A graduate of two of New York’s premiere arts institutions – the Parsons School of Design and the International Center of Photography’s documentary program – Ghada Khunji recently returned to her native Bahrain after many years ensconced in the Big Apple. A tough transition? Well, it was not without its challenges. However, she’s uniquely placed to judge design in the region, and retains one foot in the east and one in the west. Eloquent in the extreme, any art or design-themed essay from her is going to be enlightening and entertaining. Our most recent was no exception.
“The 70s in our region; mostly focusing on Bahrain, was a time of fascinating architecture. One can still see the remaining facades of buildings from that era and that are quite unique. Sadly, most are being demolished and replaced with copy / paste housing high-rises. Buildings that are there to cheaply facilitate as opposed to fascinate.
Yet, I have to admit that in my years of living in New York, the same has been happening there. The days of intricate brownstone buildings are being replaced with sheet rock rooms that can be deconstructed easily. Whether it’s the Old Souk in Bahrain or the little intimate stores in Soho that have now been replaced by robotically molded shopping malls.
In my opinion, Bahrain has had a much longer yet slower journey of design values; whereas other Gulf States – such as Dubai and Qatar – were mostly barren back then and only recently boomed through the super-highway of design.
When I left for college in the 80s the Gulf States, including Bahrain, were still relying on the influences of the West when it came to design. From fashion and Top of the Pops music charts of London, to the latest hairstyles of Beirut.
In the past decade or so the Gulf States, thanks to an amazing jumpstart by Dubai, have focused their money “in land” – if you get my point. Instead of merely visiting other countries and being influenced by the West, they transported the West to the East. Starting with architecture / infrastructure and now through to art and design as well. The Lego generation of building started and sprung up as quickly as Las Vegas.
Yet, we still had to bring in foreigners to head the jobs; mimicking what was being done in the West. What was missing – yet hopefully will change with time – is using our own local people to forefront our taste.
One problem is, only recently have our parents started to agree that studying art and design is worthwhile. Back in the day, we were told that we should study business, law or medicine. The newer generations are now starting to fill these necessary spaces that lacked in our society before bringing a fresher outlook to what Gulf art and design can be.
In Bahrain, we have been very fortunate to have Sheikha Mai Al Khalifa whom, under the umbrella of The Sheikh Ibrahim Center, has been beautifully and intricately preserving our heritage by restoring old houses that give one the essence of what architecture and homes looked like in our history. One example is these homes possessed wind towers to help cool the house when air conditioning did not exist.
Last year, I was chosen to be a part of an initiative called 15/15.
Although I am predominantly a photographer, it inspired me to go back in time and create a piece solely based on the memory of the place that was chosen for me. Within the House of Poetry I made a huge “bisht” inspired piece (shown below) that not only reflected the essence of who Ibrahim Al Arrayed was as a noted poet, but I also infused the the idea of the material tarps that hang in the Souk to keep the sun from glaring down.
I learned so much from being in New York for so many years, yet, upon returning to my homeland of Bahrain, I opened my eyes to how my own region can influence and reflect my art in a differently personal way.
For another installation I made, BABA & MAMI (shown below), I reminisced about my late grandfather – a pearl merchant. I asked my family to donate their used abayas and thobes to construct two enormous sails; one black made of cut and reconstructed abayas and the other of white reconstructed thobes. Playing not only with male and female, black and white, but also the importance of the pearling industry in Bahrain.
It was returning home that brought these ideas out; if I had remained in New York I’m not sure this twist of fate would have manifested.
My point is that history recycles, and the more knowledge and experience we get from others helps us mold into who we become. So, it’s important to learn from the masters; whether they are from the West or elsewhere, but one must also infuse their own culture to fully make it your own. In my case, I am fusing what I experienced in New York as well as my soul as a Bahraini.
One can inspire society by easing our way in. As much as my family has supported me for the photographs I’ve taken and loved them, nothing moved them as much as the two installation pieces I mentioned above; because they now saw something that was a part of them and their custom yet presented in such a unique and different way. I am not trying to impose my western values on them yet to use and infuse the knowledge I gained abroad to make art that reflects the here and now.
I can’t particularly chose one place in this region or the World that is getting “design right” at the moment. We have been so overwhelmed with possibilities since technology has advanced. For example; every other person claims to be a photographer thanks to mobile phones. People are forgetting that art and design take years to be cultivated. Obstacles create necessity and not the opposite; we can’t trust the latest technologically advanced camera to choose our shots; we need to see first otherwise we are creating mass amounts of virtually blind shots. So, really what its still comes down to is the person making the art itself that makes one stand out from the bunch.
The current generation of designers have been given more of an opportunity because one no longer has to travel abroad to study and learn from the best; the internet brings it to them.
There is no longer the excuse that you ar e better off by going there and studying such and such. It’s the will of the individual the determines the rest. Google has become an open source of knowledge and visuality.
It’s time to look within and around our own societies and culture to get inspired and not just rely on the West. It’s more about Arabisation than re-Arabisation of design, and a lot of regional artist’s are moving forward and accomplishing that.
We are now taste worthy and have our own messages and subtleties that make us uniquely Arab. What’s important is to think globally; be a Leonardo Da Vinci; a master of many thoughts and gestures and also not to just focus on such a thing as an Arab theme or so-called Middle Eastern Art.
My home is my temple; almost literally. It houses and encompasses furniture, art and objects from all over the World; collected over the years. Most of my furniture is recycled old furniture from my mother and father’s house; sculptures and art that I found on my travels to India, Africa and elsewhere; even pieces that people discarded outside in my Brooklyn neighborhood as garbage! I even have my dog’s ashes next to a painting my friend did of him.
My closet is filled with outfits that reflect many different regions of the World. One day I look Spanish, the next day, Arab, then perhaps, Indian or New Yorker.
In one’s personal space there should not be ground rules. Surround yourself with what makes you happy. My house is a multi religious and multi-faceted journey of the lifetime I’ve had; what has made me who I am today. It’s a museum of my soul.”