Inside Qatar’s Flourishing Museum Scene

Inside Qatar’s Flourishing Museum Scene

The host of this year’s FIFA World Cup is planting its flag on the international cultural scene with a raft of major new outdoor sculptures, museums and exhibitions.
The host of this year’s FIFA World Cup is planting its flag on the international cultural scene with a raft of major new outdoor sculptures, museums and exhibitions.

W hile the eyes of the world have been fixed on the small but petroleum-and-gas-rich Gulf state of Qatar, absorbed by the 2022 FIFA World Cup taking place there, the nation has been taking the opportunity to highlight its cultural credentials. Vying for the attention of the hundreds of thousands of fans, delegates and media visiting for the football are around 45 exhibitions, festivals and events – all part of the Gulf state’s plan to diversify its economy and lessen its reliance of fossil fuels. Many of these cultural happenings come under the banner of “Qatar Creates”, a platform for art and culture led by Her Excellency Sheikha al-Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, sister of the country’s Amir.

“Qatar has embarked on a programme to turn the country into a vast open-air art museum”

The programme launched in October with Qatar Creates week, featuring international fashion and arts events, and the reopening of the I.M. Pei-designed Museum of Islamic Art (MIA). Although inaugurated in 2008, the museum was closed for 18 months for a “reimagination and reinstallation” of its permanent collection galleries. According to the museum’s director, Dr Julia Gonnella, “We have changed the storyline.” Formerly a dazzling showcase for masterpiece objects, the museum now places greater emphasis on narrative. This begins with a presentation on the origins and spread of Islam – “Something that most Islamic art museums fail to do,” says Gonnella. Galleries are also dedicated to the Qur’an and its history, while another new section focuses on the “Gunpowder Empires”: the Ottomans from Istanbul, the Safavids of Iran and the Mughals of India.

Her Excellency Sheikha al-Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani. Photo: Brigitte Lacombe

A temporary exhibition throws a spotlight on the Iraqi capital: Baghdad: Eye’s Delight (until 25 February 2023) focuses on two key eras, juxtaposing the golden age of Baghdad under the Abbasids (AD750–1258) with the period from the 1940s to the 1970s, within which time oil money funded a boom in education and culture and allowed King Faisal II to commission work from leading international architects, including Frank Lloyd Wright and Walter Gropius. “A bit like what is happening in Doha now,” says Gonnella, who co-curated the exhibition.

A waistcoat with bird motifs, produced in Central Asia between the 7th and the 9th century CE, which forms part of MIA’s Baghdad: Eye’s Delight exhibition. Photo: The Museum of Islamic Art, Doha, Samar Kassab

Objects are on loan from 22 institutions worldwide, including the Louvre, the Vatican and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Visitors approach MIA via a waterfront park, part of which features Yayoi Kusama’s draped and polka-dotted palm trees and playful sculptures, elements in an open-air exhibition entitled My Soul Blooms Forever (15 November–3 March). Visitors also have the rare opportunity to experience one of the Japanese artist’s Infinity Mirror Rooms. At the nearby National Museum of Qatar until 14 January, visitors can immerse themselves in a large-scale, site-specific installation by Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist. Entitled Your Brain To Me, My Brain To You, visitors walk through 12,000 LED lights strung on cables, which represent neurons constantly firing and communicating with each other.

Across town, exhibitions at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art include a first major Middle East showing of installations, video and soundscapes by Qatari-American artist Sophia Al Maria; a space dedicated to Taysir Batniji and his work meditating on Palestine; and Majaz, a show of new works by 36 alumni of the Artist in Residence programme run by Fire Station, Qatar’s leading incubator of contemporary artists. Design, fashion and tech hub M7 has Forever Valentino, featuring more than 200 pieces from the luxury fashion house, displayed in an immersive scenography that pays homage to the late couturier’s home city of Rome. All these shows run into 2023.

The National Museum of Qatar. Iwan Baan, courtesy National Museum of Qatar.

For some years, Qatar has embarked on a programme to turn the whole country into one vast open-air art museum. That programme takes a significant step forward during the period of the World Cup with the addition of no fewer than 40 new works. Among them, Jeff Koons’ Dugong, 2022, a colossal polychromatic steel sculpture depicting the marine mammals that inhabit the waters surrounding Qatar; a vignette of two distinctively toy-like figures by US artist KAWS called THE PROMISE; and desert installations by Ernesto Neto and Olafur Eliasson. The Eliasson installation is in the far north of the country and takes the form of huge circular mirrors suspended above ground. Visitors stand beneath it and look up. “You’re in the shadow,” says Eliasson in The Power of Culture: Qatar 2022, written by Sheikha al-Mayassa. “There’s the wind just rushing over and suddenly you see a little bit of birdlife and plants, and the horizon is just completely shimmering, and it feels like you might actually be inside a fata morgana or some kind of mirage.”

As a statement of the country’s larger aim to continue to grow its presence in the global art world, there are exhibitions dedicated to a trio of future museums. These include the Lusail Museum, to be housed in a building designed by high-profile Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, which will be home to the world’s most extensive collection of Orientalist art, and which has a tentative launch date of 2029. The Art Mill Museum is to open the following year – it repurposes a former flour mill and its grain silos as display space for the pick of the Qatari state’s holdings of international modern and contemporary art from 1830 to the present, a collection that has been steadily amassed over the past 40 years.

“While museums in many places play a peripheral role in society, in Qatar they are the core of our daily lives,” says Sheikha al-Mayassa. “The objective is not only economic diversification but also, and perhaps more importantly, that of enhancing the quality of life in our community.”

Cover image: Museum of Islamic Art (MIA), Doha. Photo: Qatar/Alamy Stock Photo

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