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21 October 2012
3 November 2012
9:00am to 1:00pm
4:00pm to 7:00pm

Premonition – Or The Lion

Mariam Haji is an artist of many talents and hidden meanings. Working in multiple media, ranging from photography and video to installation and performance, 2012 has been the year where the artist has challenged herself in her favorite medium – drawing and painting. From ‘The Muse’ series, which was exhibited at the Bahrain National Museum and won the Al Dana Prize in the Annual Fine Arts Exhibition, to an exhibition of small pencil drawings of common Bahrainis, Mariam Haji is reaching a new milestone in her art practice with ‘Premonition,’ two larger than life paintings in oil on canvas.

Both in scale, each painting over four meters high and five and six meters wide respectively, and subject matter, a Renaissance aesthetic informs the ‘Premonition’ series. The ten meter high walls of the Bin Matar House give the current exhibition space a spiritual and imposing aura, similar to large governmental or religious edifices of the Renaissance. Haji’s canvases with their larger than life depictions simultaneously envelope and overwhelm the viewer, asking for the gaze to be cast upward. Similar to the practice of many artists of the Renaissance period, Mariam Haji’s works are based on extensive observation and detailed studies. The artist did numerous preparatory studies of the body positions of wrestlers engaged in fighting as well as lions in their natural habitat in order to arrive at successful naturalistic compositions. The studies were then carefully combined and transferred onto the much larger canvases artworks. Executed by the artist while standing on meter-high scaffolding, the paintings were produced through multiple applications of layers of oil paint to achieve the desired colors and effects.

A highly developed draftsmanship allows Haji to depict her ideas in an almost photorealistic manner. However, to interpret her artwork literally would be to miss the point. Hidden beneath are deeper symbolic and personal meanings.

‘Premonition’ continues themes that have preoccupied the artist previously. Haji’s work is strongly autobiographical and she figures personally in many of her works. A personal struggle lies at the bottom of much of artist’s work, and this can relate to gender, social expectations and spirituality.

As in ‘The Muse’ series, here too this conflict is embodied in the form of an animal. A long-standing literary and artistic tradition uses animals to depict the other in us, the primal, the uncontrollable, the unpredictable. In ‘Premonition,’ both artworks feature a lion. In the first painting, the artist is seen struggling with a lion and in the second the lion is being struck down by light. The image of the lion has traditionally been imbued with a high degree of symbolic significance. Representing strength, nobility, courage and determination, the symbol of the lion was historically often used in royal insignia. Likewise, the image of the lion fighting with man has a longstanding iconography. Whether we consider the ancient Greek myth of Hercules vanquishing the Nemean lion or the Biblical story Daniel being thrown into the lion’s den, facing a lion represents the ultimate test for man. In her artworks, Mariam Haji turns many of these associations on their head. While women in Renaissance art were depicted frequently as either the Virgin Mary or a sensual goddess in the form of Venus, ‘Premonition’ turns the female figure from an object of adoration or desire into a confrontational mortal character. The lion, the male symbol of strength and superiority, is locked in combat with a serious rival. In the second painting, the lion is struck by light. The meaning of this work is more elusive and open to interpretation. It could represent a vision of hope, an offer of redemption through spiritual enlightenment.

Melissa Enders-Bhatia
Curator, Shaikh Ebrahim Center