‘When I realised The Oprah Winfrey Show had ended after 25 years, which was as long as I’d lived in New York, I knew it was time to leave. I’d done everything I needed to do there, and it was time to go home,’ explains Bahraini documentary photographer Ghada Khunji, who recently resettled in a familial compound, built by her relatives on land they inherited from her grandfather two decades ago. ‘We’re located in the Manama neighbourhood of Adliya. I like to call it the SoHo of Bahrain. It’s central to everything.’
On the third floor of one of these relatively unspectacular and uniform structures, Ghada fashioned herself a penthouse. ‘You open this wooden door and go up three flights of stairs to get to me. It’s worth the walk though, because I’ve turned the stairway into a mini gallery full of art pieces. As you’re climbing up and losing your breath, at least you have something lovely to look at.’ She’s had the apartment for many years, despite living in New York, patiently adding to it with every visit, slowly creating a space fit for a worldly homebody.
‘I wanted a little bit of New York in Bahrain,’ she says of the penthouse layout, ‘although it isn’t something Arabs are traditionally used to. I designed my space with windows all over the place and this open feeling, like a New York loft where the kitchen is in the living room.’
Unusually modest in height for a penthouse, Ghada’s apartment provided her with a panoramic view, something that she had longed for as a resident of Brooklyn. ‘In New York, I could only see the Manhattan skyline from my roof. Here, it’s a much lower level, and I get to be up close with the palm trees and sunset, without being obstructed by buildings. It’s like being in a hot air balloon. The lighting is immaculate. I could never choose between Manama and New York. I need both, the penthouse and the view.’
Only a few of the items in Ghada’s apartment were purchased by her. She chose, instead, to populate her living space with objects discovered gathering dust in relatives’ homes or buried in their attics, some with clear backstories, others with unknown origins. Alongside these ‘treasures’, she scatters memorabilia from her childhood and knick-knacks picked up during travels abroad, crafting an interior composed of reupholstered sofas, high school trophies and mannequin heads – an island of seemingly random misfit toys that, to Ghada, make up a nonlinear narrative of her life journey. ‘It’s become my own personal museum.’
‘At any given moment a corner might ask for something, and I never know what I’m going to find during my travels.’ She recalls a trip to photograph the Bedouin of Oman’s Wahiba Sands. ‘The area turned out to be very touristic so I didn’t take any photos. I did buy this heavy pillow though, full of desert sand. Everybody who comes over hates it, but it means something to me. It’s a little piece of history. I can’t just buy things in a store.’
From her childhood dining table, which has found a new life as her computer desk, to the stacks of books left behind by her grandfather that she now uses as a stool, Ghada’s home is dominated by items that might not possess much retail value, but have a deep, personal resonance.
By transforming her apartment into a shrine of family history and personal experiences, Ghada’s objects offer a series of clues about the nature of life in Manama decades and even centuries ago, such as a small compass that acts as a reminder to her grandfather’s days as a pearl merchant. However the photographer doesn’t see her apartment as a haven for ‘Bahraini’, but rather, ‘Khunji’ and her mother’s family heritage.
‘We didn’t think about being Bahraini or Arab or Khaleeji while growing up. When I went to college in 1985 I didn’t even have a notion of what Arab art or heritage was. If you look at my work today there is nothing “Khaleeji” about it. We knew the dhows and pearls belonged to us, but the memories I personally held onto were things like having one of the first TVs in the country, or those egg chairs that opened up.’
When in Bahrain and not wandering the souks of Manama or Muharraq, buying chai for 100 fils from hole in the wall coffee shops, Ghada can probably be found in her apartment, touching up photos or listening to Michael Jackson. She spends most of her time at home in her study, a space she jokingly labels ‘narcissistic’, because ‘every corner has a bit of me.’ The walls are coated with her degrees and lined with her photographic work, she explains.
‘There’s a lot of stuff in here that reminds me of who I am, and that it wasn’t easy growing up but I kind of did it. I wonder what people would think though, coming into my study and seeing a huge portrait – my favourite – of a school girl who only allowed me one shot and feels like a reflection of my youth, two Michael Jackson figurines, a mannequin head with a gas mask and Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan squeaky toys,’ Ghada says, laughing.
This article can be found in Brownbook’s September/October 2014 Issue.
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