By Valerie Franchi » Bahraini artist Balquees Fakhroo’s home in Jurdab is decorated with abstract paintings from the Middle East and Africa – she particularly likes the works of artists from Iraq and Sudan. But the art that stands out the most in her American-style ranch house is her own.
Her brightly coloured paintings almost cover entire walls and depict her favourite subjects, Arab cities and architecture.
It is easy to see why her work has found popularity in Bahrain and elsewhere. She is a well-known artist with numerous exhibitions and awards behind her. But it has taken 25 years to achieve this success, Balquees explains.
“I used to paint in school when it was part of the curriculum, but I never thought I would become a professional artist,” she says. “At the time, there were not many. Most professionals were doctors, lawyers or teachers.”
In fact, she started out studying philosophy and psychology – not art —at the Arabic University in Beirut. She married young, at 22, without completing her degree.
She and her husband Ahmed, who was studying to become a doctor, moved to the United States, where she attended the Lone Mountain College in San Francisco. The free-spirited atmosphere of San Francisco in the 1970s encouraged her to change her major. She received a Bachelor of Arts degree in art history and fine arts in 1975.
The couple moved back to Bahrain, and began thinking about starting their family. Balquees began participating in exhibitions right away, displaying her early work in the Ministry of Information’s national exhibition.
For Balquees, however, family became her focus. “I stopped painting after I had my son and daughter only one year apart,” she says.
When they were three and four years old, Balquees decided it was time to return to painting, although only part time. “I really started again from the beginning after that,” she says.
Her development was slow, as she herself admits, since she wasn’t devoting herself full time to her art. “You really have to concentrate as an artist,” she says.
“At first, I couldn’t get rid of the academic style, what I had learned in school,” Balquees remembers. “It is difficult practicing different styles so I stayed mostly with realism and landscapes.”
By the 1990s, however, her children were grown and she could focus on painting. “I realized that I really liked German and French expressionism and I started painting Bahraini views in those methods,” she says.
Her style of painting changed completely, from realistic to abstract, although she continued using the same subjects -- city skylines, landscapes, seascapes and architectural designs.
Her use of colour is probably the most unique feature of her art.
“I always use strong colours, straight from the tubes, without mixing,” Balquees says. “I paint areas of colour to represent the subject.”
“Rather than just seeing a picture, I wanted to give people a certain feeling by looking at my paintings – like visual music,” she continued.
She takes ideas from anything, newspaper photographs, famous paintings, brochures, anything that can translate into areas of colour.
With the focus now on her painting, Balquees’ personal style began to show through. Critics and art lovers began to take notice as she started exhibiting in more shows in Bahrain and other Gulf countries.
Also in the mid-1990s, Bahrain’s national exhibition became more serious, as rules and regulations were imposed and the judges were selected from outside Bahrain.
“Receiving an award at the Bahrain exhibition began to mean something,” she says.
People gradually began to recognize her work, and buying it. “I finally considered myself a professional artist,” says Balquees. “But building a name takes time. It took me 25 years.”
In addition to participating in every national exhibition since 1976, Balquees has exhibited throughout the Gulf region and Middle East, as well as in Europe and the United States.
She is a member of the Board of Directors of the Bahrain Art Society and is also a respected art critic who has written for journals and magazines and in a 1992 book on the history of Bahraini art.
Balquees has also given talks and lectures on art, taught a course in fine arts at Bahrain University and served as a judge at an exhibition in Oman.
Among her many awards, Balquees received the Dana Prize in 1999 at the 27th annual exhibition of the Ministry of Information, the exhibition’s top honour.
“Through art,” she says, “I can express my feelings very freely. I am not good in language, but art is a more universal language. Everyone understands the language of art.”
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