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Qatar: State of the Art

By Julia Wheeler

This article first appeared in our September/October 2016 issue.

101From incredible historic artifacts to monumental modern sculpture, Qatar is becoming a destination to view amazing art.

The Kingdoms, Sultanates and Emirates of the Gulf share a landscape, religion and history, but just as the details of their inhabitants’ dress offer clues on identity – the style in which the men’s ghutra headdress is folded or the woman’s abaya draped – the countries are far less homogeneous than appearances first suggest. In the desire to diversify from oil and gas and in the spirit of rivalry that runs just beneath the surface, they are working to differentiate themselves to the outside world.

In the United Arab Emirates, Dubai has finance and shopping, while Oman focuses on natural beauty and authentic tradition unspoiled by excessive wealth. Between now and 2022, much of what you will hear about Qatar is likely to involve sports – more specifically soccer – in the run-up to the country hosting the FIFA World Cup. Less obvious a focus for conversation, but nevertheless a conversation which is getting louder, revolves around the internationally renowned art being collected and shared there.

At one point it was estimated that the Qatar Museums Authority (QMA), which oversees museums, cultural institutions and heritage sites, was spending a billion dollars a year on art. The QMA is led by the sister of the Emir, Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani. She was once described as the most powerful person in the art world and although she has slipped down the rankings of ArtReview’s Power 100, her influence remains impressive – one art critic suggested she effectively has the resources of an entire country at her disposal. And let us not forget this is the country with the highest GDP per capita on the planet. So what has she been spending it on?

When it comes to modern and contemporary art, Qatar had a great head start. Another member of the royal Al Thani family, Sheikh Hassan bin Mohammed bin Ali, began collecting in the early 1990s. He focused mainly on pieces from the Arabian Peninsula together with its trading and cultural partners in North Africa, Turkey, Iran and Asia. His donation of a first group of works to the public set the stage for what has become Mathaf, or the Arab Museum of Modern Art.
Importantly, this ‘home-grown’ aspect of Qatar’s collecting sets it apart from the art scene in the UAE’s capital, Abu Dhabi. The latter has worked with huge international institutions such as the Guggenheim, Louvre and the British Museum to build its collections. Initially housed in two villas in Qatar’s capital, Doha, in 2010 Mathaf moved to a redesigned former school building. It currently includes over 9,000 works of art – the largest specialized collection of its kind anywhere in the world – and is growing. This permanent collection is complemented by temporary exhibitions featuring internationally acclaimed artists.

As well as raising the profile of Qatar internationally, one bold rationale given for making art accessible to the public is to encourage debate about social and political shifts and the way Arab societies are structured – to display and discuss the role of art in that process. The Mathaf collection includes paintings, sculptures, video and installation from the mid-19th century to today. There are key works by pioneering Arab artists who were not only important witnesses of their time, but helped establish art scenes in their own countries. Of particular note are Jewad Selim from Iraq with his 1956 mixed media piece Baghdadiat, the sculptor Mahmoud Mokhtar’s The Nile from his native Egypt and closest to home, the Qatari artist, Jassim Zaini.

Prolific and varied in his styles, Zaini saw and depicted the changes in Qatar during the 1950s and 1960s resulting from the discovery and production of oil. He used abstraction, expressionism, cubism, impressionism, plus surrealism and his work centered on themes of identity and cultural heritage.

Sheikha Al Mayassa describes part of Mathaf’s missio102n as being to expand people’s ideas about art and culture in the region and ‘to show that the story is bigger, more exciting and more surprising than might be supposed.’

Some of that supposing – assumption really – arises from the traditionally nomadic lifestyle of the Arabian Peninsula. In simple terms, the Bedouin could only carry with them what could be strapped to the backs of their camels. Indeed, most of the pieces in the iconic Museum of Islamic Art, or MIA, derive from beyond the shores of the southern Gulf. Critically, one of the achievements of this spectacular museum is that it leads the inquisitive on a journey through Pan Arab culture and society, past and present. Within its fortress-like exterior are exquisite ceramics, glass, metalwork, textiles and manuscripts. Highlights include a 10th century astrolabe from Iraq, a navigational tool first used by the Ancient Greeks before being developed by Arab scientists.

