Beirut Air Fair opened its doors to visitors from July 5th through the 8th, held at the Beirut International Exhibition and Leisure Center; entering its third year, the fair has become an absolute must destination for art collectors and buyers in the art world, looking for the most interesting developments in Middle Eastern art. Beirut Art Fair is the only venue entirely dedicated to contemporary art from the larger Middle East – unlike art fairs in Dubai and Doha that have a global showcase – and affords visitors the opportunity to see contemporary art from the Gulf, together with artists from the rest of the region.
As it is generally the case with Middle Eastern art, the Lebanese presence was overwhelming with over twenty galleries representing local artists, Gulf artists were present with prestigious galleries such as Jeddah’s Al Mohtaraf and Dubai’s Tashkeel; it is however rare to see art from Bahrain displayed in such international venues and yet this time Maria Vivero’s ArtBahrain.Org was present with a selection of paintings from Bahraini artist Rashid Al Khalifa’s exhibition “Reflection”. The exhibition opened initially on January 30th at the Bahrain Financial Harbor Fine Arts Gallery and was open to the public from January 31st to March 30th.
In “Reflection”, Al Khalifa’s fifteen works explore and investigate mirror-like chrome surfaces on convex stretchers rather than flat canvas, with complex color fields that reflect the environment and invite to participate rather than simply contemplate. In the words of the artist: “Once the viewer is face to face with the artwork, it breaks down the barriers; it becomes a journeying encounter like a free-flowing sense of interaction – a glance of the real, a starting point, waiting to be followed through, allowing the viewer to do the completing, the reflection of the self.”
This series reflects the artist’s unfinished contemporaneity, bringing together forty years of painting with the necessity to transform and redefine self-reflection and the subjective expression of art overall, and posing the question – through the chrome – of the ambivalence between the real and the imaginary worlds. A careful examination of Rashid Al Khalifa’s oeuvre however reveals the long journey that has led him to abstraction and field color. Born in 1952 and trained in the art in the United Kingdom, his early works showed the influence of Realism, impressionism and abstract painting that he had learned in England with European masters.
In the 1970’s he turned to figurative painting of landscapes and anatomical compositions with pastoral themes – a counter-trend of Arab artists educated in the West – and in the 1990’s Individualism begins to appear in his work with more reflective two-dimensional canvas, suggesting rather than representing. What is interesting is how one of the most interesting painters in the Arab world has remained relatively unknown, seldom exhibited outside of Bahrain and whose works have never been reported to be in Western auction houses and catalogs.
It was only in 2011 when he presented at Bahrain National Museum his exhibit “Convex” covering works from the period 2001-2011 and that according to the artists, grew out of “accidents” in landscapes and portraits – which still appear in his two hundred and something entire production and with some Romantic influence that can be hardly called Oriental – that his work caught the attention of the international market. This series offered a first installment of what would be seen later in “Reflections”: Convex stretchers that give images a three-dimensional quality in which the view comes close rather than distant as in flat canvas.
As with many other distinguished artists, the turn to abstraction was somewhat accidental and reflects on the historical and thematic progression of his work throughout the years. Whether this painting is more Middle Eastern or European, he is comfortable saying that every artist has its own background, displaying a typically contemporary attitude in which there are no longer schools or themes in art – regional or otherwise – but individual styles. “Convex” and “Reflection”, while falling in line with contemporary art practices in the West that aim to re-contextualize art, appear still highly crafted and appeal to a traditional gallery public.
During the vernissage in Bahrain, a number of pieces from “Reflection” caught the attention of the public, such as “Do you see anything?”, “Going Alone”, “Fragmented” and “Fabric of Society”. Beirut Art Fair is only the first of different international fairs and exhibitions to showcase Al Khalifa’s work in 2012 and 2013, not to mention his upcoming solo exhibit at Gagosian Gallery in New York during 2013. Additionally, his work will be now represented also by well-known dealer Leila Heller who was among the very first art dealers to present artworks from the Middle East in prestigious galleries in the West.
Heller was introduced to Al Khalifa’s work during “Convex” at the Bahrain National Museum and has since then called his work “aesthetically intriguing and complex”. According to British journalist Godfrey Barker, Rashid Al Khalifa’s work is one of the Gulf’s best-kept secrets and is considered by Canvas magazine, “close to the top of contemporary Arab achievement.” In 2011 he spoke to Barker about his technique: “My aim is to open up hidden depths and movements in the paint. If the effect demands it, I may then add extra layers in small or large areas and build up the surface.”