It was a sultry December morning when I first came across Lebanese photographer Camille Zakharia’s mercilessly stark photographs of Bahraini compounds as part of a collection titled ‘Birds of a Feather.’ With all the photographs taken under cloudless morning skies in neighborhoods scarcely distinguishable from one another—and therefore also from Adliya, the art-and-restaurant district housing the now defunct Al Riwaq Art Space where the exhibit was being shown — the immediate effect was disorienting: what was inside the photographs closely resembled what lay outside them.
Bahrainis are, generally, unaccustomed to seeing the ‘real’ Bahrain like this, whether in images or on screen. To the contrary, they are bombarded with depictions of a stylized and orientalized Bahrain, including Arabian horses in all possible permutations, ladies in abayas, gentlemen in thobs, up to and including Fatima al Qadiri’s collages of bearded men in sequinned veils. Added to this are postcard renderings of elaborately carved wooden doors, window shutters and wind beams protruding from nineteenth-century villas, tea-sipping old men included. They are also acquainted with the music video of M.I.A.’s ‘Bad Girls’ and have smiled in equally fond and despondent recognition of that quaint khaleeji custom depicted in the video of the testosterone-fuelled teenager wheelie-ing down a desert road in a Land Cruiser (peruse the sidebar of this fine exemplar at your leisure).
The works of Fatima Al Qadiri, the M.I.A. music video (itself actually filmed in Morocco), the sinewy white stallions neighing into the desert night: these have admittedly all provided occasion for appreciation of and reflection on regional treasures—but not local ones. By contrast, in Zakharia’s work one is confronted with the homeland itself, or however else a Bahraini might wish to designate that monotonous geometry of terraced villas fortified by what appear to be high-security fences of whitish cement. With air conditioning units, pavements of interlocking purple and incongruously placed roadblocks, Zakharia has inadvertently succeeded in capturing those phenomena of the urban landscape that cry ‘home’ – or whimper it, almost apologetically. This is, in and of itself, an unprecedented event, as well as a feat of the imagination.
Above all, though, it is another feature of the exhibit that stood out and powerfully evoked the desert-city geometry of Bahrain’s residential areas. The vacant lots, oversized squares of sand left undeveloped by their proprietors, as shown in Zakharia’s work, are a staple of every Bahraini town, from Budaiya to Riffa. These brownfield-like sites, emerging in between detached villas, amongst lonesome towers in commercial districts and along neighborhood boundaries, are such a common sight they have earned themselves the unofficial title of Bahrain’s national flora. As in the bossa nova classic Águas de Março, in which spring is denoted not by flowers or bees but by an improbable jumble of tangible and intangible parts – ‘a stick, a stone, it’s the end of the road’ – Zakharia’s photos conjure the spatial spirit of Bahrain by apportioning these swaths of tarmac, stone, and sand to up to two thirds of the frame.
The trope of landscape as one immense construction site, most commonly deployed in connection with Dubai, arguably unites the remainder of Gulf conurbations. Indeed, viewed from either air or land, Bahrain is an agglomeration of land parcels that are built, unbuilt, or being built, with a disproportionate number of the latter. It is arguably here that the khaleeji in general, and the Bahraini in particular, dwells: the void, an interstitial space of becoming, scheduled to be filled but destined, due perhaps to the disjointed nature of architectural fill-in-the-gap exercises nationwide, to remain vacant, or to stubbornly sprout elsewhere in the area; the districts of Saar, Hamala and Hamad Town have no shortage of vacant-land-lot woes, for example. As expansive as they are unsightly, and often not a little bleak, these topographical blanks read like an irrepressible material conscience admonishing would-be developers to consider building something other than the country’s twenty-fifth shopping mall atop their sacred soil.
In creating his images, Zakharia was driven by something other than a desire to encourage a particular type of development. According to his artist’s statement, his goal was to “prove the hypothesis…that the residents of each of these compounds are united by a significant bond, that of socioeconomic class.” And prove this hypothesis, itself hardly a contentious one, he does, emphasising uniformity by featuring the same villas in duplicate or triplicate and presenting the full array of terraced homes, from affluent gated communities to historic public housing complexes. The handful of non-identical house pairings in the collection only underscores Zakharia’s assertion that for all their differences, similarities—of façade, infrastructure, surrounding shrubbery—predominate. Perhaps it is to this that the title of the exhibition, ‘Birds of a Feather’, alluded. Whatever its colors, a feather remains a feather, a distinctive epidermal growth that unites an entire species. And as with feathers, so with homes. All of Zakharia’s human subjects, themselves homogenized by a collective absence from the photographs, appear to have one, which may well be all a bird soaring overhead ever registers.