Hesham Malik in Bahrain

Bahraini artist shares tribal tales from Africa in his Ilat exhibition

Bahraini artist Hesham Malik shares tribal tales from the continent in his exhibition ‘Ilat’.

Internationally acclaimed artist Hesham Malik’s latest exhibition depicting his stay in Africa is on display at Showcase Gallery until February 28.

The exhibition, titled ‘Ilat’, (rain) features a collection of 26 contemporary modern artworks based on the time Malik spent with the Samburu, Gusii and Masai tribes in Kenya, who shared their stories and way of life for the artist, for him to capture and depict in his paintings.

Setting the scene for his artistic exploration, Malik says: ‘On the first night, we were sitting around a fire and the tribe I was with started telling a story of a myth about a man standing on a rock. He met another man who shot a poisoned arrow at him, so he fled to the sky.

But he was a bad man, and brought fog, hiding the sun and sending down rain. So I called this work ‘Ilat’ because the rain brings luck but at the same time it destroys things.’

‘Ilat’ is a moving, intimate and inspiring exhibition exploring spiritual life by venturing into the imagination of the African people. Malik says, ‘When the tribal folk found out I was an artist, they invited me to learn from them. I made notes instead of sketches so I would not ruin the moment.’ His artworks are both philosophical and mystical; intertwined with the complexities of ancient beliefs. Malik wanted to be an artist from a very young age and both his parents were supportive and encouraging of his decision. After completing his Bachelor of Arts at the University of Waterloo, Canada, Malik travelled the world to hone his skills. His early work focused on abstract expressionist ideas and techniques, but he expanded the genre by endowing people and objects with importance. With ‘Ilat’, he says it took him four years to develop and do justice to the work, and to also find a gallery that would take pride in Africa as a genre.

In a broad sense, art has always been an integral part of African life. Every tribe has its own set of myths and spiritual stories to tell. The history of African people has been obscured by a mysterious veil – territorial boundaries are difficult to define, as are its people, their way of life and beliefs. But this thought-provoking exhibition unfolds the stories of these tribes and reveals their unique cultural contributions.

‘Life for them is a journey, which, they say takes them to the beginning, not to the end. For them, the body does not matter. It’s the soul that matters most. They give importance to it because the soul is their identity. The tribal people also stress on evil because they say without it, they would never learn much. According to them, each one of us has a little bit of evil in us, it all depends on how we respond to it,’ says Malik. The focus of the exhibition is on the tales narrated by the elders of the villages. A large portion of Malik’s art is dedicated to the abstract and figurative, but a closer look at it reveals positivity as the story narrates the ‘beginning after the end’.

One particular painting, ‘Kayla’, depicts a figure and an absurd portrait of a young woman. This painting reflects towering love and beauty. The subject expresses energy created by the dance, which is performed for the ancestors who stand in elemental vastness and grandeur. The painting ‘Mchumba’ (which translates to sweetheart), shows the struggle of a lover who has his lady always on his mind. She emerges from his thoughts and stays there as his protector. As believed by tribal men, life without love is incomplete, but love with struggle and pain makes life complete. This struggle leads to the realisation of soul to soul interaction.

Malik, who is now based in the Czech Republic, says that the tribes shared their essence of living (gratitude) with him. ‘Gratitude is the best learning I took from the tribal people. They always see the good in a person, not the bad. They are grateful and happy with what they have,’ he says.

Art enthusiasts will no doubt feel gratitude, too, when they experience Malik’s colourful works and discover the tales and stories of the African tribal communities.
Until February 28. Showcase Gallery, Alserkal Avenue, Al Quoz (04 379 0940).

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