Since the beginning of time, Arab women have unified families, grounding them with the pillars of faith and community. Now, marking the historic reunification of the GCC countries, royals from Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE come together for the first time in four years, in our February issue, to show their people – and the world – that they are one. Below, meet HE Sheikha Hala bint Mohammed Al Khalifa, who is mentoring young minds and nurturing the arts scene as Bahrain’s Director General of the Culture and Arts.
Having trained as an artist since the age of 10, immersed in a household that celebrated Bahrain’s heritage and Arab contemporary art, it is no wonder HE Sheikha Hala bint Mohammed Al Khalifa was appointed the island nation’s Director General of the Culture and Arts. Prior to the 2017 diplomatic crisis that alienated Qatar from Bahrain and its Gulf neighbors, her career flourished in Doha, where she was appointed the head of education at the Museum of Islamic Art in 2008. In 2015, she cut the ribbon on the Fire Station Artist in Residence project that encompassed the two things she is most passionate about: art and education.
Her Fire Station project endures, continuing to foster burgeoning artistic talent who benefit from the production aid, mentorships, and curatorial support the contemporary institute provides. “Unity is key. It will most definitely open new ways to collaborate and strengthen growth in the region and for our economy,” states Her Excellency. “The opportunity is always in the people, no matter what the natural resources are. When people grow and flourish, so do economies.”
Elsewhere, the multimedia artist lets her art do the talking. The mother of two teens still sketches in her home studio daily and has garnered international attention for her cathartic works that have been acquired by Mathaf Museum in Doha, the National Museum in Bahrain, the Saudi Art Council, and the Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts. She studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University in Boston and later pursued a master’s degree in fine arts at the Slade School of Fine Art in London. Inspired by motherhood, which she says was one of the most challenging transitions in her life, she unfurled Fragment of Memories, a collection of oil paintings that depicts the female form and the depths of human emotion that arose from a raw, personal place. “I am a mother first, before an artist. And when I had my children, I didn’t have any outside help. I wanted to experience everything on my own without support in the home,” she recalls. During lockdown, she painted Grotesque, a giant painting that came to life in one of the most uncertain times in history. “These colors and shapes belong to a deep, dark place; an urgency to be translated from thoughts to images and symbols that forced their way out from my subconscious,” she writes.
Today, working alongside her mother, HE Sheikha Mai Bint Mohammed Al Khalifa, who serves as president of the Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiquities, the 45-year old Sheikha Hala has made several contributions to her country’s evolving art scene. She also teaches at the University of Bahrain and her love for working with young minds is tantamount to her passion for her art. Since assuming a government role, Sheikha Hala has championed initiatives that educate through art in a playful and interesting manner. She launched an Artist in School program that inserts local artists as educators in public schools, giving children the opportunity to engage with inspirational figures outside of their environment. Food is Culture is another creative project, where chefs and artists work together. “My work allows me to branch out into many new projects, and it is an honor and a pleasure to be part of this prestigious and dynamic institution,” she shares.
Her passion as a government official has largely been fueled by her family and her country’s rich history. Once part of the larger region of Dilmun, whose lush garden paradise is said to have been the inspiration for the biblical Garden of Eden, Bahrain’s artist landscape took off in the 20th century, producing artists such as Abdullah Al Muharraqi, Ahmed Baqer, and Abdul Rahim Sharif. The Sheikha’s great grandfather Shaikh Ebrahim bin Mohammed Al Khalifa was a leader in the fields of education, culture, and the social sciences. From his majlis in Muharraq, he corresponded with leading figures all over the world in search of knowledge and enlightenment and hosted weekly debates on matters of culture, philosophy, and the arts. Her mother, a major proponent of Bahraini history and culture in modern times, was the first to pick up on Sheikha Hala’s natural acumen for drawing and painting and even hired a Spanish art tutor to train her in a classical fashion, painting still lifes and landscapes. “It was my mother who noticed my drawings and gave me a great deal of encouragement. She saw talent and because of her belief in my skills, I continued to work. She was my first audience and with her words of encouragement and guidance, I was able to continue and flourish.” Looking ahead, Sheikha Hala hopes her energy and passion for art and education will permeate throughout the region. “The GCC was established in 1981, with a vision to unite our nations in various fields, and it is materializing in our present day… I have a great deal of faith in the policies of our governments that have proven to thrive through time.”
Originally published in the February 2021 issue of Vogue Arabia
Photography: Ali Sharaf
Assistant photography: Hamed Nasaji, Ali Sangoor
Makeup: Bushra Abdulrasool Sharif
Location: Green Corner, Muharraq; Sheikh Ebrahim Center for Culture & Research
Production: Ankita Chandra, Zainab Al Ebrahim