Janet Rady Fine Art is proud to participate in London Art Fair’s 2024 Platform section entitled ‘A Million Candles, Illuminating Queer Love and Life’ that explores queer identities, experiences and love.

Inspired by London Art Fair’s partnership with Charleston, the modernist home of painters Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, the 2024 Platform section of the fair brings together art that shines a light on Queer love and life selected by guest curator Gemma Rolls-Bentley. In the early 20th century, the historic house and artist studio became a Queertopia for members of the Bloomsbury Group, including Vanessa’s sister Virginia Woolf. In Woolf’s 1928 novel Orlando, an imaginative biography of her lover and muse Vita Sackville-West in which the protagonist changes sex from male to female, she wrote: “A million candles burnt in him without his being at the trouble of lighting a single one.”

At a time when LGBTQIA+ life is increasingly under threat in the UK and around the world, Rolls-Bentley calls on the words of Queer Ancestors as she brings together art that reflects the resilience, the beauty and the passion of Queer love and life. Rolls-Bentley has long been focused on platforming Queer Art and art that explores LGBTQIA+ identity in her curatorial practice.

Ghada Khunji Bio

Ghada Khunji, born in 1967 in Manama, the Kingdom of Bahrain, is a photographer who engages with surrealist styles through photomontage to explore her deep contemplations on cultural identity and the point of view of women hailing from the Arabian Gulf in the 21st century. Having graduated from Parsons School of Design and the International Centre of Photography’s Documentary Programme, Khunji started her career in the centre of the fashion world at the time, 1990s New York. Working as a freelance photographer, Khunji spent two years as a research assistant for various photo agencies, including Black Star and Magnum, followed by eight years as a printer and print manager for internationally acclaimed photographers Annie Liebovitz and Steven Meisel.

Khunji’s career as a documentary photographer blossomed whilst living in New York from 1991 to 2013. During this period, she was celebrated with a number of awards including the Lucie Discovery of the Year (2006), American Photo Magazine’s Image of the Year Award (2007), as well as the Golden Lights Award for Travel (2006). Khunji has exhibited widely in the US, UK, Spain, Italy, France and throughout the Middle East.

Ghada Khunji has previously participated in The Colombo Art Biennale, Sri Lanka and in Art Abu Dhabi. Khunji exhibited in the group show, Kahlil Gibran: A Guide for Our Times (2018) at Sotheby’s London. Simultaneously Khunji was in an ongoing show, I AM (2019), under the patronage of Queen Rania which debuted in Jordan, then toured internationally for over a year. Ghada Khunji also exhibited at The American University in Washington D.C. as part of a group show organised by Tribe photo magazine. Khunji participated in a group show Converse, Contemporary artists from Bahrain in dialogue with the historic Albertina Collection in Turin, Italy (2019). Khunji also exhibited in the Venice Biennial as a part of a group show The Wait (2019), and also exhibited at the Paris Biennale (2019) featuring artists from The Kingdom of Bahrain. Khunji presented a new work of art for an exhibition hosted by the Kingdom of Bahrain, celebrating the International Day of Islamic Art at the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris (2020) . Additionally, Khunji represented the Kingdom of Bahrain at Al Burda Festival at Dubai World Expo (2019).

Ghada Khunji: FaRIDA Series, 2015-2022

While Khunji’s twenty-five year-long career in New York undoubtedly rooted documentary photography firmly in her early photographic practice, Khunji felt it was neither understood nor appreciated in Bahrain as it was in New York. Thus, upon her return to Bahrain in 2013, Khunji began experimenting with photomontage as an alternative approach to the photographic medium.

The FaRIDA Series (2015 – 2022), as presented here in London Art Fair’s 2024 Platform section, directly borrows the visual language of the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo (1907 – 1954) who created deeply personal works that not only interrogated the nature of her relationships with her family and lovers, but also examined the stories of her inner life, that often dealt with mental and physical pain and trauma. When Khunji was reintroduced to Kahlo’s paintings in 2015, her practice underwent a dramatic shift in approach.

Turning the lens on herself, Khunji began the FaRIDA series that was radically self-examining. In each work, a woman, Ghada Khunji, manifestly takes the position of Frida Kahlo in her self-portraits. Khunji strikes an uncanny visual resemblance with Kahlo, with the same slicked back black hair, strong dark eyebrows, penetrating stare and the inclusion of idiosyncratic objects and motifs. As Sulaf Derawy Zakharia comments, “The woman, FaRIDA, bears an unnerving resemblance to the Mexican painter, as does the photomontage to the painting. Both women, in obvious pain, stare stoically out of their respective works.”

In Khunji’s series, a woman holds our gaze in a photographic collage that superimposes different symbols that are deeply connected to the artist’s personal or family life. Though her photomontages nearly perfectly recreate the formal compositions of Kahlo’s paintings, Khunji creates her own visual language that holds deep personal significance. For instance, in FaRIDA I (2017) (Khunji’s rendition of Kahlo’s Self Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird (1940) ), Khunji replaces Khalo’s thorns with her mother’s bracelet, and swaps the Mexican artist’s pet monkey for an Arabian Falcon that sits protectively on her shoulder.

Kahlo was an artist known for her chameleon-like approach to the varying ways one could visually present gender, ethnicity and other signs of identity. For Kahlo, the personal was indeed political, and the mental and physical traumas Kahlo suffered throughout her life were laid bare in her mesmerising and richly symbolic portraits. In the way Kahlo visually narrated her stories of pain, so too, does Khunji. Khunji’s work speaks of the still pervasive taboos particularly in the Middle East that still dominate perceptions of women and their power, damage women’s relationships with their bodies, and restrict women’s ability to authentically be. It also reflects on the pain caused by societal restrictions imposed by gender norms, heritage and class, as distinct from that perpetuated by physical, emotional or mental violence. Perhaps, these two female artists who both reach into their lived experience with a frank honesty are able to recount the sufferings of other women, and transmute such pain into strength and beauty.

Text written by Luli Gibbs

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