January 2, 2018

Ulafa’a: Reconciliation through the Arts in Bahrain

Ulafa'a team members at the "By the Book" exhibition launch in Bahrain. (Ulafa'a)

Ulafa’a is a Bahraini art collective that flourished in response to the 2011 Bahraini uprising. It was established by Tamadher Al-Fahal and Nada Al-Aradi in 2012 and has grown over time to include other young Bahraini artists. “I am Sunni and my other co-founder is Shia,” said Tamadher, who received a grant from the U.S. Embassy in Bahrain to lead the collective. She is currently a PhD candidate in the United Kingdom at Birmingham City University, where she investigates philosophical approaches in contemporary Islamic design studies.

Bahrain’s art scene has recently experienced significant cutbacks. Bahrain’s Ministry of Culture and Information was reduced to the Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiquities, with a smaller budgetary allocation. Different ministries in Bahrain are experiencing similar budget cuts due to austerity measures and the need to balance fiscal reforms. And besides governmental entities, the youth-led Malja Bahrain, which was a popular venue among young Bahrainis to showcase their artwork, announced it was shutting down just a few days before the new year due to lack of funding.

AGSIW spoke with Tamadher about Ulafa’a, Bahrain’s art scene, and the obstacles young artists from Bahrain encounter.

AGSIW: Tell us more about Ulafa’a.

Tamadher: Ulafa’a is an Arabic term [plural] that describes a group of people who are familiar with each other and possibly share common feelings. Ulafa’a initiative is a reconciliation-through-the-arts project. It was created in 2012 by myself and Nada Al-Aradi. We started with a few artists and grew to include 12 artists from multiple backgrounds in architecture, design, illustration, and photography.

When forming Ulafa’a, I intentionally selected artists that were young and emerging. I was shying away from selecting established artists because Bahrain is small and young artists need opportunities to grow artistically. I received funding from the U.S. Embassy in Bahrain the following year and had this great opportunity to establish a project that is specifically focused on bringing people together through art. After we formed a group of artists, the U.S. Embassy sent us to an intensive workshop in Boston at Brandeis University. Over there, they had a program called “Peacebuilding and the Arts.” It was very informative and helped us grow as a group that seeks peacebuilding through the arts, away from violence. It taught us how to respect each other’s different social and political opinions. This was the first group activity for Ulafa’a. We come from different sects and backgrounds so this was very helpful for us to navigate working together in a more respectful and cooperative manner.

The Ulafa’a team during their intensive “Peacebuilding and the Arts” program at Brandeis University. (Ulafa’a)

AGSIW: Why was Ulafa’a created and who is the intended audience?

Tamadher: The local community in Bahrain, which is affected by political events, is our main audience. Our objective is to create a platform where expression of different opinions is safe. We wish to strengthen the relationship between the different sects through art and the promotion of young artists. We also try to create a collaborative art environment in Bahrain and stress the idea that artists can work with the community and connect with people. We want artists not to live in isolation, but to be engaged with their community and active in their approach.

AGSIW: What distinguishes Ulafa’a’s traveling exhibition “By the Book“?

Tamadher: It is Ulafa’a’s first independent exhibition. The art scene in Bahrain is very limited as you only get a chance to show your work if you are affiliated with an art gallery or if you were working with the Ministry of Culture back then (which has since been turned into an authority). While it is true we started in 2012, we only got to exhibit as a group in 2013. We met once a week for a year, brainstorming for ideas, searching for venues and resources prior to launching any official exhibition. We were very careful with selecting locations for our exhibitions, “By the Book” included, because we wanted to reach segments of the community that are highly affected by political events. Our first venue was in a conservative neighborhood in the town of Al Hidd, which has no apparent interest in the arts; even those interested in the arts would go only to particular art galleries. We targeted mullas and others who are very conservative.

The following Ulafa’a exhibition was at a well-known venue by the beach, in a central area – Bahrain Fort Museum. Ulafa’a also exhibited in a private-owned gallery. “By the Book” started in an artist’s studio. The prominent Bahraini artist Jalal al-Arrayed generously provided us with his space to exhibit. Through “By the Book” we aimed to shed light on social and cultural misconceptions. We specifically wanted to present people with the unwritten rules of the “book,” which are implied by culture. We wanted to test whether people are following the rules of the “book” or bend it and go against it; that is where “By the Book” as a title came from. And what book is that? Is it religious, cultural, or political? Each artist in our collective interpreted this theme differently from his or her personal experiences.

The “By the Book” exhibition traveled to the Birmingham City University’s School of Art after its launch in Bahrain. (Ulafa’a)

AGSIW: How did it become a traveling exhibition?

Tamadher: Birmingham City’s School of Art was very interested in issues of the Middle East and how these issues relate to art. Still, most Middle East exhibitions they held before were more focused on countries that excluded the Gulf. So, I approached them with this idea and “By the Book” became part of the “I am Khaleeji” series.

The art scene within the Gulf has been through a state of flux – typically exposed to Western audiences, and the greater art world, as a strongly diluted stereotypical image of the Middle East. The Gulf’s distinctive art identity remains undervalued. “I am Khaleeji” addresses the misconceptions of the contemporary art scene in the Gulf; it offers an alternative view that is diverse, unique, and vernacular in an attempt to understand its complexity and dynamics.

Visitors attend the opening of the “By the Book” exhibition in Birmingham, United Kingdom. (Ulafa’a)

AGSIW: What challenges do Gulf artists face and what role can the state and governmental organizations play?

Tamadher: Resources are limited, especially in the Bahraini art scene. We once spoke to a governor about what we do at Ulafa’a and later noticed that what governmental organizations try to do is give space for international, established artists. And if they offer such opportunities for Bahrainis, these are usually for a few distinguished artists. Not much attention is given to emerging artists.

Ulafa’a is currently running out of funding. We’re lacking financial support and venues, and by extension, visibility. Even collaborative opportunities for Gulf artists are being scaled down because of the political climate. Access to audiences is another issue for us these days. Art collectives that are based in Qatar, how are they going to be in touch with people in Bahrain and elsewhere in the Gulf?

To see more of Ulafa’a’s work, visit the website or follow Ulafa’a on Twitter.

Mai Al-Farhan is a research associate at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.