We Were Always

Doha's lesson in Arab art history

Text by Shumon Basar

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Adam Henein’s Al-Safina (“The Ship”) in front of Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art


The sky broods, thick with stray sand. We make our descent through the smog, having only departed Dubai 45 minutes before. Under us, slow-motion flames threaten the plane’s belly. I’ve seen elevated flares like this before, at the start of Blade Runner. Here in doha, the capital of Qatar, these over-sized roman candles mark the co-ordinates of massive gas reserves. The further the earth’s finite resources are depleted, the better the present becomes for nations blessed with oil and gas bounty. According to the CIA Factbook, this is, per capita, the richest country in the world.

There is no such loftiness in the interminable immigration queues. they suck and we are stuck. Various V iPs worried they’re going to be late for the imminent opening of Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art exasperate towards the nearest clipboard-armed official. I wonder – cynically, conspiratorially – if the real reason for our eyeball rolling is not that we have to wait ages, but, that we have to do so without preferential treatment over the masses of South Asian migrant workmen.

There are two possibilities: one, that Qatar is radically equal in its treatment of all foreigners. or, perhaps, it has yet to catch on to the fact that airports are one of the last bastions of explicit racial, national and class segregation.

The Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, has 11 years to not only overhaul the sluggish, snaking queues at Doha’s airport, but also the city’s transport, leisure and hospitality infrastructure. For, in 2022, Doha will host the World Cup. The decision illicited days of ecstatic reverie on the Corniche. Vuvuzelas blared. Football is Qatar’s most popular sport – 77 percent of men and 64 per cent of women regularly tune in. Qatar’s improbable victory in the FIFA sweeps, announced seconds after Russia learnt of its own victory in the 2018 games, is yet another symbolic-real illustration of the Rise of the Rest at the expense of the Former West.


Like hipsters were to Brooklyn’s gentrification, showcase developments signal the vitality of new economic power. When the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur opened, in 1997, as the tallest buildings in the world, they ended America’s century-long, uninterrupted run on that coveted title. Today, satellite pictures testify that the newest concentrations of tall buildings are synchronous with the biggest annual GdP percentage gains.

Soon after a formerly anonymous, now booming nowhere starts throwing up skyscrapers, trophy art usually follows. Dubai never really followed this rule. Despite the emergence of a rapaciously commercial art market, it has no state-developed museums or cultural projects. Abu Dhabi famously wrote itself onto the cultural map with its prodigiously sized cheque-book. The development of Saadiyat Island as Abu Dhabi’s cultural centre was announced in 2006, in a frenzy of big-name architects and big-brand institutions: Frank Gehry and the Guggenheim; Jean nouvel and the louvre. Yet, for all its chutzpah, this kind of mail-order master-planning has been criticised for its inverse orientalism: instead of championing home-grown talent, the region’s future is placed firmly in the hands of Western public-relations wizards and seasoned institutional intelligensia. Qatar has said that it wants to be different.

It feels different. Of course, some of it is as resolutely Gulfi as its neighbours. The 1970s brought an influx of American-influenced modernism to the region, as seen in many of the municipal and hotel buildings. Ask a Qatari – or an Emirati, or a Kuwaiti – what remains that is “old”, and they’ll probably mention some hulking, brutalist megastructure. Not until Qatar commissioned IM Pei, architect of the Louvre pyramid in Paris, to design the Museum of Islamic Arts (MIA), could Doha boast a signature pictogram; a mnemonic shorthand for its cultural blossoming. That was 2009, and the 91-year-old Pei had to be coaxed out of retirement to take on the brief. The MIA looks like a cliché in photographs: a Westerner keen to please his Middle Eastern clients with simple Islamic geometries given a modern twist. In actuality, though, it sits on a manmade spit with great dignity and poise, as though it had been there forever.


