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The newly renovated, fresh appearance of the four storey house in the district of Adliya in Bahrain's capital Manama, that is now the permanent home of Al Riwaq Art Space belies the history of the gallery. Al Riwaq was founded by Bayan Kanoo back in 1998 and has morphed its way through various sites, spaces and approaches in programming. In 2004 Al Riwaq expanded in operation and started to focus on bringing culture to the community by hosting workshops and arranging artist residencies. In 2009 another major step was taken when the gallery opened in a new space in the Al Aali Shopping Complex, one of the most prestigious and luxurious malls in Bahrain. While the integration of a non-profit cultural entity into a mall sounds like an odd juxtaposition, the physical space was praised by collaborating curators for its open plan of 650m², as well as immediate access to a diverse and expansive audience. Exhibitions started to become more dynamic and international to include The Ultimate Experience curated by Cairo's Townhouse director William Wells in collaboration with Mayssa Fattouh of Al Riwaq and a collaboration with Istanbul's Garanti Galeri to present the multimedia project Becoming Istanbul. But, the most important development for Al Riwaq's future as a major cultural player in the region took place over the course of 2009, as the building in Adliya began to take shape and eventually opened its doors in November of the same year with a solo exhibition of one of Bahrain's most celebrated contemporary artists Waheeda Malullah.
During the building's renovation in 2009, a conversation was initiated between the Curatorial Committee of the Artist Pension Trust (APT) Dubai  and Al Riwaq about presenting works by artists participating in the trust at the then forthcoming Adliya space. We, the Curatorial Committee, had been attempting to realise a series of exhibitions that would activate the collection's existence and bring artist's works out of their various storage facilities to be presented in spaces that would benefit from such an opportunity. The first exhibition I worked on that was inspired by the APT collection was Collection Dubai (2009), which took place at Smart Project Space in Amsterdam and included works that focused on practices of collecting. Following this, we concluded that rather than choose works from the collection for each presentation, by means of a theme or the committee member's preferences, we would instead propose a broad range of works and artistic practices to the local audience and ask for their help in making a final list of works to show, based on what it felt interesting and relevant to install in the context. Such a creative process, we hoped, would incorporate the audience's tastes, interests and respond to relevant cultural issues in order to make the working experience and final exhibition locally engaged.
This was the process that took place at Al Riwaq. In November 2009 I held a two day workshop with a group of around twenty young artists and the staff of Al Riwaq, during which over 100 works on video and slide were presented. Based on the group's responses and certain themes and interests that dominated the workshop conversation - such as issues of land reclamation, the speed of urban development in the region and most specifically, in terms of Al Riwaq's success at engaging the local audience, the need to present works that could provoke a strong reaction – a short-list started to take shape, which would eventually make up the core element of an exhibition planned for Al Riwaq in the spring.
The resulting exhibition, As the land expands opened on March 2nd 2010, with works by fifteen artists and a series of additional video screenings. A number of the art works in the exhibition deal with issues of national branding and claims on land that include the potential for land reclamation as referred to in the title. For example, the work Epuration elective (Arabic version, 2010) by Fayçal Baghriche is a chart of all the world flags in alphabetical order, but represented only by their stars, bringing them together in one space and image. Another work that involves the symbolic nature of flags is Mounir Fatmi’s G8 The Brooms (2004). In this sculpture the flags of each of the G8 countries become mere adornments for regular wooden brooms, suggesting on the one hand the decision making power these nations have over others, but also questioning the real position of their status. Mounira Al Solh’s video Paris without a Sea (2007), presents a series of interviews with men who live in Beirut and yet leave the land everyday by swimming out from the Corniche - a gesture perhaps of escape or a desire to move beyond a given boundary.
To expand our selection options during the workshop we had divulged a little from the trust's collection to look at other works by artists participating in APT Dubai. This further research resulted in the inclusion of an entire installation by Fahrettin Örenli that he came to install site-specifically and which focuses on amongst other things water and oil movement and ownership throughout the region. The work Red Zone (a car cover made from Kaffiyeh) by Mohammed that helped extend the exhibition out onto the street, an important act for Al Riwaq as the area aims to host a community atmosphere, but the gallery still needs to create links between its activities and the daily potential audience, who at the moment come to Adliya to eat out at the many neighbouring restaurants. Basim Magdy’s bilboard Last Good Deed (2009) was also shown outside the space and the accompanying posters and his video Turtles all the way down (2009), were added to further the exhibition's exploration of ideas of land expansion, as his works look to outer-space and by extension raise questions related to religious belief and our expectations of what exists beyond the world we inhabit.
The exhibition opened with an air of energy and anticipation, both for the work on display, and for what else is to come at Al Riwaq Art Space. During the days we were installing Lebanese media artist and sound performer Tarek Atoui was in residence hosting a sound workshop with local children that was due to climax in a street performance outside the gallery. A few weeks earlier Egyptian artist Wael Shawky was in town also working with children, and preparing for a solo presentation of his own work for the next project in the gallery's programme. With so many diverse and complex activities taking place in order to draw people to Al Riwaq, the center's ambitions of helping to generate a more varied appreciation of culture and of encouraging a new generation of creative talent in Bahrain appears to be even more on goal now that they are settled in their new, street-friendly location.
Associate Director of Programs and Research at SALT, Istanbul, Turkey.
As The Land Expands
2 March - 15 April 2010
Can Altay, Fayçal Baghriche, Osman Bozkurt, Shezad Dawood, Mounir Fatmi, Mariam Haji, Basim Magdy, Randa Mirza, Mohamed, Huma Mulji, Rana El Nemr, Fahrettin Örenli, Güclü Öztekin, Mounira Al Solh, Miha Strukelj; with video screenings by artists including Köken Ergun, Ciprian Muresan, Wael Shawky and Erzen Shkololli.
An exhibition inspired by the collection of the Artist Pension Trust, Dubai
Organised by November Paynter in collaboration with Al Riwaq