In an effort to unite the many colours, sights and sounds of Bahrain’s buzzing Adliya district, a local gallery hosted the Alwan 338 contemporary arts festival.
Alwan (meaning colours in Arabic) was presented by the Al Riwaq Art Space with the aim to ‘unite everyone and celebrate our differences’ says Sara Kanoo, the gallery manager. ‘We just wanted to get people excited about something.’
The idea began when Bohemia, a restaurant in the Adliya district was set to be taken over and demolished and the Al Riwaq team stepped in. They decided to borrow it and use it as an alternative exhibition space for a showcase of more than 20 various Bahraini artists’ work entitled I Am the Other. From there, says Kanoo, things just evolved.
Simultaneously, Al Riwaq held an exhibition called Al Mahata, which turned the Adliya-based gallery into ‘the station’ with a busy pseudo-train installation created by Egyptian artist Mohamed Sharkawy and Bahraini artist Waheed Malullah, designed to reflect the philosophy that we are all ‘passengers through life’.
These two exhibition spaces are based in a pedestrianised neighbourhood known by its area code Block 338, which has, over the past few years, become a lively area. So next, they involved some of the surrounding restaurants who agreed to allow their facades to be used as live canvasses for visiting artists to paint murals and use varying techniques – the Alwan 338 festival was borne.
Over the course of a month, Kanoo said she wanted to actively engage passers-by and upgrade the whole walking atmosphere of the neighbourhood.
Kanoo, who is a trained architect, also designed a pop-up park – dubbed simply, The Park – which they used to highlight a range of Bahraini talent in the form of film screenings and live concerts, as well as hold open classes in disciplines such as sound art, street art intervention, stencils and silk screening, and animation for kids – to name a few.
The Park also featured a library and food stalls serving traditional Bahraini snacks such as bajilla and mahyawa with chai.
Visitors were able to relax at The Park at any time in the day or night on chairs constructed of tyres, using tables made of road signs and admiring flowering plants growing in old plastic bottles hanging from rudimentary wooden frames. ‘What we were trying to do is show creativity in mundane things,’ Kanoo explains. ‘We’re trying to open people’s eyes in Bahrain and create a nice place for people to interact. Not necessarily a very posh place – just somewhere where everyone feels comfortable going to.’
Kanoo is now thinking of making the festival an annual event. ‘This whole project is celebrating the organic spreading of neighbourhoods in Adliya and you can’t find that in a lot of places in the Gulf.
‘We want to celebrate what we have,’ she adds. ‘We don’t really like the culture of importing ideas and goods. Ideas wise we would like to start from within and that’s the whole idea with the park, the festival, with Bahraini artists and pride in Bahrain, but I don’t think it should be stagnant. Just use whatever is old and modernise it, as old is gold. That’s what we’re trying to put across.’
Although the centre goes on hiatus for the summer, Bahraini visitors and residents alike can expect regular exhibitions and film screenings, as well as book signings and artist residencies. At the beginning of June in particular, Al Riwaq will exhibit the colourful works of Egyptian-born, Bahrain-raised, Canadian-educated artist Perryhan El Ahsmawi. On top of this, the notable Market 338 with its quirky artisan stalls and impressive acts from across the region and indeed the world will start up again in October.
As she outlines Al Riwaq’s plans and aspirations, Kanoo expresses concern about Bahrain’s contemporary arts scene: ‘We don’t have much appreciation for culture here and we don’t have much funding. We’re smaller [than other Gulf countries] but I think we’re realer and more genuine.
‘Basically, we want to show Bahrain that you do have talent, you just need to work on it. If you neglect your talent it can’t grow.’
Photography: Courtesy of Al Riwaq Art Space