Beyond Mosques and Camels: Discovering Art in Muscat
I can't help but feel a little awestruck as I am welcomed into Radhika Hamlai's studio. A bright room filled with sunlight, commanding sweeping views of low whitewashed villas and elegant minarets rising towards the sky, greets me.
This is the room where Radhika's art is created. Canvases with colorful shapes, but also stark black lines lie on the floor and are propped against the walls.
I am instantly fascinated. I haven't explored the art scene in Muscat much but what I have seen so far has been largely figurative; beautiful paintings of camels, mosques and the many faces on Oman. Though I am quick to admit my ignorance of the arts, I am drawn towards abstract pieces. Abstract art is about feelings, and Radhika's art makes me feel intrigued, curious. I can't wait for her to show me some of her pieces and explain the thoughts behind them - but first things first.
From business to art
Radhika Hamlai was born and brought up in India. She came to Oman for the first time in 1990, her first trip overseas. She married her husband, who lived in Muscat, and moved to here in 1994.
The transition from a busy vibrant India to Muscat, a rather small and quiet place in the early 1990s, was challenging for the young Radhika. At first, she worked in the family office, putting her degree in business and commerce to good use. It was only after the birth of her first son that she resigned from her office job and started considering art as more than a part time interest.
On her family's insistence, she enrolled with Omani Society of Fine Arts.
"That really changed my life," recalls Radhika, sipping her cup of chai. "I used to go there every day with my canvas, knowing nothing about art in Oman. I ended up making so many friends. I sat through talks and lectures, all in Arabic. I didn't understand it all but I always had someone to have my back."
Radhika holds up the Society of Fine Arts as an immensely supportive organization.
"They provide a space and material for free," she explains. "Every year they host an exhibition and members can exhibit for free if they are selected, all materials covered. Female artists are encouraged with a special exhibit annually, and free of charge workshops are hosted."
Radhika became an active member of the Society of Fine Arts, and she took every opportunity to develop, learn from others and expand her network. Slowly, she turned herself into an artist.
"After five years," she recalls, smiling, "I decided to be exhibited in the Society of Fine Arts."
Turning art into a business
Since 2001, Radhika has participated in all the Society of Fine Arts annual exhibitions. She has also travelled as a representative of Oman, to exhibit in other countries.
After a short study period at Saint Martin's College of Fine Arts in London, Radhika knew she had found her passion. She returned to Muscat from London, but there was no turning back from art. She kept doing workshops and learning new skills, constantly renewing and refining her work. In 2010 she held her first solo exhibition, and she has held another ten since then.
"The human experience I learned over this period of time is what my work shows now," she shares. "What people make you feel, think, and how that person's perspective, aura and thought process is towards me and them."
Communicating feelings and a state of mind through art
Confronted with the first piece of our tour, my initial reaction is "Oh, a stop sign?"
"Yes, that is what you see," Radhika says with a chuckle, "but it's called The Face."
She goes on to ask me if I have ever visited a South Indian temple? I worked in South India once upon a time so I am pleased to say that yes, I have indeed visited several South Indian temples.
As it turns out, Radhika wanted to communicate a state of mind with this painting. The circle is a face, the lines equivalent to those acquired on your forehead visiting an Indian temple. This indicates mental balance.
"Around you, your spiritual situation is dark, when you close your eyes it's dark," Radhika explains, "and then there is light. It's a replication of a human state of mind."
To me, it still says 'stop'. Perhaps I need to broaden my mind.
We move on through the room. I am drawn to a bright piece, depicting what I assume is a girl, surrounded by colorful bits of paper. I can relate to this - I have daughters. I'm almost relieved to find that the piece is indeed called 'The Girl."
"This is a story about a kid," says Radhika. "When we were little we used to have these sweets, like Smarties, to eat on weekends. The child inside you wants to look for the weekend to come and cheer you up."
"This is the city where I come from, in Gujarat," she continues, indicating the little golden, shiny patches. "It's like Muscat, little houses everywhere, not tall rise buildings."
So far, I'm following; but I can't help but notice the gaping hole in the girl's head.
"You're in a different state of mind when you are young," Radhika explains, patiently. "There is a blank space; you don't know where you are going, you have no idea, you're just there doing what your parents tell you to do.
"There is still a void in your head," she elaborates, "you don't think about every situation in life. When I think about those days now, I think, 'why would I be in that state of mind?' So, I always try to get back there, where there is something empty always there and you are not sure where it is taking you."
"You're always searching for this little space in your head, that you want to go back to," she concludes.
We don't have to see the same. We just have to communicate
It dawns on me then, looking at that girl on the wall. Nothing could be further away from my mind than a desire to revisit a childhood state of insecurity in terms of what to do and where to go. As a high mobility family, moving to a new country every three years, we have plenty of gaping holes in our lives as it is.
But I don't have to agree, or see the same as everyone else, looking at the piece of art. What Radhika wants to do with her work is communicate; open a dialogue for feelings and human perspective, through which we can connect. And that, I believe, we did.
All images belong to and are used with the permission of the artist. If you would like to further explore Radhika Hamlai's art or connect with her, you can do so through her website or on Instagram @radhikah.