Museum collections in Qatar are in a continuous development that moves in multiple directions, from natural history to contemporary art, from Orientalism to media, and from Islamic cultures to global networks. The collection of Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art focuses on modern and contemporary art from an expansive region that extends from North Africa to Southeast Asia, while the Orientalist Museum and Public Art collections, also part of Qatar Museums, focus on works produced in relationship to our region and its influence on artistic production and the writing of art history in modern and contemporary times. Addressing a climate of political and social change, modern and contemporary art bears witness to history at the moment of its unfolding. Speaking to these multiple intertwined narratives, Looking at the World Around You is an invitation to connect with multiple layers of history, mythology and representation, and to reflect on the role of art and the artist through a reading and display of contemporary works from Qatar Museums.
Over the past fifty years, the oil industry has considerably changed the social fabric of Gulf Arab countries and, in Qatar, oil revenue has had a direct impact on building the nation, expanding its cities and creating its universities, museums and other cultural institutions. The collections and curatorial responsibilities of Qatar Museums are built on the idea of critically engaging the world around us, its histories, its objects and their relationships. These collections and the various museums that preserve them have been developed in several phases over the last decade through acquisitions, commissions, artist residencies and public art projects.
Museums in Qatar are unique in that they are being built locally and from the ground up, and they are important windows that open onto the world around us. Qatar is a country that hosts people of different nationalities, backgrounds and languages, and it is thus a place where the question of communication — specifically that which is related to artistic education — is a primary subject of research. With a public that is as diverse as the collections that Qatar’s museums preserve, these institutions face singular challenges and opportunities. As both a concept and an institution building project, Mathaf is the first museum for modern and contemporary art in Qatar.
In Arabic, the world mathaf means “museum,” and Mathaf’s collection, like those of Qatar Museums more generally, has been assembled through an ongoing process of studying recent history, modernity and modernization both in the region and across the globe. For example, when the Museum of Islamic Art’s collection was first being developed, it had to include major artworks and objects that speak to a large and diverse cultural legacy, spanning lifestyles and material productions in Islamic lands as well as the influences of, and exchanges with, other parts of the world that shaped architecture, art and fashion. The Orientalist Museum’s collection, on the other hand, is largely centered on research, with the aim of bringing together the ways in which Europeans and others visualized the so-called Orient. Filled with desire and influenced by imperial expansion, Orientalists depicted more fantasies than realities, more fictions than truths. Thus, the museum’s collection proposes not to look at Orientalism as a unitary artistic movement but rather as a methodology for analyzing and understanding projections onto the region by artists from afar.
Beginning with portraits of the region made from within and outside its borders, Looking at the World Around You proposes to study art in relation to both the contexts of production and the conditions of display within Mathaf, a museum-in-formation. The exhibition presents a group of artworks that provide insight into the collection’s diversity and size, but it is also intended as an opportunity to read each of these artworks in the context of their creation. The historical range of these works is wide, extending from Francisco de Goya’s ca. 1825 tiny ivory painting, which inspired the exhibition’s curatorial concept, to Wael Shawky’s expansive cinematic re-imaginings of the past, completed in 2015.
Equally expansive are the different ways of seeing a society or a place that these works propose. Shirin Neshat looks at contemporary Egypt through the lens of her personal background and experience of the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Her photographs offer a captivating analysis of the very notion of revolution by emphasizing the contradictions inherent to a historical event in which violence and death are so often the vehicles employed in the name of justice, love and freedom. On the other hand, Yan Pei-Ming’s series of portraits, Spring Winter Summer Fall: Modernity Identity, depicts public figures from the Arab world, including politicians, artists, thinkers and other leaders. With his work, Yan Pei-Ming invites viewers to look into the faces of those who have the potential to influence the public with their ideas, art and positions, demonstrating the artist’s interest not only in political events but also in cultural expressions.
Contemporary movements and conditions influence a number of other artists whose work looks at humans and their bodies as witnesses to social change. Faraj Daham’s project on the Arab world reflects social identity through figures and objects related to work and public space, just as Jassim Zaini’s and Wafika Sultan Saif Al-Essa’s scenes from daily life offer discrete and poetic social criticism. Others interrogate history, such as Wael Shawky, whose Cabaret Crusades considers multiple narratives of history, namely how the history of the European Christians who invaded the Middle East during the Middle Ages is recounted through the perspective of Arabs. His sources range from official historians who were contemporary to the events themselves to the telling proposed by Amin Maalouf, contemporary to our time. In so doing, Shawky proposes a way of reading the world around us in which art is both an indicator and a catalyst of new ideas.
