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Bahrain’s postal system is among the oldest in the Arab world. The first post office was opened in 1884. The first stamps, issued in 1933, were British with ‘Bahrain’ overprinted on them.
 
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By Roy Kietzman   »   Riffa Elementary School art teacher Karim Al Bosta knew talent when he saw it. And he did see it in one of his pupils, Shaikh Rashid bin Khalifa Al Khalifa. Al Bosta encouraged the youngster, attempting to bring out the creativeness he demonstrated in his class work. And so it was that Shaikh Rashid, at the age of 14, produced his first oil: a landscape.

It would be the first of many, but Shaikh Rashid particularly remembers one he did a year later.

He was given a photograph of the venerable millennium-old Khamis mosque and asked to paint it in oil.

"It was an assignment that gave me a great deal of satisfaction," he recalls.

But despite this Shaikh Rashid never gave much thought to painting as a career.

"At that stage I considered art as nothing more than a leisure activity," he said.

Then something happened that forced him to take a fresh look at his talent. At an annual high school art show in 1968, he was surprised to see the guest of honour, then Ruler, His Highness the Amir Shaikh Isa bin Sulman Al Khalifa, and the Prime Minister, Shaikh Khalifa bin Sulman Al Khalifa, both take a close look at his paintings.

Both keen art lovers, the Amir and the Premier asked Shaikh Rashid pointed questions about his technique and style. Their verdict? Shaikh Rashid had genuine talent which he shouldn't waste. He was urged to continue his work in art.

"I was enormously touched by the praise and felt I should take this admonition from Their Highnesses with a greater degree of seriousness," said Shaikh Rashid.

He did take his work more seriously from then on, and in 1970, at the age of 18, he made his debut with a solo art show at the Delmon Hotel which, at the time, was the island's hub of social, recreational and cultural activities.

Later, in the Ruler's majlis, the Amir beckoned Shaikh Rashid to come forward and talk to him. He showed great interest again in the teenager's paintings and asked him several questions about his work. How did he create his paintings? Why was he interested in art? What was he planning to do with his life?

The youngster's answers must have impressed the Amir who offered the budding artist a scholarship to go to England for studies, to broaden his outlook on life and art.

The next year, with the Amir's words still ringing in his ears, Shaikh Rashid took off for England where, beyond studies and an absorbing life, he also participated in art exhibitions.

Painting by then became a way of life, a passion, for him.
He found that through his art he could express his emotions, interpret sights and experiences.

For a while, Shaikh Rashid displayed his works either in Bahrain or Britain. He finally expanded his horizons when he joined the Ministry of Information art exhibition in Singapore 18 years ago. Since then, his works have been displayed in France, Switzerland, the US and Jordan.

"Though the encouragement of friends and family is invaluable for an artist, it's only by exhibiting overseas that one understands whether one's artistic expression has any value when measured against other artists," says Shaikh Rashid.

Of all the countries he has exhibited in, France is by far his favourite. His first art show in France was at the Grand Palais in Paris in 1985; he returned most recently for an exhibition last April.

"While art shows are important anywhere, France, for me, is it for having a truly discriminating art-loving public.

"The artists you meet, the perceptive public, the discerning art critics all add up to a stimulating atmosphere."

International exposure is a critical element in an artist's creative development, according to Shaikh Rashid.

"I can think of three or four Bahraini artists whose style and technique have evolved brilliantly in the last few years, particularly due to their participation in international art shows," he said.

For a long time, Shaikh Rashid remained principally a landscape artist, working in oils. In 1982, there came a turning point as he moved to painting figurative studies, often in semi-abstract forms, using rich, vibrant colours in a bold way.

Today he is celebrated for his paintings, but few people know he also has a design talent that extends to manufactured products, murals and tapestries.

Certain Swiss-made watches bear his characteristic styling.

And unknown to most residents who regularly send mail, even some postage stamps we use today have a Shaikh Rashid touch. Among his designs has been the commemorative stamps for the 25th year of the Amir's accession to the throne in 1982 and the 200th anniversary of the Al Khalifa dynasty in Bahrain (1987).

Shaikh Rashid has also created logos like the ones for the Bahrain Arts Society and Bahrain Airport Services.

Whether it was fabric, crockery, sculpture, massive objets d'art, architectural enhancements or interior detail, no one can deny that Shaikh Rashid has lent a creative hand - and eye - to the splendour of the palatial seaside Al Sawani restaurant or the imposing, regal Ritz Carlton on the beachfront.

Shaikh Rashid's office is like a mini-museum of art with a dozen paintings of different styles and of different artists, ceramic sculptures and other objects, all tastefully displayed.

He likes to change the paintings from time to time.

One of the latest to be added was a strikingly beautiful canvas adorned with Arabic calligraphy over surfaces that seemed to this writer to be a stylicised map of the Middle East.

Shaikh Rashid also loves photography, or to be more exact, collecting old cameras. His collection ranges from the antique bellows type on tripods to the box-type Roliflex and more contemporary models.

"I love tinkering with old cameras, appreciating sepia prints of bygone days, still feeling that black and white prints aren't passé. Of course now we're led to believe that digital photography is in and everything else has to be pushed aside."

When a score of artists banded together to form the Bahrain Arts Society 15 years ago, Shaikh Rashid was the natural choice as its first president. He continues to be honorary president of the society, which has since grown to more than a hundred members.

"We're very proud to have such an active society here in Bahrain," he said, adding it was supported by no less a person than the Prime Minister who regularly opens the annual art show.

Shaikh Rashid believes that art in general - even the performing arts - is a source of inspiration for a society.

"It's part of the quality of life and envelopes our lives. The very way in which we live is affected by art, enhancing one's life, giving more meaning and quality to it."

Whether it's well-produced books and magazines, education, fashion, food preparation, automobiles - they are all a reflection of our understanding of art, says Shaikh Rashid. In addition, museums and galleries exist to allow us to appreciate art and to learn from others about their expression of life's meaning.

Shaikh Rashid said individuals, companies and institutions in Bahrain were increasingly acquiring art to enhance their homes or offices, which was a mark of a fully cultured society.

"Some years ago, abstract art was not considered something that local families would want in their homes but now abstracts are appearing on more and more walls in Bahrain."
 

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