Bahrain Focus The Beauty of Art Fatima Alireza - Founder, La Fontaine Centre of Contemporary
Sitting in the tranquil tree lined courtyard beside the large fountain that dominates the enclosure it is very difficult to believe we are right in the bustling heart of Manama, Bahrain. Invisible in the surrounding trees and shrubs there is a chorus from birds complementing the peaceful scene below. Restaurant customers sit at their tables enjoying the sense of total peace, which is in sharp contrast to the hustle and bustle of the Hoora district just the other side of the high walls.
Inside the cocoon of the courtyard the shouts of the children and the constant buzz of traffic is but a distant memory. This tranquillity is something Fatima Alireza relishes, but the astounding success of the centre and her own intense interest in art and culture around the globe means she does not have much of a chance to enjoy the haven she has created.
Fatima, who in 2006 was presented with an award by the government of France for her tireless work for the arts, is constantly hungry for new cultural experiences that will help bring countries and people closer together. The fruit of these travels has been witnessed at La Fontaine over the years and includes the first exhibition of Aboriginal art to be held in the Middle East; opera; jazz; films; performances by Indian dancers; and in March a musical concert by a Qawwali group from Pakistan. Qawwali is Sufi music which originated in Iran and its rich history and symbols help to bring India and Pakistan together rather than separate them - a concept which mirrors Fatima’s own deeply held beliefs.
La Fontaine’s unique cultural mix is well-known throughout the Gulf region, so much so that it is difficult to believe that the centre only opened its doors for the first time in 2002. The finished product is the result of a unique collaboration between Fatima and French architect and designer Jean Marc Sinan.
La Fontaine was owned by Fatima’s father, a pearl merchant, who lived there until his death in the late 1960s. For some years afterwards the house was rented out and at one point was used as a school, but when Sinan arrived in Bahrain in the 1990s the house had been empty for years. For the designer and architect, then working for the Kingdom’s government, it was love at first sight, and he set to work on its renovation.
“The house was in a bad shape and he said he knew it would be a difficult project but he felt he could not leave it. He had already renovated a few houses in Morocco and Palermo in Italy and when I saw what he was doing here I really fell in love with it,” Fatima recalls.
“To me it was real renovation. He took the essence of the building, brought it to life and gave it an up to date, contemporary look. He said he wanted to show how the local architecture had survived for at least 200 years and by bringing it to life - allow it to live for another 200 years. I love the little touches he has introduced here and there without touching the structure and the colours. I know now that the simpler the work is the more difficult it is because with simplicity you can see all the faults.
“If people are building a new structure they should really just let the past inspire them without making it heavy and adding too much ‘make-up’”, she says, adding that a good example of this is the new Islamic museum in Qatar, designed by the world renowned architect IM Pei.
Sinan’s touches can be seen in the restaurant, which is intimate and impeccable with its dark wood floors, and white linen tables, especially in one room where the structure is built around an ancient tree which grew in the courtyard.
In what used to be the garden Sinan created the impressive fountain - the La Fontaine of the complex’s name - casting it on site. “I never guessed the fountain would be that big,” laughs Fatima, but it is large, impressive and impossible to miss.
When all the work was completed it was decided the house would become a centre for contemporary art, but soon after the 2002 opening Sinan decided that his work was complete and he left to search for pastures new, leaving Fatima to create the cultural marvel which is so respected today.
“I have always had a passion for art and I travel and read a lot,” she explains. “I stage a maximum of five exhibitions a year in the centre. It’s a lot of work to organise the exhibitions so I could not do more than that. ”
Her approach to choosing the exhibitions is very much based on her own personal taste. “I tend to choose artists whose work I like, ones to whom I can connect. I have to feel their work. If a certain artist’s work talks to me then I will exhibit it. With every exhibition I learn more about international art,” she admits.
As well as the exhibitions La Fontaine has a busy calendar of cultural events which are held in a smaller enclosed courtyard, again with its own special atmosphere. Events range from opera recitals to dance events and the centre is also popular for businesses to use to launch new products in Bahrain.
Fatima has always been fascinated by art and beauty. After leaving school she studied history of art in Paris but her free time was spent attending a beauty therapy course. When she returned to Bahrain with her French degree she joined her sister who had opened a beauty salon in the Kingdom.
Her interest in the holistic practice of treating the whole body rather than just the symptoms saw her travelling widely in Europe to attend courses in aromatherapy and naturopathy. “I am really interested in health and how to combine the whole beauty and mind concept. At the time, 1991, very few people thought like that. I treated people as a whole not just what the problems might be, I looked into diets and exercise and people were impressed with the results.”
From here it was only a short step to starting her own spa, Profile, complete with fitness classes as well as a vegetarian coffee shop. When La Fontaine opened in 2002 she included a salon with numerous relaxing treatments as well as a purpose built Pilates studio in the centre.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder so they say, and to many people Fatima’s eye is not only impeccable but educational and has allowed La Fontaine to become firmly embedded within the cultural life of both Bahrain and the wider Gulf.
First Published in Men's Passion Issue #11 March 09