From Cairo, the doors of a 14th century Egyptian minbar (mosque pulpit) display the intricate patterns of geometry so widespread in Islamic art: here, wood beautifully and elaborately inlaid with ebony and ivory. One of my favorite pieces is a gold coffee cup holder, or zarf in Turkish. Like the cardboard sleeves slipped over takeaway drinks today, but with far more elegance and aplomb, it protected a 19th century drinker’s fingers from scalding cups of coffee. Each diamond and ruby has been hand-cut by a lapidary to fit perfectly into the floral motif.

The exhibits in Doha’s MIA also point to links beyond the Arab sphere. An albarello jar was used by apothecaries to store drugs or ointments. The example on show here was created in the Damascus of the 15th century, but the European-style shield at its center suggests it was destined for use in the Italian city of Florence. Similarly, the pomegranate vase pattern found on floor coverings throughout the Muslim world is on display at the MIA in the form of a 19th century Chinese silk and cotton carpet. It demonstrates the spread of Islamic ideas and motifs way beyond their Middle Eastern origin.

If the contents of the MIA provide insight into the Arab past, then the building itself gives hints about the future of the country whose money made it possible. That the building was designed by the Chinese-American architect responsible for the Louvre Pyramid in Paris says a lot about how serious Qatari royals are in positioning their tiny emirate globally; I. M. Pei was enticed out of retirement in his 80s.

Built on its own island of reclaimed land at Pei’s insistence – to ensure it would not be crowded out or ruined by future development – the building has an air of secular religiosity. It is strong and striking, but its arches are welcoming, its cool limestone exterior calming. The use of two huge semi-circles of glass to resemble eyes above a veil is inspired. They give the impression that anyone approaching is being watched.

Just across the water and jutting out into the bay between Doha’s ever-growing skyline and the museum is the sculpture 7. It sits on a purpose-built plinth created partly from the spoil generated during the museum’s construction and is the work of the American minimalist sculptor, Richard Serra. He took inspiration from an Afghan minaret. Seven steel plates, geometrically arranged, rise to create an 82-ft tower. The figure seven is spiritually significant in Islamic cultures. The Koran speaks of seven heavens and several hajj rituals involve the number, including pilgrims walking seven times around the Kaaba in Mecca.103

In the sculpture’s design, account had to be taken of wind speeds across the bay as well as, crucially, the temperature (and therefore expansion) the piece experiences in Doha’s midday sun – at least 100 degrees Fahrenheit in June, July and August. This is public art, again created to feed into the conversation that Qatar is having with itself and others.

If Serra’s first piece of public art here was bold, his latest is intrepid – as are those who visit. This piece, named East-West/ West-East, is an hour’s drive from Doha into the desert of the Zekreet Peninsula. The sculpture consists of four skinny pillars, each up to 50ft high and set between crumbling cliffs.

They span over half a mile of desert in a landscape that is sweaty and dusty for much of the year. The imposing pillars will age, rust and change color – grey through orange, brown and towards deep amber – more quickly here in the Brouq Nature Reserve’s sandy, salty, scorching environment than Serra’s sculptures elsewhere in the world, but then the Qatari art scene is not afraid of speed.

Serra has said he loved the potential that having two planes – one at ground level, one elevated – gave him as an artist who uses space as his main material. It has allowed his pillars to create a point of reference; before the sculpture was erected there was no way of knowing where one stood in relation to the wider landscape. Now, there is a destination, a place for art where one did not exist before. The same could be said of Qatar.

Julia Wheeler is a freelance journalist and was the BBC Gulf Correspondent based in Dubai, 2000-2010. She has written the book Telling Tales: An Oral History of Dubai.