: “His creatures are cut loose and standing apart with the secrets they hold.”

But the painter has placed himself at severe risk. The invasive journey into his memories has gone too far; he cannot return to mere representation and has become a prey of his own trap. Out of this alienation, the canvases speak in sign language and ask for a ransom: They want to bridge a gap between his own discursive orders and those of the contemporary eye in general.

His work is a long series of inscribed quotations from the raw materials of life, in a singular montage in which it is no longer possible to distinguish the source and the destination. “Who knows which waters one will swim through in the future? No one will. And that’s the beauty of it, the beauty of myriads of possibilities”. But the artist doesn’t let go, he clings on forcefully. He wants to keep everything, everything that has already passed, everything that has already happened, the most casual and mysterious things: toys, scraps of paper, voices, fresh air. The pain of forgetting is what fuels his brush with fire, and Picasso comes to his aid: “Everything you can imagine is real.”


Al Mahdi’s most recent work was showcased in 2012 in the group exhibition TAQASIM IV, at Albareh Art Gallery, Bahrain.



Arie Amaya-Akkermans is a freelance writer & occasional journalist. Story-teller about contemporary art from Lebanon, Turkey and the Arabian Gulf. Half in exile, half at home, always in transit; looking for inverted Odysseys.


Artist Hussein Madi Press Coverage

جريدة الوطن   9 يناير 2013 جريدة البلاد 12 يناير جريدة الوسط  19 يناير

Article on on Faika AlHassan’s “Not Entirely Red” Exhibition

Read Article here

AlRawafed Program on AlArabiya Channel Interviewing Artist Mohammed Omar Khalil






Under the Patronage of her Excellency Shaikha Mai Bint Mohammed AlKhalifaAlbareh/abcad cordially invites you to the opening of an exhibition titled

“Harmony” by artists Shaikha Al-Dosari and Noof Al-Refai

on Sunday , 7th of October, 2012 from 7:00 pm- 9:30 at abcad”Harmony” is an exhibition inspired by traditional Gulf as well as old Arabic music. The exhibition space will showcase Contemporary works consisting of paintings as well as installations. Digital screens and Multimedia will be used to play videos of famous musicians and poets as well as rare- edition music. All of this will give the viewer with a Journey of Harmony within the confined space of the gallery.The artists have used recycled materials of old records and musical instruments within the frame of their artworks. The video installations will give a memoir of musicians and poets of the last generation.

The exhibition will run until the 28th of October, 2012

We hope to see you in this exciting exhibition!

abcad = Albareh Centre of Art ,Design and visual culture.

For more information please call 17717707 or email us at