Bahrain recently won the top prize at the Venice Architecture Biennale. Murray Garrard caught up with Camille Zakharia, the inspiration behind the award-winning exhibition
Time Out Bahrain Staff
Those looking for proof that Bahrain’s cultural scene is becoming a global phenomenon need not look very far. The increase in the number of galleries and artists in the kingdom might be indicative. The sudden UNESCO attention might signify just that. But the fact that Bahrain recently won one of the most prestigious prizes in architecture would clinch it. And it wasn’t for the turbines on the World Trade Centre.
The Venice Biennale is one of the world’s most prestigious art and architecture events. Barbara Hepworth showed there. As did John Constable and Edward Hopper. Two decades ago Anish Kapoor thrilled those in attendance, and in the last three sessions, Steve McQueen, Tracey Emin and Gilbert & George headed the British Pavilion. Low key, Venice Biennale is not.
So when Bahrain on its first attempt won the coveted Golden Lion this summer, the world woke up and took note. The Minister of Culture, Sheikha Mai bint Mohammad Al Khalifa, was elected chairperson of the prestigious World Heritage Committee. And around the world hoards of culture fans, many of whom could not before have pointed to Bahrain on a map, began to blog about the country.
The huge success of Bahrain’s fist ever pavilion at the Biennale started with a local photographer and architect with the backing of Bahrain’s government. Lebanon-born Camille Zakharia is well known to those close to the art world. A regular at the Elham Art events, his exhibition at Bin Matar House earlier this year went down a storm. Indeed, he has become such a part of the cultural landscape of the country that he was chosen to drive the inspiration behind the pavilion.
‘I started not knowing what I was looking for, but my objective was to photograph the Bahrain coastline. I started with the places that appeal to me the most, those places that have a degree of ambiguity, places which you don’t know where they stand in terms of their position with reclamation, with all the development and the issues of accessibility. And I found all of these huts, let’s say fishermen’s hut, but these are amateur fishermen. They are basically places where people meet at the end of the day. They don’t want to go to the shopping malls. They don’t want this generic way of life that everyone is adopting.’
And so he began to photograph the wooden promenades that stud the coastline of Bahrain, under the umbrella title of ‘Coastal Promenade’. The further he searched, the more he found. The more he found, the more he searched for relics of Bahrain’s long and laudable relationship with the sea. By the end of the month, he had over 1,400 images.
The theme of the Venice Biennale this year was ‘People Meet in Architecture’. And as soon Harry Gugger, the man appointed to realise the pavilion, saw the images he knew he could create a stir.
Gugger recently said, ‘It was our ambition to create a pleasant and intriguing place where people would naturally want to hang out and rest, and where they eventually would effortlessly get informed about a fundamental topic of Bahrain’s culture and heritage, the crucial but vulnerable relationship with the sea. Having been dismantled in Bahrain and resurrected at the Arsenale in the exact same way, the shacks talk of another interesting topic, architecture without Architects.’
The three reassembled fishermen’s huts, along with 32 of Zakharia’s images and the work of a documentary filmmaker were all housed together in Venice and awaited judgement. One of the startling surprises in Bahrain’s contribution to the Biennale was the fact that the project was devoid of big names. Indeed, contrary to most country pavilions, there were no names at all.
Bahraini architect Noura Al-Sayeh, the curator of the pavilion and the driving force behind the decision to represent Bahrain at the Biennale recently wrote of the project: ‘The much-publicised urban transformations have been radical in their reshaping of the urban form. Nowhere is it more apparent than along the coastline, where 80 years of accumulative land reclamation have significantly transformed the urban form. An island nation once completely dependent on the sea, through its fishing and pearling activities, has today nearly turned its back on it. Nearly, albeit for the high-rises competing for a postcard view of the sea and a few disseminated fishermen’s huts searching for a slice of sea along the temporary coastline.’
The judges were in agreement, and in a collective statement, said: ‘Given the range of vast urban developments that the Kingdom of Bahrain could have been tempted to include in this exhibition, the jury was impressed by the choice, instead, of a lucid and forceful self-analysis of the nation’s relationship with its rapidly changing coastline. Here transient forms of architecture are presented as devices for reclaiming the sea as a form of public space.’
The awarding of the Golden Lion was a foregone conclusion and Bahrain, one of the first Arab countries to ever have a pavilion, became the region’s first Golden Lion winner. Camille Zakharia is adamant that the prize signifies a turning point in the world of architecture. ‘It’s about people – these buildings are not about architecture, it is about people and they are the architecture. This is where people get together and are close to nature.’ Residents of Dubai, read this and weep. The Biennale exhibition runs in Venice, Italy until November 21. If you can’t travel, join us in lobbying for the exhibition to be brought to Bahrain for celebrations at the end of the year. For more information about the Venice Biennale, the Golden Lion and Bahrain’s winning pavilion, visit www.labiennale.org/en.