When at a meeting with artists in Dubai, we mentioned that we were traveling to Bahrain they said that we absolutely must meet Anas Al-Shaikh. His name came up again during the first seminar lecture in the Bahrain-Assilah Culture Forum. The speaker, Balqees Fakhro, pointed to Al-Shaikh’s work as an exceptional example of a new artistic approach in Bahrain. The following day, we met him in the Al Riwaq gallery for a long and extremely interesting talk.
"The most important thing for me as an Arab person in the Islamic world is the observation that in many fields such as politics, human rights, and democracy, we are not progressing. We don’t seem able to produce a new culture or a new art. I am therefore trying to establish a dialogue with ourselves, with our ego." He is interested in "… how to focus on certain things in an artistic way, how to use the new media to express ourselves, our ideas, our problems, and our confusion, under which we are suffering most. … Everyone has his own ideas and doesn't respect those of the others, only wants to do what he believes in, thinking that the reality is with himself only and not with the others. So in my art, I try to discuss all these things. I think that we should first look at ourselves for the cause of the problems, before making others responsible for them. … the most important thing is to find out how we can ourselves change our lives. If we want to make some progress in this direction, then we need more democracy and belief in human rights, rather than in the fact that all the others are our enemies. Everyone has his own beliefs, his own culture; the question is how to communicate these cultures and how to reach the best for all, through them. I am trying to experiment with these things myself in my work."
Anas Al-Shaikh told us that a two-dimensional media such as painting did not suffice to the realization of his ideas. This could be related to the fact that he has studied architecture and stage design, and is more attracted to spatially conceived works through which he can relate different perspectives to the public. He explained to us in more detail what he means and how he reaches the public, on the base of photos and videos of the installation "Memory of Memories", so far his most complex piece.
It came together in 2001, in a garage in Al Gudaibiya, one of the older and poorer districts of the capital Manama. The inhabitants are mostly people from different nationalities, with only few Bahraini people. For two years, he had regularly parked his car near there, when he was in that area and had noticed this space, the atmosphere of which reminded him of the house in Saudi-Arabia, in which he lived as a child with his family.
The installation combines Anas Al-Shaikh’s childhood and youth memories with most recent events of history that have been recorded in collective memory such as the war between Iraq and Iran, the invasion of Iraq in Kuwait, and the first Gulf war. "Concerning many things that take place in our region, we act as spectators instead of getting the strength together to articulate a change ourselves". Explaining the large photograph on the back wall with geometric shapes relating to a target, he went into further detail: "The image reflects our situation in the Arab world. There is an authority looming above us – be it a local ruler or a power from outside the region – to give us orders. We are always being told what to do. On the photos, the men follow with the movement of their arms the military commands '1 2 3 up ... down ...'. I am saying that we are told what we have to think and see, what we are allowed to say, and what we should believe in. We are not allowed to develop our own abilities, visions, or thoughts, or to decide for ourselves what we believe in." (More details in the zoom versions of the photos).
We were very interested in the reactions to his work. Anas told us that he had a nice and uncomplicated relationship with the "ordinary" people from the neighborhood. They had come to the garage out of pure curiosity, without ever imagining that they were visiting an art exhibition. Some liked what they saw; others found it strange, but respected him for doing this kind of thing in their popular area. In contrast, many colleagues and experts from the art scene recognized his intentions, but basically rejected video and installation art, acknowledging the value of painting and sculpture only.
Anas Al-Shaikh sets the start of his work as an installation artist in 1994, when he was the only one in Bahrain. He therefore has tried to encourage younger artists in his country to be more open and experimental. Together with them, he has looked at and discussed projects by other artists in books, catalogues, and on the Internet. In 2002, he organized the first group exhibition for installation art at the Bahrain Contemporary Art Society, with the participation of only four artists. In 2003, the exhibition included already nine artists and the show planned for the end of 2004 will be larger yet.
Amongst the various ideas that Anas Al-Shaikh wishes to realize in the near future is the organization of international, interdisciplinary workshops on art and the new media: the first is to be called "Dialog with the Ego", and the second "Dialog with the Other".
Pat Binder & Gerhard Haupt
Publishers of Universes in Universe - Worlds of Art and of Nafas Art Magazine. Based in Berlin, Germany.