The exhibition also presents an archive that tracks the making of Mathaf from its inception to its current state. Documents of the museum’s development during artist residencies, gatherings and production workshops thus illuminate episodes from Mathaf’s history. Beginning in the 1990s with the first artist’s residencies organized in Doha and the renovation of the current Mathaf building, these archives provide important insights into the different chapters of the museum’s institutional history as it was transformed from a private initiative to a public institution, from an individual’s dream to a global museum.
From its modest beginnings in Doha’s Madinat Khalifa, Mathaf has developed into an ambitious national project that fosters exchange with local and international audiences. The process of building the museum runs parallel to the building of the collection, which includes works from a diversity of artistic positions and contexts of production. Focused on histories of art and artistic production related to the Arab world and to the larger geographical zone with cultural, historical and diasporic connections to the Arabian Peninsula, Mathaf encompasses the expanded region, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and centers on the ways in which artistic production cross-references multiple geographies and sociopolitical contexts. This exhibition is therefore a portrait of Mathaf’s collection, one that takes a larger notion of portraiture — among the most prevalent genres in the history of art — as its point of departure. Together, the artists whose work is on display provide as many different portraits of human figures and of society, with all its multiplicity of landscapes, mythologies, histories and social issues.
From 1994 to 2004, two villas in Madinat Khalifa served as the home of the Arab Museum of Modern Art, which was then both a museum and the private collection of H.E. Sheikh Hassan bin Mohammed bin Ali Al Thani. In 2004, the collection was transferred to Qatar Foundation in order to build a museum that would house and preserve the collection while also developing public cultural and educational programming around it. In 2008, Qatar Museums, then called Qatar Museums Authority, started managing the collection and advising Qatar Foundation on the museum’s development. On 30 December 2010, Mathaf opened its doors in Education City, in the former Al Wajba School for Girls.
As early as 1994, however, the Madinat Khalifa villas were already well established sites of artistic production, research, encounters and exhibitions, for Sheikh Hassan had been building the foundations of Mathaf for many years. In the mid 1980s, he started acquiring works from local artists in Qatar and in the early 1990s he expanded his collecting and commissioning of artworks; today these works make up the foundation of Mathaf’s collection. Throughout his travels through the Arab world, Sheikh Hassan met many artists and intellectuals. Wanting to share his experiences with a larger public in Doha, he began collecting art and decided to open his house in order both to host artists and to work with them, creating what might best be described as an informal, micro art academy. Over time, the circle expanded as relationships and projects grew, as did his dream of bringing together artistic productions from around the Arab world and connecting with artists and researchers on a global scale. Qatar offered a safe refuge for artists exiled by the regional conflicts of the 1990s, as well as a place for reflecting on the future, the world and the role of the artist and his or her creations in transforming societies. The first artists, including Ismail Fattah, Shakir Hassan Al Said, Dia Azzawi and Sami Mohammad, came to Madinat Khalifa from Iraq, Kuwait and other parts of the region. They were already prominent in the artistic landscapes of their home countries, where they were also active in building institutions, organizing exhibitions and producing publications. Their pan-Arab collaborations inspired many projects across the region. In 1974, for example, the first Arab Biennial of Art was organized in Baghdad. Two years later, a second edition took place in Rabat on the heels of Azzawi’s trips to Morocco and his connection with local artists and intellectuals such as Mohammed Melehi, Farid Belkahia and Mohammed Bennis. Also in the 1970s, both Etel Adnan and Saloua Raouda Choucair traveled to Morocco, where the Andalusian architecture and local artistic production inspired them to pursue new innovations and approaches in their work.
These exchanges were part of the pan-Arab cultural movement, which was based on collaboration, defining new tendencies and expanding the experiences of art and interdisciplinarity. Although they often employed different media and formal approaches, these artists shared a desire to respond to the increasing demand to create new and innovative artworks that were particular to the region in countries with a rapidly expanding urban lifestyle, as well as to reflect on the social and political situations of the countries in which they lived and worked, both as artists and as citizens. Artists have long testified to their historical moment, to social evolution, technical progress and geopolitical conflicts, and this relationship between art and history and art and society continues to inform Mathaf’s evolution.
The museum as a place of production, as a place for making: this is Mathaf’s foundational methodology and what drives the development of its collection, exhibitions and research, which document and interrogate art’s multiple stories and histories at the moments of their unfolding and historicization. For when Inji Efflatoun painted her self-portrait in prison, or her fellow citizens in the countryside in Egypt, she was also portraying society at one of those moments of historical change that shape and reshape individual lives. Similarly, Ismail Fattah’s dark portraits reflect burning lives while Shakir Hassan Al Said’s work speaks of wars and the destruction of Iraq. These portraits date to the decades and centuries of their production. The museum is the site in which their historicity is inscribed, and it is here where each artwork is bound to its subject and its object through readings and interpretations in the present moment and in connection to the world around us.