As a young girl growing up in Bahrain, Amal Khalaf wanted to become a detective. Armed with her mother’s camera and a sound recorder, she engaged in a kind of sonic espionage, documenting everything from the minutiae of city life to her parents’ social gatherings. Of this early archival impulse she muses, ‘I guess I’m some kind of memory hoarder. It was some weird relationship I had, viewing the world through lenses. I think that’s why I initially wanted to do film.’ Along with drawings, Betamax videotapes and a prolific diary habit, these images and photos would come to form a crazily bricolaged document of a Manama childhood.
Fridays were spent at her grandmother’s house in the cacophonous Manama souk, nestled in between gold jewellers. ‘You would have the smells of whatever metal they were soldering,’ she remembers. ‘That’s the smell of Bibi’s house, that’s the smell of my Friday. It was such a different Manama, such a different Bahrain.’
Old and run-down, the house was a world away from the posh houses of her classmates, whose families had mostly traded in their ancestral family homes for luxury villas elsewhere in the country. As a child, she resented having to go there every week, though today she maintains the tradition whenever she is in Bahrain.
Coming from a very active leftist family, Khalaf’s interest in the intimations of class would become a natural extension. Yet as a half-Singaporean half-Bahraini – her parents were penpals for 7 years – fraught questions of citizenship and belonging were central. ‘It was a big thing for me, not being considered fully Bahraini, or Bahraini at all. I did get some kind of chip on my shoulder.’
Most recently, these issues have resurfaced in Khalaf’s work in the art collective GCC, and its tongue-in-cheek mimetic plays on bureaucratic spaces, gender and patriarchy in the Gulf. All of its members are Gulf Arabs, and while they draw from a collective memory ‘bank of ideas, images, and environments,’ they each have very different relationships to the questions at hand. ‘For me, as a half-Singaporean, Asian-looking woman, dressing up as a sheikh means something different to me than it might to other members of the collective dressing up as a sheikh.’
Following her film and documentary undergrad at Leeds, Khalaf interned at the BBC. It coincided with the beginning of the Iraq war, and she helped them translate the daily rushes coming in – which had been riddled with errors – and was soon hired. Initially, it felt like her dream career. Her father wanted her to become a human rights lawyer, and she says her activist family was crucial in shaping her decisions about the kinds of things she wanted to do. ‘It was always “let’s save the world” and I was like “oh yes! I’m going to be a war reporter and tell everyone about all the terrible things happening in the world!”’
Realising the TV industry wasn’t for her, she learnt of a German filmmaker in the Sinai Peninsula who needed a translator, and jumped at the opportunity. Khalaf would soon quit the project – ‘filming Bedouins from afar’ – but stayed in the area for another six months. It was an idyllic time, living the hippie beach life in a commune with huts and no electricity.
Khalaf got to know the tribe well and worked on a number of projects with them, including photographing desert plants for a local medicine doctor’s book. She later moved to Cairo to work at the Townhouse Gallery, which, along with a stint at Al Riwaq Art Space in Bahrain, was her first interfacing with the regional art world.
‘It was a huge time for me. I was just starting to realise that there are people producing things in the Gulf – up until 2004 to 2005 I couldn’t even really define the kind of work I was doing in my film and images.’
Upon returning to London in 2007 for a master’s in Visual Cultures at Goldsmiths, she dove right into the local art scene. She initially wanted to run a film programme, which morphed into Hold and Freight, a project space located under an old Victorian arch on an abandoned railway line.
‘That’s when I really started to define myself and what my role would be if I was going to work in the art world. It wouldn’t be about making exhibitions alone, and it would be to work with artists invested in a similar kind of politics to me.’
Khalaf’s current gig, the Serpentine Galleries’ Edgware Road Project at the Centre for Possible Studies (CPS), came as a welcome relief. The project bypasses the art world’s standardised structures and exhibition timelines. ‘There’s such a rich history that’s often hidden from official archives. It’s amazing that I’m able to spend enough time in the neighbourhood and to discover some of the less documented stories of this very special street.‘
As part of the Edgware Road Project, artist commissions commit to questions and explore them for three months to five years, which has also allowed Khalaf a deeper understanding of the road.
‘I have my favourite spots, Shishawi being one of them. I got to know the shisha place through researching cafés and buildings on a block of the Edgware Road with artist collective CAMP and discovered an amazing history – Shishawi was once a newsreel theatre during WWII and eventually was taken over by an Egyptian businessman who imported chicken from Brazil to Sharjah in the 1980s and made millions. He eventually turned it into an Arabic cinema and then a lucrative Arabic nightclub called Al Rimal.’
Recently, Khalaf has begun working on Theatre of the Oppressed workshops with asylum seekers, and is writing a book on the moving image in Cairo. Collaboration remains crucial to everything she does, be it with the Edgware Road Project or in her own life.
‘I’m a curator but I see myself as a producer or organiser in the same way. It’s tough for me to do things as an individual – I like the exchange part of everything I do. I can’t imagine myself just doing art or being a researcher all the time.’
In the future, she would love to set up her own space once again, ‘most probably in the Gulf. I don’t know when, but it’s something I’d really like to do, and it’s always something I’m going to want to do.’
This article can be found in Brownbook’s November/December 2014 Issue.
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