Mathaf differs from MIA, and from almost every proposed new cultural project in the Gulf, by not making its building, or its architect, the star of the show. This is to be admired, especially since Mathaf is the first museum of modern Arab art in the region. The French architect Jean-Francois Bodin has transformed a former school into an all-white experience that is more or less bereft of anything memorable. Even the building’s location, next to the still-new Education City, where several American educational institutions have set up super-sized franchises (Virginia Commonwealth, Texas A&M, Carnegie Mellon), is remarkable for how unremarkable it is. This is the anti-Guggenheim Effect.

But what is at the heart of Mathaf? Sheikh Hassan bin Mohammed bin Ali Al Thani amassed a private collection over three decades, which now amounts to around 6,300 works, dating from the 1840s to today. After running a private gallery for a decade, he donated the collection to the Qatar Foundation, which is run under the guidance of her highness sheikha Mozah bint nasser Al Missned, in 2003. two years later, following the establishment of the Qatar Museums Authority (QMA), of which Sheikh Hassan is vice chairperson and the Emir’s daughter, Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, is head, the collection became the responsibility of the QMA, and work began on its transformation into a public entity.

When I first visited the tiny team a few years ago, it was tucked away in a truly unglamorous setting, rather like a suburban house at the end of an unpeopled cul-de-sac. Inside, its primarily young, female protagonists – including the chief curator and acting director Wassan Al Khudhairi, the head of strategy Deena Chalabi, and the librarian Sophia Al Maria (known to many as “Sci-fi Wahabi”) – were in the institutional equivalent of the trenches. One of the untold stories of the emergence of culture in the Middle East is that it is exceptionally bright, sometimes very young, women who are at the helm, whether the Sheikhas or the transnational, Western-educated art fair directors, curators and gallerists. While spending time with this intrepid task force, I found it moving to see acutely pragmatic issues be faced for the first time: what kinds of shelving systems can we get to store the works? How do we classify things? Should this tatty journal go in the library or not? Such ostensibly mundane questions made me grin with excitement, as did the thrift-store arrangement of paintings and sculptures in storage, where time and style were juxtaposed in an unconscious pop-cubist spirit. An unruly, emergent promise was forged in that house. i realise now that it was a very special time, before institutional good taste came along and imposed its own conventions on that beautiful mess.


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Left, Hassan Khan, stills from Jewel (2010). Courtesy the artist and Galerie Chantal Crousel. Right, Khalil Rabah, from BIPRODUCT (2010)



It is a far cry from those anonymous days to this: the royal inauguration night last December. There is confusion about where people’s VIP cards are. One notable French gallerist, infuriated at the disorganisation, refuses our suggestion that he use the name of an absent Turkish curator. “I want to be me!” he snaps. We get our bags X-rayed in a neat Bourne Supremacy-style van. All the well-groomed guests have clearly dressed under the assumption that it never gets cold in the Middle East, but tonight it’s freezing. We’re not allowed in until the Emir, his wife Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned and an entourage that includes Jeff Koons have toured the exhibition first. They’re late, and they’re taking their time. We sip on our juice – Qatar is a dry state – and listen to the Iraqi journalist/rapper the Narcicyst rhyme out loud from a stage a few metres away. But mostly, we just shiver.

Once inside, the first pieces you see are two massive monochrome portraits of the Emir and Sheikha Mozah, painted by the Dijon-based Chinese artist Yan Pei-Ming, who is perhaps best known for similarly styled paintings of Chairman Mao. Sheikha Mozah gazes at the emir; he looks into the future.

Two hundred and forty works have been selected for the first, indicative exhibition, Sajjil: A Century of Modern Art. (Here, Sajjil means “the act of recording”. In Iran, it happens to be the name of a surface-to-air missile.) The curators, Wassan Al Khudhairi, Deena Chalabi and the art historian Nada Shabout, have compiled 10 themes, including Doha, nature, the city, individualism, struggle, form and abstraction, across 12 galleries. The earliest painting, from 1847, is by Ali Zara and shows an everyday street scene. The rest of the exhibition spans figuration, abstraction and landscape, the last of which we are told is a very popular genre among the Palestinian diaspora. Wall texts are enjoyably direct: “The mother in Arab art could represent among other things: the struggle for independence / the yearning of the artist for home / the mother goddesses of ancient ancestors, or a more traditional figure among her family.”

