Bahrain formally became an independent emirate on August 15, 1971 (although it became a kingdom in 2002) marked by a friendship treaty between Bahrain and the United Kingdom that replaced a number of former agreements signed since 1820 between the rulers of Bahrain and the British. The coming of independence was also marked by a number of undertakings in the arts. The Annual Bahrain Art Exhibition has run for nearly forty years, showcasing mainly artists that are members of the Bahrain Arts Society. The society was founded in 1983 with the support of a local painter, Sheikh Rashid Al Khalifa.
The Bahrain National Museum opened in 1988 and is considered one of the first museums in the Gulf region. It possesses a rich collection of Bahrain’s archaeological artifacts covering the entirety of Bahrain’s history. Three halls are devoted to ancient history and the Dilmun civilization, while two other halls are devoted to Bahrain’s pre-industrial past and the culture of the pearl divers. The museum also includes a hall devoted to natural history and a documents and manuscripts hall, as well as a collection of contemporary art and Bahraini masters.
Traditional and modern music is also popular in the country. The Khaleeji music style was best represented by the recently deceased Ali Bahar and his band Al Ekhwa, active since 1986; more traditional Arab singers are Sultan Hamid and the oud player Khalid Al Shaikh. The Bahraini male-only vocal music of the pearl-divers known as Fidjeri and the Sawt music, originally from the Gulf but influenced by African, Indian and Persian music, still survive in Bahrain.
The progressive rock band Osiris has achieved some renown since the 1980s. There is also a large public for heavy metal and hard rock with a variety of bands performing original songs (mostly in English). The best known bands are Motör Militia, Smouldering & Forgotten and Lunacyst. Other musical projects in this genre include Rain in Hell, Thee Project, M.U.S.T., Bloodshel, Qafas and the progressive rock band InsideOut.
A number of films have been produced in the country since Bassam Al-Thawadi’s “The Barrier” (1990), one of pioneers in Gulf cinema, and many short films have been produced independently by local filmmakers.
An account written by Mayssa Fattouh for Nafas Magazine in 2010 reveals a number of private and public initiatives to promote the arts sector in the country. For example a museum of contemporary art designed by Zaha Hadid was announced in 2009 – but it is now uncertain whether the project will be completed. Nonetheless the Ministry of Culture and Information has been keen to invest in art, with a number of other ambitious projects. The Bahrain Fort Museum opened a few years ago and the Art Center was inaugurated in 1992. Bin Matar House plays an active role in promoting Bahraini art and heritage, a project initiated by the Sheikh Ebrahim Bin Mohammed Al Khalifa Center for Culture and Research, in turn founded by Sheikha Mai bint Mohammed Al Khalifa, the energetic Minister of Culture.
A number of annual cultural festivals and events are run in the country and in 2009 the Elham Group was founded as collective of creative people to provide a platform for local talents in the arts hosting a number of events in different venues.
The country’s two main galleries were opened in the late 1990s: Al Riwaq Gallery opened in 1998 under the vision of Iraqi art patron Bayan Kanoo as a commercial art space but was transformed in 2007 into a non-profit organization and art space hosting a variety of projects, resident artists, workshops and exhibits. In recent years Al Riwaq hosted Bahraini musicologist Hasan Hujairi, who completed a number of unique projects and creative installations, which explore soundscapes of Bahrain. Al Riwaq also hosts Market338, an outdoor market dedicated to showcasing Bahraini artists and other local talents in all formats, sizes and styles.
Albareh Gallery was also founded in 1998, by Bahraini art patron Hayfa Aljishi, presenting local and international artists with an emphasis on contemporary Middle Eastern art. Albareh also provides alternative spaces for art and workshops; the gallery represents a good number of mid-career artists from Bahrain and elsewhere and has a rich calendar of exhibitions and events. Opportunities for artistic residencies are available at Albareh and the program ABCAD (Albareh Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture) aims to bridge the gap between art, design and entrepreneurship through a variety of programs. There are other spaces such as La Fontaine Center of Contemporary Art and the Nadine Gallery, opened in 2007 by local artist Nadine Al Shaikh.
Despite its small size and limitations, the art scene in Bahrain provides an interesting space for artistic creation that precedes the ambitious projects of neighboring Gulf states. Cases of artistic censorship are rare. Beside the prominent Sheikh Rashid Al Khalifa there are a number of painters in the country with international projection such as Omar Al Rashid, Balqees Fakhro, Faika Al Hassan, Abdullah Al-Muharraqi and Mayram Janahi. International artists frequently come to Bahrain to attend residences, workshops and festivals.
In 2010 Bahrain participated for the first time in the Venice Biennale with the project “Reclaim Bahrain” that earned the country a Golden Lion for best national pavilion. The project was run jointly between the Ministry of Culture, Studio Lapa in Switzerland, the Bahrain-based Lebanese photographer Camille Zakharia and a number of local art practitioners. It explored the decline of the sea culture in Bahrain through a number of installations, photography, documentation and a documentary film.