Mariam Haji is a Bahraini multi-disciplinary contemporary fine artist who currently lives and works between Finland and Bahrain. She represented the Kingdom of Bahrain in the 55th Venice Biennale 2013, and in 2012 was the winner of Bahrain's 38th National Fine Art Competition for her Muse series. Mariam has also been invited to lead several artist talks at leading art institutions worldwide including: Mathaf Arab Museum Of Modern Art in Doha, The Ministry of the People's Republic of China in Beijing, and the Corner College in Zurich, Switzerland. Her work from the 55th Venice Biennale is on public display at the National Theatre in Bahrain as part of the permanent collection of The National Museum of Bahrain.
My work is a constant re-evaluation of the human condition where I involve elements of ethnographical research that focus on the observation of social practices and interactions in which European art history has had an effect on my own culture. I am particularly curious about socio-political and religious environments, where the subject of being ‘Female’ is themed. Particularly in my drawings, I translate ‘her’ into a legend through a visual language that combines my re-interpretations of European classical paintings with elements of feminist performance practices and thus creating re-interpretations from a modern Arab lens. Earlier in my career, I conducted my practice with an autobiographical approach. I am constantly seeking to question cultural systems or truths and thus generating new waves of understanding as to where 'we' are at as a culture. Visually, I take great delight in the narrative, the dramatic, the epic, and bridging emotional intensity between the artwork and the viewer, especially in my large-scale drawings.
At the age of seven I had a particular hatred for my school. I would wander empty corridors and hide in the toilets until everyone was gone. One day my curiosity caused me to discover the art department. As I entered, it was empty except for a teacher who immediately permitted an unsupervised drawing time until recess. I believe God stepped in that day and touched my heart with bliss. But this bliss had to end eventually, and I was asked to go back to normal classes. This is how I started to draw. Shortly after being asked to leave my secret drawing time, the school Principal came knocking on the classroom door and I was called out. I was terrified that they had found out about my absence and would proceed to tell my parents and when I was given a letter to give to my father I almost died from fear. My father was surprised with the letter; as he opened it his face was pleased and he began to congratulate me for entering a national art competition for children between public and private schools hosted by the Bahrain’s Ministry of Education in 1992. All I was, was happy that I wasn’t discovered! However my family were confused as, up until then, I had shown no sign of any interest in art, either at home or at school.
The day of the competition arrived and I was in my school uniform representing The Indian School in Bahrain. I was sitting on my father’s lap and the names of the finalists were being called, beginning from third place. Suddenly at first place we both heard Mariam Al Janahi! My father was sincerely convinced it was some other person. So we sat there for a while waiting for that other Mariam to go on stage, until the judge said: “Mariam Al Janahi from the Indian School” and my father, in total shock, carried me to the stage. After the ceremony one of the judges for the prize asked my father to support my 'gift,' and that I was 'talented.'
Years later, after secondary school had ended, I was puzzled with what I should be doing as a career. At that stage painting was a hobby and nothing more. I had missed out twice on the application deadlines for universities, and I was really lost. I had a dream one night that I missed a car ride, twice, and on the third time a voice told me: “Don’t miss your third chance!” I woke up with a knowing that it had to do with university applications. I continued to recall this dream weeks later as I was travelling to see my sister in Dundee, Scotland. On my arrival, I was crossing the road and a car passed with a banging wind that covered me with a strong irrational urge to walk to Dundee College and apply for Design. So I immediately did! At the time there was no Google maps, so I asked strangers for directions. When I arrived, I was allowed an interview within a few hours of showing up and I got accepted in to into the college that same day. A year in to into design school, all the lecturers kept repeating to me: “You are not a designer, you are an artist.” So, I decided to quit design school and return to Bahrain.
I went back home and spoke to my parents about me studying for a BA in Fine Art and making art for a living. They strongly disagreed; they associated painting with poverty. So together we decided on a career in architecture. I applied to different universities and finally chose to go to Melbourne, Australia to embark on a BA in Architecture. Six months into the course, I was pulled aside by my senior tutor and he politely suggested I go to art school. He said: “I’m afraid you will not be a successful architect. However, you will make a successful artist.” In that moment I thought about my father; I loved my hobby of painting, but I also did not know anything else that I was very skilled at. So, secretly and without any permission from my family, I transferred to the Visual Arts department.
I remember that phone call with my father: “Congratulations, your grades are High Distinction!” I responded; “Yes, that’s because I am majoring in Fine-Arts now.” The phone line was silent for over ten seconds which felt like a long time. I was silent too. My father and I had nothing to say to each other perhaps because we predicted this long awaited moment. Then he said: “Well... I will support you until your graduation but then promise me you will make a living out of this?” I agreed and my journey began towards full-time art making and a grounded conviction that I am an artist.
During my studies I was very unsure what a daily routine in the studio required, and how my thought processes about particular subjects, and emotional triggers would be combined with my skills to create contemporary artworks.
Training at universities abroad and attending lectures regarding European art history was key to shaping who I am now and at times the nature of art being a form of rebellion in a foreign culture where society in itself differed from my own, conflicted with my traditional and religious upbringing in Bahrain. The state of continual conflict between cultures, faith and being female became a common theme in my work. I was in continual struggle - spiritually and carnally – the fight I had between myself and the world became my work.
It was important for me to continually reassess assess my practice, observe and become relevant within all kinds of continually changing contexts and socio-political transformations before submitting my works to the public eye. of course we assess and reassess and so I learnt that my studio process is not a linear process; it comes with bouts of artist blocks and periods of a constant flow.
I now have a studio in Helsinki, Finland and until the end of 2018, I am involved with various cross-cultural art projects between Paris and Helsinki I also intend to exhibit more in Bahrain and give workshops. Most of all, I would like to demonstrate passionate curiosity through academic investigation associated to life’s exploration.
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