I can’t be the only one who feels that our Western eyes are caught in an awkward quandary. Must I make constant comparisons to Arab art’s American and European stylistic forebears, thus subjugating everything non-Western to the status of latecomer knock-off? Or can I really look virginally, without the prop of precedent?

One thing is clear. Mathaf is a Museum with a capital M, whiter even than MoMA New York’s palace of white-cube-ness. While it’s a formidable feat to have accomplished so much in so little time, I can’t help but wonder: does every museum committed to telling the story of modernity in art have to abide by the same Western rules of pedagogy and display? When I saw the same pieces in the messy storage room years ago, it felt alive because it had not been absorbed by a single account. Sajjil attempts to tell cohesive, thematic stories, but art history is always a complicit fiction, a desire to impose retrospective order over splintered, messy time. Will Mathaf ever allow Arab modernity as many histories as it has futures?


The next day, at a new warehouse building on the grounds of the Museum of Islamic Arts, two more exhibitions pull us up to the present moment. Interventions, curated by nada Shabout, brings together five influential, modernist figures from the Arab world: Dia Azzawi, Farid Belkahia, Ahmed Nawar, Ibrahim el-Salahi and Hassan Sharif, from Iraq, Morocco, Egypt, Sudan and the UAE respectively, have all established pioneering dialogues with European modernism, and naturalised those motifs into their own regional histories.

Next door is the region’s first major exhibition of entirely commissioned works from 23 artists, all loosely related to the Arab world. Entitled Told/Untold/Retold, it has reputedly offered mega-funds ($100,000 per artist) and generous space to characters familiar to Middle East art aficionados: Walid Raad, Akram Zaatari, Lamia Joreige, Khalil Rabah, Lara Baladi and many more. Hassan Khan, from Cairo, seems to have been least affected by the luxury budget on offer and it has made his six-minute film, Jewel, all the stronger. Two middle-aged men of Arab extraction dance around a speaker that hangs from the ceiling in a dark, nondescript space. the speaker morphs into a demonic piranha, but the men continue to boogie, badly but wholeheartedly. It’s funny and moving and doesn’t hector you with rhetoric. Another piece that uses humour to disarm something more sinister is Three Love Songs by Abdel Abidin, who was born in Iraq. A well-known Saddam-era propaganda song is sung by three exaggeratedly theatrical characters, one of them a sultry lounge chanteuse, effectively neutering the rampant, macho nationalism encoded in the lyrics. looking at Told/Untold/Retold, which was curated by the non-Mathaf pairing of Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath, i’m convinced there is a much smaller, exquisite exhibition lost in its oversized, over-staged ambitions.


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Abdel Abidin, still from Three Love Songs (2010)



There is so much money, intelligence, expertise and energy invested here in Doha. What is the ambition? The beauty of a young institution is that it doesn’t yet have to perform according to the demands of its history or past glories. It is still in a state of becoming. This is also an apt description of Qatar right now. We all know how quickly one part of the world can begin to look and feel and think like another part, intentionally or not. Thomas Friedman was only half right: the world will be flat, if you don’t insist that it won’t be. Is it naïve or hubristic to believe that this tendency could be challenged, thwarted, replaced with some other programme of ambition that sets its own idiosyncratic agenda? Is it too much to ask or expect these exponents of the New New World to reject the universal conventions of good taste, and instead devise their own distinctive manifestoes? Or is the desire for oppositional, ludic invention just as old-fashioned as believing that democracy should be innate and universally embraced? Welcome to the desert of the real. Again. §