North Africa, West Asia

The birth pangs of Qatar’s art scene

In which the claim by Yes Minister’s Sir Humphrey that, “subsidy is not to be given for what the people want! It is for what the people don't want but ought to have!” resonates in Qatar.  

Sarah El-Richani
16 October 2013

One month after social media users, led by a Qatari journalist, accused the Qatar Museums Authority (QMA) of corruption, mismanagement and nepotism, a series of exhibitions and artwork were unveiled around Doha this October. This  stoked more controversy.

Coup de tête, a colossal bronze depiction of the moment Zinedine Zidane headbutted the Italian defender Marco Materazzi in the 2006 World Cup final by the French-Algerian artist Adel Abdessemed, was installed on Doha’s corniche earlier this month.

This was followed by the unveiling of Damien Hirst’s ‘The Miraculous Journey’. The work, which is estimated to have cost $20m, consisting of 14 bronze sculptures, captures the development of a foetus from conception to birth.  

While the QMA’s chairwoman and sister to the current Emir, Sheikha Mayassa al-Thani was quick to state that the sculptures are “not against our culture or our religion”, some Qataris active on social media have lamented the mushrooming of these “idols” around Doha, calling on the Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs to intervene. (Some ultra-conservative Muslim scholars and believers equate erecting, displaying and owning sculptures with idolatry - a cardinal sin in Islam. Although, there have been a few infamous and dismissed fatwas or religious edicts considering Egyptian ruins and statues as idolatrous, the century-old fatwa issued by Mufti Mohammad Abdu and which argued that sculptures that are not worshipped are not un-Islamic, remains in force.)

Meanwhile, others jokingly insist that the baby boy be dressed or at least diapered. Oddly enough, the statues were covered up again a few days after the unveiling; allegedly to protect them from the dust emanating from construction sites in the vicinity. Coincidentally, perhaps, Hirst’s ‘Golden Calf’ and ‘False Idol’, were not part of the artist’s ‘Relics’ exhibition which opened a few days later.

A stone’s throw away from Hirst’s sculptures in the Mathaf - the Arab Museum for Modern Art - an exhibition by Abdessemed, the artist responsible for the Coup de tête, also managed to “ruffle feathers”, particularly with one film Printemps, which is alleged to depict chickens being burnt alive.

Despite Abdessemed’s view that “art is a fire that cannot be put out...”, reports circulating on social media sites claim that Shaikha Mayassa has intervened and put out that fire. Officials, however, claim that there were technical issues preventing them from showing the film.

Meanwhile, the Hirst exhibition curator’s claim that the fig leaf covering Saint Bartholomew’s nudity was attached for a Chinese exhibition and could have been removed in Doha, seems far-fetched in light of the Greek statue kerfuffle earlier this year, when two nude statues were withdrawn from the exhibition Olympics –past and present, after the Greek Minister of Culture objected to having their nudity covered.

Art-induced controversy in the Gulf States is not new. In the nearby emirate of Abu Dhabi, despite delays, the Guggenheim and the Louvre are shortly expected to open branches. A petition by artists and critics demanding that the rights of the migrant workers who are erecting these edifices are upheld, has been joined by more murmurings from those who have expressed concerns about inevitable exclusions from these museums. In recent years, art works have also been withdrawn from the contemporary art exhibition Art Dubai, and the Sharjah Art Foundation’s director Biennial was sacked.

Qatar’s culture queen” has on several occasions spoken of the power of art in triggering debate; but some of these debates have circled around criticism at how public money is used, where the often unannounced acquisitions end up, as well as their relevance to Qatar.

The QMA, however, has consciously cultivated and recognized local and regional culture, sensibilities and talents by establishing the Museum of Islamic Art and the Museum of Arab Modern Art. Seasonal exhibitions such as the February 2014 exhibition of Levantine artist Mona Hatoum as well as the Hajj, Journey Through Art exhibition launch last week are clear nods in that direction. Still, more could be done to support local and Arab artists and to convince the public of the QMA’s new mandate as a “private entity for public good.”

At the same time, however, the claim by Yes Minister’s Sir Humphrey that “subsidy is not to be given for what the people want! It is for what the people don't want but ought to have!”, resonates in Qatar.  

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