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Middle East



Recently this writer had the privilege to interview Shaikh Rashid bin Khalifa al Khalifa of Bahrain. The interview was arranged by a mutual friend, Laura Stewart, as the Shaikh’s work will be making a rare appearance in America this autumn at the Worldwide Art Fair in Los Angeles, at the Los Angeles Convention Center between October 16 and October 19, 2014. It is to an American, a novelty to speak to a Shaikh, who in addition to Ministerial and business obligations, is also prolific contemporary artist. And leaving this novelty aside, most contemporary painters, whether from East or West, are not as good as this one.

Interview shaik 2Rashid Al Khalifa, Pulse IX (2006), 90 x 90 cm. Oil on convex canvas

Originally sent to study fine art in the U.K. in the late 1960s, at the encouragement of the late Emir, Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa, who admired his work at the tender age of his 16, Rashid al Khalifa’s artistic output has spanned a 40-plus year career.

Interview shaik 3Rashid Al Khalifa, Fragmented Abstraction II (1997) 68 x 80 cm. Oil on canvas

In examining his paintings, one sees the evolution of Khalifa’s innate ability in an evolution that began with realistic landscapes, progressed to figurative works, to a period in which he fused both landscape and figural works into increasingly abstract pieces, to his most recent work, in which he has mastered a reduction of a fine compositional and color sense into geometric abstracts on chrome or aluminum convex frames.

Interview shaik 4Rashid Al Khalifa at work on his convex series at his studio in Bahrain

These latest works, unique, and deceptively simple, are on inspection, painted with carefully measured brushwork and are nearly sculptural in appearance.

Interview shaik 5Rashid Al Khalifa, An Homage to Fragmented Abstraction III, 2007, 168 x 168 cm. Oil on canvas

Khalifa’s breakthrough and experimentation in work on first convex canvas and then convex metal resulted from his love of architecture and design and his desire to overcome the limitation of the traditional two-dimensional canvas.

Interview shaik 6Rashid Al Khalifa, Metamorphosis II, (1996), 96.5 x 96.5 cm, Oil on canvas

The early convex works of the late 1990s and through the first decade of this century are explosions of fauve-esque oil on stretched canvases mounted on large convex frames.

Interview shaik 7Rashid Al Khalifa at work.

The appeal to this writer of this period is the evanescent nature of the pictures which seem to shimmer in a transitory state, not quite visually congealed, and therefore mesmerizing to ponder in varying light.

Interview shaik 8Rashid Al Khalifa, Pulse IV. (2003), 90 x 90 cm, Oil on convex canvas

I asked Khalifa if he had ever watched science fiction, and its depiction of “event horizons” or “singularities,” as that is what sprung to mind as I searched for an apt metaphor, and he said he had not.

Interview shaik 9Rashid Al Khalifa, A Fusion of Hues in Blue, Orange and Pink II (2007), 195 x193 cm, Oil on canvas

For this alone, these images work, as they force the view to stop, consider and think. As a pointed contrast, I would have walked past Tracy Emin’s “bed” installation, which recently sold for a huge amount of money, and thought, “What the hell is that doing here?”

Interview shaik 11Rashid Al Khalifa, Fragmented Figures III (2008), 115 x 90 cm, oil on canvas

Conversely, Khalifa’s work achieves the opposite reaction from this viewer and its impact is considerable, all the more impressive as while it looks effortless, its tonality and compositions work. Khalifa explained this “behind the curtain” accomplishment by explaining that he paints in layers, often mixes oil and acrylic paint, and then scrapes at various portions of the pictures in a reductive process until they achieve the right look. Easier said than done.

Interview shaik 12Rashid Al Khalifa, Untitled (2013), Oil and acrylic on convex canvas

In addition to being a painter, Khalifa is a warmly appreciated patron of the arts in the small Kingdom of Bahrain, the founder of the island’s Bahrain Art Society and presently its Honorary President and is both well-respected and admired in Bahrain and indeed across the Gulf for his support for the thriving artistic community there.

Interview shaik 13Rashid Al Khalifa at right touring Art Dubai, March 2014

To this end he is currently working on a project in which he is creating a non-profit, called ab with a mission to create a venue for artists to gather. The project he hopes will include artist studios and workshops, a research facility, a cafe and a space for the free and frank exchange of ideas amongst artists and art professionals from Bahrain and abroad.

His work has been exhibited over the years in an impressive list of both group and solo exhibitions in Europe, Africa, Asia and the Middle East. His work has hung at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C.; Leighton House, London U.K; at the Salon des Artistes Francais at the Grand Palaise, Paris, France; the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin, Ireland and at UNESCO headquarters.
In the past year, his work was selected for an impressive show at the Royal Academy of Arts in Moscow, at a selectively curated show of Arab Modernists at CAP Kuwait (Contemporary Arts Platform) and at the Zurich art fair in October of 2013, where he exhibited with an Italian artist, Ernesto Liccardo. In addition to work that hangs in the many different restaurants and public areas at the sprawling Ritz Carlton, Bahrain, Khalifa was commissioned to paint works for the Four Seasons Hotel on Park Lane in London, and was chosen to represent the Gulf region in a commissioned project that was auctioned for charity in concert with the recent auction of the contents of the storied Hotel Bristol in Paris.

Obviously, Khalifa has many responsibilities to his Country and his business concerns, but as one looks at his work, one wishes he was free to pursue his obvious vocation more often, as he is on to something, and something that is not “light fare” but worthy of consideration in a global context. When asked to name some of the artist’s that inspire him, he demurred, saying that he paints straight from the heart. But for an evocation of his work for the Western reader, one might venture comparisons to earlier.

Expressionist masters such as Jackson Pollock - especially in his use of car paint and enamel and when he striates his paint in a carefully considered “drip” technique on metal. Other analogies that spring to mind are Khalifa’s figurative works, that especially in their march towards abstraction echo de Kooning, and his unerring tonality in the darker masses in his convex abstractions bring to mind the profound and exquisitely difficult to achieve color field master, Mark Rothko. Engaging and obviously passionate about art, I thoroughly enjoyed my conversation with Shaikh Rashid, and although he, excuse the pun, “brushed off” my comparisons of his work to some of the aforementioned masters, I told him that to this usually more caustic critic, this was no bad thing.

Interview shaik 14Rashid Al Khalifa, Fabric of Society, 150 x 150 cm. oil on canvas

What one sometimes forgets in the context of our Western-centric art world is that it is perhaps not that Khalifa minds being compared to artists of exceptional talent and acclaim, it is that for one who is both a private man, and one who is correctly proud of the artistic and cultural heritage of his part of the world, the attempt by most art critics, this writer included, to translate the visual to the verbal by evoking comparisons to only Western Modernists is to misunderstand the immense talent and impact of art both ancient and avant-garde that is perhaps finally getting its due on the international stage.

Interview shaik 15Rashid Al Khalifa, Untitled

Interview shaik 16Rashid Al Khalifa. Total Eclipse II

You may also like to read:

* Bahrain’s “Renaissance Man” Rashid Al Khalifa

* A Message to the West - From a Thoughtful and Passionate Messenger from the East

* Treasures From India Jewels From The Al-Thani Collection, Metropolitan Museum Of Art

* Ancestral Arabia : Assyrian Culture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

* Sheikha Al-Thani Kicks Off The SATUC Cup, In London

About the Author

Robert Alexander Boyle

Robert Alexander Boyle

 Alexander Boyle is a graduate of Trinity College, Hartford, CT where he majored in History. Prior to graduation he co-authored the seminal book Acid Rain in 1983. Alex has worked for the Metropo...