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Traditional skills still alive in Bahrain
By Heather Anderson   »  There has always been a rich tradition of arts and crafts in Bahrain, going back many thousands of years to the Dilmun era.  Bahrain’s position at the crossroads of an important trade route in the Gulf linking Arabia with Asia and beyond made it a meeting place throughout history for many different cultural influences.  There has been a cross fertilisation and sharing of ideas, which have enriched the local culture and art.

Driving and walking around Bahrain, I am always struck by the local architecture, the wind towers, the carved wooden balconies found on houses in Muharraq and the Awadiya area of Manama. I am particularly fond of the gypsum plasterwork on the older houses and mosques with its repetitive geometric and Islamic motifs.  Close to the Pearl Roundabout I marvel at the large dhows on display.  A reminder that dhow building was once a thriving and respected craft, which supported the pearling and fishing industries, once mainstays of the economy.

In the suqs you will find traditional handicrafts and even in modern shopping malls there is the influence of traditional architecture, and stained glassware.  Local pottery and coffee pots are used in shop window displays and paintings and prints by local and expatriate artists adorn the walls of hotel lobbies, cafés and homes.

As much as Bahrain is developing and the new and the modern are everywhere, there is a growing interest and reverence for the old traditions and the work of artisans and artists.  At the Heritage Festival held every spring, we are filled with wonder at handmade items on display.

The pottery in A'ali is always a favourite destination for visitors, locals and school children who love to see the making of the pots on foot operated wheels, as much as they come to browse around the pottery shops and to buy.  Evidence of pottery making in Bahrain goes back many thousands of years.  Pieces of pottery dating back to 2000 BC and perhaps earlier have been found at various archaeological sites here.  

The potters who start in the early morning work in a way that looks almost effortless, but this belies the skill, steady hand and patience that are required.  Observe how the potter opens up a lump of clay with his thumbs and begins to fashion it into a vase or bowl.  The pots are laid out to dry in the sun and then placed in traditional kilns, many of them built into ancient burial mounds from the Dilmun period.

Products include the ever-popular garden and plant pots, vases, children’s money pots, hubble-bubble pipe bases, candlesticks, light fittings and much more. Recent innovations to the traditional ware have included brightly painted money pots, items coated in tiny seashells and vases with Arabic calligraphy and Koranic inscriptions.

The last vestiges of a once thriving craft industry, with centres in the villages of Naim, Ras Ruman and Muharraq can still be found today in Muharraq and near the Pearl Roundabout. In its heyday the dhow building industry had more than 30 active yards which built vessels for the pearling and fishing industries. At the turn of the last century the pearling industry employed 17,500 divers and their helpers in a fleet of over 500 dhows.

Today commissions for dhows are mostly received from a few private individuals and local museums. The dhow yards in Muharraq are on the tourist map and still make dhows by hand using only simple instruments and wooden peg nails. The hindassa (Arabic word for engineering), a deceptively simple looking instrument, is used for measuring the angles of the bow and the stern and ensures that the hull is symmetrical and that the boat will be stable in the water.  Teak imported from India and Nepal is used for its strength and hardwearing quality.  Dhows made of this wood a hundred years ago are still seaworthy today.  

As dhow building has declined, there has been a boom in the building of model dhows, often by the sons and relatives of former dhow builders.  These models are also made with a great deal of care and attention to small details and look just like real pearling, fishing or cargo dhows.

Basket weaving has also been a very long established craft, which utilises the palm fronds of the date palm.  A generation ago there were many basket weavers in the villages of Karbabad, Jasra, Budaiya and Riffa.  Today individuals and families in Karbabad village still practice this craft at home and there is a small workshop in the village where the crafts are for sale. Traditional cloth weaving can still be found today in the village of Bani Jamra.  Brightly coloured cotton cloth is woven and used for men’s clothes, home furnishings and shawls.

In Jasra village, the Al Jasra Handicrafts Centre has workshops for basket, mat and cloth weavers and for many other traditional crafts.  A group of women from Jasra come daily to weave the colourful dining mats. They are very welcoming and you can sit and watch them at work as they deftly weave the mats from plain and brightly coloured dampened palm frond leaves.

The craft has been passed down from mother to daughter.   Many of the basket weavers are men too and they make decorative baskets for dates and other items.  Model fish traps, small chicken baskets and sweet containers for Eid or Gargaoun are made from reeds gathered at Jasra beach.

Al Jasra Handicraft Centre was established in 1990 in this picturesque village to provide support to Bahraini craftsmen and women, and to promote and market their products.  In so doing the centre is helping to preserve Bahrain’s heritage and crafts.

The Craft Centre Gallery in Manama, housed in Bahrain’s first technical school, was also established in 1990. In the beginning there were 12 handicrafts supported at the centre – this has grown today to an astonishing fifty-two!  A firm favourite with visitors, there is much to see here including craftsmen and women in their workshops and a large gallery where the works are beautifully displayed and for sale. The Al Naqda embroidery project employs a number of young women who recreate the traditional gold and silver thread embroidery on women’s gowns, shawls, cushion covers, place mats and other items.  They are keeping alive this traditional skill, but in a manner that now meets modern tastes.

The ever-useful and very abundant palm tree provides the raw material for the making of palm leaf paper at the centre.  The acid free paper produced is used to make greeting and business cards, folkloric prints and bookmarks.  Wool products, though not traditional to Bahrain, incorporate hand-weaving skills and make use of wool, which used to be thrown away here.  The wool is washed and handspun in the village of Diraz and woven into top quality products like mats, cushions, rugs and carpets which are sold through the centre.

Other major projects include stained glass work, wrought iron, various carpentry and art of wood projects, gypsum work, pictures, handmade dolls in traditional costumes, crochet, cotton embroidery, inlaid chests, cross stitch, pictures made from petals, leaves and shells, jewellery, hand painted pottery and Arabic calligraphy.   This is an ideal place to find that special gift or piece for the home.

Traditional crafts such as embroidery are displayed at the Pearl Diving Museum and the Bahrain National Museum. The National Museum is also a venue for arts events and for the prestigious Annual Fine Art Exhibition, held in December each year.  Some 60 or more artists submit their work and the exhibition provides an exciting overview of the work of Bahrain’s talented artists.  From paintings, charcoal sketches, watercolours, pottery, ceramics, sculpture and mixed media there is evidence of a very active art scene in Bahrain.

Bahraini and expatriate artists who are inspired by the strong light, bold colours and traditions of Bahrain, hold exhibitions of their work at various galleries and other venues.  The Art Centre, close to the National Museum, hosts many exhibitions.  Private art galleries include the Al Riwaq and Dar Al Bareh art galleries in Adliya.  Close to the airport in Muharraq you will find the Rashid Al Oraifi Museum, which exhibits paintings and sculptures by an artist who has been inspired by the Dilmun period of Bahrain’s history.  The Arabesque Gallery is another popular gallery selling prints and original paintings with a traditional flavour. At the entrance to the suq in Bab Al Bahrain, you’ll find an artist who displays his watercolours from the pavement on a Thursday afternoon.  

Bahrain certainly has a thriving arts and crafts scene. It is a place where you will find an abundance of artwork and handicrafts, with a blend of the traditional and the modern and a fusion of influences from near and far.

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