I spot a large, charcoal wall drawing of a woman’s face with the words “Art Will Survive” scrawled across in bold red. The legend is repeated in Arabic, French, and surprisingly, in Hindi. I’m peeking through the glass walls of Al Riwaq Art Space in Bahrain’s bohemian quarter of Adliya, which is choc-a-bloc with cool boutiques, ritzy restaurants, and has art around every corner. While the building still stands, Al Riwaq shuttered its popular exhibition space and café last year, but art continues to survive elsewhere.
When thinking of contemporary art, Bahrain may not be the first destination that springs to mind. Yet this tiny Middle Eastern kingdom has an emerging art scene that deserves attention. With dedicated art galleries showcasing both local and international talent, and the annual Art Bahrain Across Borders (ArtBAB) event held every March, there’s never been a better time for art enthusiasts visiting Bahrain.
I begin my art trail in Adliya at La Fontaine Centre for Contemporary Art housed in a sprawling, 19th-century traditional Bahraini house. Its central courtyard, surrounded by high-ceilinged rooms, makes for the perfect exhibition and event space. It also houses a spa and a café, where I meet Fatima Alireza, the director of La Fontaine. “I have to feel the artist, and their work should fit in with the aesthetic of this space,” she says when talking of the collection that she personally curates from an eclectic line-up of international artists. La Fontaine currently has an exhibition of stunning mixed media installations by Turkish sculptor, Ali Abayoglu.
Another gallery worth checking out is Ella Art Gallery, also in Adliya. It exhibits the figurative and abstract artworks of its founder, Ella Prakash. Indian-origin Prakash has a permanent collection in Southern Nevada Museum of Fine Art in Las Vegas and her colourful, vibrant works have been exhibited around the world. Her art find expression not just on canvas but also on fashion accessories; her Ella Impressions brand has a range of scarves, shoes, handbags, and ties. The nearby Albareh Art Gallery, is also a must-stop. Exhibitions here include paintings, photography, and sculptures, usually by new and undiscovered talents of the Middle East.
Adliya is, in fact, the creative district of Bahrain where art is not restricted to galleries but also splashed on walls. I wander the labyrinthine alleys of Block 338 with my guide Zahra (a talented sketch artist herself), as she points out murals and graffiti. A black-and-white, Aztec-patterned rendition of butterfly wings catches my eye. The style is zentangle, a technique of creating complicated art pieces using repetitive, geometric shapes and lines, and done by an artist who goes by @nariman8_8 on Instagram. A little ahead, my view of a striking mural of a hijab-clad woman with a cat on her head by Bashayer Al-Mahdi is partly blocked by a huge SUV parked in front of it; there really ought to be a law against this sort of inconsiderate parking. Hijab and wings form the key elements of another large mural set on a bright red metal sheet propped up against a compound wall. I notice that many of the street artists are women, who are using their work to talk about freedom and gender politics (though Bahrain is decidedly more liberal than its Gulf neighbours).
About half an hour away, Muharraq, the old capital of Bahrain has emerged as one of the newest art spaces. A walk along this self-guided trail that showcases the country’s centuries-old pearl diving tradition, takes you to 15 buildings, including shops, storehouses and former homes of pearl divers and merchants (pearlingpath.bh). Many of the traditional homes are now design and exhibition spaces. One such is the House of Art, part of the Shaikh Ebrahim Centre, which has a small contemporary art exhibition, and a collection of stunning black-and-white images of Muharraq’s old houses—once grand mansions now crumbling under the weight of time.
Gulf Air has direct flights to Manama from various Indian cities. Other carriers also have regular flights, both direct and with one or more stops at a Middle Eastern gateway city. Apply for an e-visa at evisa.gov.bh; a single-entry, 14-day visa costs BHD9/Rs1,700.
The Downtown Rotana has well-appointed rooms with stunning city views (rotana.com; doubles from BHD55/Rs10,000).
The Juffair Grand Hotel is a boutique hotel with spacious, recently refurbished rooms (thejuffairgrand.com; doubles from BHD35/Rs6500)
ArtBAB, Bahrain’s international art fair and a recent addition to its cultural calendar, showcases local and international galleries, as well as independent artists, and is a great place to discover Middle Eastern contemporary art. It’s held in early March at the Bahrain International Exhibition & Convention Centre; artbab.com
La Fontaine Centre for Contemporary Art; 92 Hoora Avenue, Manama; lafontaineartcentre.net
Ella Art Gallery; Avenue 3, Tubli; ellagallery.com
Albareh Art Gallery; Building 38, Road 3601, Area 336; albareh.com
House of Art; Muharraq; shaikhebrahimcenter.org/en/houses/house-of-art
Street art in Block 338, Adliya