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DOCUMENTING MUHARRAQ

11 December 2011
24 December 2011
Time
9:00am to 1:00pm
4:00pm to 7:00pm
Artists
- Anasuya Kesavan
- Asma Jassim Murad
- Deborah Allen
- Eman Ali
- Ghassan Chemali
- Haya Isa Al Khalifa
- Malek Nass
- Mark Anthony Sarmiento
- Marwa Rashid Al Khalifa
- Rasha Yousif

A photographic exploration of Muharraq at the turn of the 21st century “Seeing in other ways, we see other things.
Heinrich Wölfflin, Principles of Art History, 1915

It is with this famous line that the seminal German art historian and historiographer Heinrich Wölfflin drew attention to the power of the visual arts to influence how we see and perceive our surroundings. From its inception, photography in particular has had a dichotomous relation to objective reality. The early photographers in the mid 19th century used the newly discovered medium to document archaeological discoveries in the Near East and Egypt or the wilderness of the American West and progress of the American Civil War. However, photographers like Julia Cameron already played with the medium’s artistic possibilities in the 1890s. Using blurry images and clearly staged settings, she created strongly romanticized portraits of her friends and acquaintances, drawing attention to the artistic possibilities of the medium of photography. And while documentary photographs are often used as primary historical documents, scholars are increasingly drawing attention to the underlying personal perspective and world view of the respective photographer in shaping the choice of subject matter and framing of individual images. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but while we scan any writer’s words for autobiographical elements, so too we must be aware of the individual creative potential within each photograph. In the current digital age, this insight gains additional significance with the ability of images to be altered after the fact and we can no longer be sure of the veracity of what is seen in images.

Capturing the moment for eternity
It is true that we tend to take for granted what we have. The beauty that surrounds us and many details of daily life may go unnoticed. It is the unique power of photography to capture a moment and preserve it in our memory. And it is only with the passage of time that its significance and also its ability to shape our consciousness emerges. Such is the case with the images of early 20th century Paris by Eugène Atget or the images by photographer Dorothea Lange of farm and migrant workers during the Great Depression in 1930s America. These iconic images come to define our perception of whole generations and time periods. In the current age of instant access to unlimited amount of information, the power of the image is only strengthened.

Documenting Muharraq
What picture, then, emerges from the present exhibition of contemporary Muharraq? With its narrow alleyways, souqs and traditional Bahraini architecture, Muharraq is generally known as an archetypical Islamic town. However, in recent years the urban landscape in Muharraq has undergone tremendous change. Large scale land reclamation and construction projects are altering the coastline and traditional structure of the town. At the same time smaller historical  restoration projects attempt to preserve Muharraq’s architecture, history and culture. The mandate of the workshop that underlies the current exhibition at the Bin Matar House was to shed light on Muharraq at the turn of the 21st century, venturing beyond obvious and stereotypical imagery. The workshop was led by prominent photographer Camille Zakharia. A highly achieved artist and photographer, Camille Zakharia guided and encouraged each participant to find his or her unique vision and discover a Muharraq before unseen. The images at hand then are no accidental snapshot, but the products of photographers in search of images capturing their individual point of view, their vision, rooted in the reality of the environment presented by Muharraq.

Mark Anthony Sarmiento’s images take us on a journey through Muharraq’s new residential architecture. Caught in ominous isolation, the buildings’ striking colors and patterns reveal a hidden formal and almost abstract beauty. This is in strong contrast to the construction sites captured by Deborah Allen. With a strong sense for composition and a touch of humor, Allen highlights the environmental impact and strange contradictions inherent in the land reclamations and building projects in Muharraq. Ghassan Chemali’s photographs draw attention to another side of the ongoing building process that Muharraq is undergoing by focusing on the spontaneous use of otherwise random open spaces. In the photographs of two tiny island off the southern coast of Muharraq, Halat Al Neaim and Halat Al Sletah, Marwa Rashid Al Khalifa depicts a microcosm of Bahraini island life. Idyllic in their quaint streets, palm trees and mosques, these two islands have also been strongly affected by land reclamation and government housing projects built on their land. In contrast to these images caught on precious and delicate Polaroid film stand Malek Nass’s sweeping panoramas of the coastline of Muharraq. Stunning in their sheer size and the vista they capture, Nass’s images show a view of the Bahraini seafront which is rarely seen. Haya Isa Al Khalifa and Rasha Yousif show us two opposing views of Muharraq: one from above and one from the ground. The rooftop photographs and street images of casual passers bye reassuringly capture the daily aspect of life in Muharraq with a strong eye for color and composition. Male youth groups form the subject matter of Eman Ali’s series of photographs. Her use of flash highlights the sense of voyeurism inherent in the nighttime photographs. In strong contrast stand the two other portfolios focusing on social aspects in Muharraq. Asma Murad’s images of informal women gatherings depict a very fundamental aspect of social life in Muharraq that is nevertheless hardly ever captured on film. Anasuya Kesavan’s images of the celebration of Hiya Biya on the eve of Eid Al Adha emanate a similar warmth and social cohesion, pointing to a future full of hope and promise.

What emerges from this selection of photographs is an image of a Muharraq undergoing rapid modernization and urban expansion. Yet, time-honored social customs and forms of interaction seem to remain and form a backbone of Muharraqi society. With the passage of time, this photographic portrait of Muharraq will become part of the island’s visually recorded history and the images themselves precious documents of a moment in time. However, is it also clear that this current exhibition represents but one of many possible portraits of Muharraq and there is no such thing as an objective reality. The world contains all possible views and it is through our choice of what we see that we create our own realities.