Bahrain,

Piecing Together the Past

Writer

Sophie Chamas

Photographer

Eman Ali

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As an artist, Zakharia has spent his entire career almost obsessively documenting his everyday life, referring to himself in one interview as a ‘photographer of the mundane’. ‘How many times in our lives do we meet Marilyn Monroe?’ he responds, when asked about his artistic approach. ‘We have to celebrate the everyday,’ he elaborates. ‘As a photographer I don’t aspire to photograph Clinton in order to embellish my life. For me, living is about celebrating the beautiful things around you.’

Zakharia was 12 years old when he got his first camera and developed an almost immediate interest in documentation, despite not being familiar with the artistic concept at the time. Photography began as a very private practice for the artist. It was something he did for himself, building a visual diary of his surroundings. When he left Lebanon and began his life in self-imposed exile, the camera journeyed with him like a faithful sidekick, mapping his journey and leaving a trail of photographic breadcrumbs to trace the chronology of his displacement.

Photographic collage allows Zakharia to piece together seemingly unconnected moments from his existential repertoire without feeling the need to force cohesion, linearity or meaning. He is able to review disjointed memories preserved by his camera’s lens, and meditate on the surreal sensation of displacement that has haunted him for decades. ‘I’m not trying to prove anything,’ he explains, ‘I’m just exploring.’

‘Cultivate Your Garden’, for example, takes its name from the final words spoken by the optimistic Candide in the famed satire by 18th century philosopher Voltaire. Like much of his work, Zakharia’s photographic response to Candide’s conclusion reflects the tragedy of the displaced and unsettled, who are deprived of yet stubbornly seek their own garden to plant physical and visceral roots in, or at the very least, attempt to create a collage of soils to call incorporeal home.

‘I left Lebanon at the height of the Civil War, so in a way I ran away from it,’ Zakharia explains. ‘It was so difficult to live under those conditions.’ After an academic stint in New York, nostalgia set in, only to be extinguished by a disappointing return to a country the artist still felt wasn’t ready to receive him. He bounced around, moving from Turkey to Greece, Bahrain and later Canada, edging farther and farther away from his native Lebanon. ‘The longer you stay away, the less likely it becomes to return,’ he says.
‘You get used to a certain lifestyle and you become part of other places.’ He recalls participating in an exhibition at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in 2001. ‘I asked myself: what are the countries that live inside me? The answer was Canada, Lebanon and Bahrain. I shuffle them around and consider them home, but I feel less likely to settle in Lebanon again.’

Bahrain does feel like home, Zakharia reflects. ‘I know almost everyone who is involved in the art scene. I feel welcome. I feel supported, and I have carried out beautiful projects rooted in Bahrain that have gotten excellent exposure.’ He built his dark room almost immediately after returning from Canada and resumed work on a project he had started there in 1999. After a few years he caught the attention of organisations like the British Council and Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar, and soon found himself exhibiting prolifically throughout the region. Bahrain might not be the first country to spring to mind when the global, let alone the regional, art scene is mentioned, but it is a platform-in-progress, the artist explains. ‘The country has a substantial number of galleries and art societies that are supportive of young artists and emerging talent.’ It might not be evolving at the same pace, but there is undeniable movement in Bahrain’s art and culture sphere.

In 2010, Bahrain made its debut at the Venice Architecture Biennale, featuring work by Zakharia among other artists. He was asked to document the country’s dilapidated coastline as part of ‘Reclaim Bahrain’. Zakharia travelled once again to Venice with Bahrain this year for La Biennale di Venezia, participating in ‘In A World of Your Own’, commissioned by the Ministry of Culture and curated by Melissa Enders-Bhatia. The exhibition invited artists ‘from Bahrain’ to engage with the themes of identity and belonging within the context of a country subject to accelerated modernisation and a continuous influx of expatriates.

For the exhibition, Zakharia created ‘C/O’, a large-scale collage the artist describes as ‘a wall in memory form’. Drawing on his collection of over 20,000 photos of Bahrain, Zakharia presents, without explicit comment or polemic, a non-linear visual history of the transformations he has witnessed over the last several decades, trying to create something holistic out of the fragments of his chronically interrupted existence. ‘I love telling stories through collage,’ he says. ‘Breaking down images that were taken for different reasons and using them to recreate a story allows me to discover inner creativities I didn’t know existed.’ ‘C/O’ is a continuation of a dialogue on identity that the artist began decades ago. A few months prior to the Biennale, at Art Dubai, he presented ‘Belonging’, for which he created photographic collages of expatriates in Bahrain and set them against detailed murals from the country, punctuated with statements they each made on what it means to belong.

How did the Lebanese-Canadian Zakharia feel when he was asked to participate in Bahrain’s national pavilion with just two other artists? ‘I was very honoured to be invited. The curator thought I fitted regardless of whether or not I hold a Bahraini passport. I interpreted “my world” as that of someone who left his parents at 17. My world is all these places and these people that I have come across in these 30 plus years. I created a world of my own at the pavilion. Is it Bahraini? No. Does it have to be? I’m not sure.’

Zakharia photographs the circumstances of his life, searching for commonalities between the many places he has periodically inhabited that can help him feel grounded, comfortable and, however mildly, at home. A friend once asked him why he is so fascinated by Muharraq in Bahrain. The country’s third largest city and former capital is known for its historical low-rise houses designed in the traditional Arab-Gulf style, narrow streets and tight alleys. When Zakharia’s friend saw his photos of Tripoli in Lebanon, where the artist grew up, he understood. The similarities in form and feel were hard to overlook. ‘I try to approach my subjects with full objectivity,’ Zakharia elaborates. He fossilises moments that capture his fleeting attention, allowing the thread between Lebanon, Canada and Bahrain to manifest naturally through his ever-growing transnational archive. ‘I’ve been moving around for a while between different places. Although I haven’t been photographing anything “hot”, I feel like my portfolio is a good archive for someone who has shared the same experiences. My work touches people who have lived through similar conditions, who can relate to this notion of movement. If they ask what it’s like to live a normal life but away, moving from one place to another, they can say, “it feels like this guy’s images.”’

This article appears in the issue41Buy Now