"Photos A La Chair": A Conversation with Bahrain Based Artists Camille Zakharia and Ali Karimi
In a region where contemporary art has been exceptionally institutional, finding initiatives that start from the bottom up are few and far in between. “Photos A La Chair” is a project initiated by Bahrain-based artists Camille Zakharia and Ali Karimi and it does exactly that.
I first came across the project via Camille’s instagram, featuring a series of striking portraits of Bahraini locals, residents and artists, in the most remote or public of spaces, with a backdrop of a contemporary installation of some sort. I was intrigued. The images were always captioned “Photos A La Chair” with tags of the location and artists involved. I began researching - it looked like a photo project? but I think it’s a gathering? but there’s art? - eventually finding a post by Ali explaining that the project’s goal was to “activate spaces that aren’t often used, and take art (and artists) out of the gallery setting” - I’ve been following the project ever since.
For me, the pull was the anticipation of the beautiful portraits as well as watching admiringly from afar as artists in our nearby Bahrain get intimate with the community. I won’t lie - being a long-time Dubai resident and art enthusiast, there was a certain element of FOMO that kept my interest (I’m sure anyone from the Gulf reading this can relate) but also, the strong experimental element, the feeling that something was unfolding just a couple of hundred miles away, that couldn’t keep me from checking on the project every now and again. So, I decided to reach out to Ali and Camille to satiate my curiosity, and to share more about this wonderfully ingenious project. Read our conversation below:
FTH: From what I understand, your project “Photos A La Chair” began as a monthly gathering set in a public space (not intended to be used as an art space) to take art outside of the gallery setting. I was wondering what prompted this idea? Why did you feel it was important to take art outside of its institutionalized setting?
C + A: The project began with an installation in Adliya called 'Cheap Ecology' which was done by Ali and Hamed Bukhamseen for Al Riwaq's outdoor art exhibition, The Nest, in 2017. The installation was a 12 meter floodlight in a palm grove, an intervention which was accompanied by a small publication and a public programme. One of the things that had come up in conversations between us was to have a series of events to activate the installation space. The event that Camille proposed was the first Photos A La Chair, with Mohammed Sharkawy as the featured artist. The event was meant to be an exhibition or group show for the public, with an artist, furniture designers Bahraini Danish, photographers, held in an outdoor space. Could you have a public art session in Bahrain that was a one day event with no need for any institutional support - only artists? That was the beginning of the idea. As opposed to most of the stuff we usually do, this event was meant to be very informal and very casual - a one time experiment. But the energy surprised us. We were excited by the opportunity to collaborate casually and freely, but also to engage the public and communities that never get to experience art, or never experience it outside a gallery setting. By having an intervention in an outdoor setting we give ourselves the chance to meet completely different parts of Bahraini society and to activate spaces around the country. The event acts almost as a monthly incubator for different public spaces - activating them, experimenting and bringing people to places they would rarely go otherwise. We enjoyed the first event and wanted to do another, and then another. What makes it most surprising for us is that neither of us took the event seriously, it was purely speculative; but that allowed a conversation on art to occur outside the framework of any governmental or professional setting, which for everyone involved was a welcome change.
FTH: And how do you choose the artists you will feature in each gathering? And how do you choose the location?
C + A: The process is completely casual. Sometimes we approach an artist with a location we find interesting, sometimes artists approach us with a location in mind. We usually have a date set at the end of a month, and meet with the artist to discuss location and artwork over coffee. It is important to have opportunities to collaborate without the pressure of a gallery setting, so the discussions between us and the artists are usually quite interesting and insightful because it allows for a debate or conversation without the need to take any positions. We discuss areas of Bahrain that pique our curiosity, public art precedents, and the way we want to stage the event and eventually settle on an idea. In many ways it helps that we come from different backgrounds. Camille is a photographer/artist and Ali is an architect, the people who've participated have been painters, documentary photographers, community organizations, sculptors, etc. so the conversation goes in different directions and all sorts of possibilities emerge.
FTH: In addition to being an art exhibition of sorts, “Photos A La Chair” is also a portrait series. Was this always part of the original idea of the project? Why did you decide to document/photograph visitors?
C + A: Since our setting and artist change every event we needed a form of consistency to bind the events together, a fixed parameter. Photos A La Chair acts as recreation of a studio portrait setting – it gives the event an element of precision; the lighting has to be correct, the backdrop, the location, the seating - this keeps it from being unfocused as an event. The format provides a programmatic consistency, it allows people to engage with the artwork on their own terms. They are the subject of the artwork, or they are the viewers. The artwork and location are changing, and this shifting relationship allows participants to really explore their relationship to art and public space. Not everyone who attends has an interest in art but most people have had their photos taken at some point, so it becomes an easy way for people to engage with the event and make a contribution free of concern. Finally, there is an archival quality that we are interested in: maintaining the format allows people to record their attendance and the project becomes an archive of this moment in Bahrain’s changing landscape and its population.
FTH: And to what extent do you feel the project was shaped by the context of Bahrain, if at all?
C +A: The need for the project comes in large part from the context of Bahrain, the setting of the island country and the people that inhabit it. As an archipelago with agricultural land along the coast and an interior rocky desert, Bahrain is a place with so much potential for public life, that still remains untapped or underexposed. Despite its small size, we found that many people had not visited the spaces were we had Photos A La Chair so the project was definitely a response to the availability of places which were fantastic but underutilized. As with many small countries there is a strong sense of community life, but this also means that many groups do not intermingle or cross-pollinate. Because we are completely independent and the event moves around, we can attract different communities and inhabit different spaces with no concern from the attendees about our agenda or political project, the event becomes an open space for whoever wants to join. This need for an open setting with no social pressure, and an event that is simple and encourages participation we think is liberating in an increasingly digital world and particularly in the socially stratified context of the Middle East.
FTH: What has been the reaction of the local community and the audience at these events? How has the project been received?
C + A: It is still too early to say. There have been 5 iterations thus far, and we are only in our second season. The reaction has been positive so far and the project has grown steadily. We feel like there is a momentum and an energy that increases with each event and the reception has been supportive. We already have this season figured out and have been contacted by potential collaborators that should keep us set until next January which is exciting. One of the biggest surprises we've found is the artist's relief at being able to commit to an event months in advance, since we organize it ourselves we are capable of making decisions regarding scheduling immediately and this is a welcome change for artists who want to be able to plan and envision projects months in advance.
FTH: The event is currently in its 6th edition. Where would you like to see this project going?
C + A: There are two directions - one is the list of places and people we would still love to collaborate with. There are places in Bahrain we'd love to be able to have an event in, but have not had the chance to yet. We have a dream of having a big Photos Al La Chair in Buhair valley - this desire has been there since the first event and hope someday we'll get there! The other desire is to see the installations/backdrops become more elaborate over time - have the event act as as a true incubator public space. We would also like to collaborate with charities and different community organizations. But ultimately what makes Photos A La Chair what it is is that there is no agenda. It is not a self-serving project. There is no end in mind.This keeps it enjoyable and surprising, because it is the only aspect of our practices that isn't bound by a specific trajectory or goal. For this reason we are somewhat resistant to the idea of Photos A La Chair going somewhere. It is sort of where it needs to be!
For more about Photos A La Chair and to follow the project you can find it on instagram @photosalachair