QATAR: New museum to highlight contemporary Arab art


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There’s more to Arab art than ancient swirling calligraphy and seductive, kohl-lined eyes.

Mathaf, the Arab Museum of Modern Art, which will open in Doha, Qatar on Dec. 30., aspires to highlight and share contemporary art by Arabs and artists living in the Middle East that might challenge some preconceptions.


It will also serve as a research center, an exciting prospect for the regional arts community.

The project is being carried out under the auspices of Qatari royal Sheik Hassan bin Mohammad bin Ali al Thani, who is also vice president of the Qatar Museum Authority.

Mathaf, which simply means ‘museum’ in Arabic, will be housed in a school that has been converted by the French architect Jean-Francois Bodin.

The inaugural exhibition, titled, ‘Sajjil: A Century of Modern Art,’ will include works culled from Mathaf’s permanent collection of over 6,000 pieces, all of which were donated from Sheik Hassan’s private collection.

‘We are not trying to present some sort of new canon,’ Wassan al-Khudairi, acting director and chief curator of Mathaf, told Babylon & Beyond. ‘This is why we stress multiple modernities and multiple narratives.’

The museum is already generating some buzz. A crowd of artists, art historians, art writers and journalists gathered on the rooftop terrace of a downtown Beirut luxury hotel Tuesday for a pre-launch soiree where Shabout and Khudairi both spoke. Similar events are being held in Cairo, Marrakesh, Morocco’s second-largest city, London and Paris leading up to the grand opening in Doha.


Mathaf is one of several major art institutions that have opened or will open in the next few years in Qatar and the neighboring United Arab Emirates, which is building a branch of the Guggenheim and the Louvre near Abu Dhabi. In 2008, the Museum of Islamic Art opened in Doha.

Skeptics have wondered aloud whether politics will play a role in the acquisition and exhibition of certain works, excluding pieces that might be considered politically or sexually provocative.

Khudairi said that while local sensibilities may be taken into account when displaying certain pieces in socially-conservative Qatar, acquisition will be driven by the necessities of the collection.

‘I mean everything at the end of the day is political. We have a lot of works in the collection because they’re part of the story,’ she said. ‘To be honest is hasn’t restricted us in any way.’

-- Meris Lutz in Beirut

Photos, from top to bottom: A rendering of the Mathaf Arab Museum of Modern Art, which will be housed in a converted school; Sliman Mansour, Perseverance and Hope, 1976; Ragheb Ayad, Title Unknown, 1923; Hamid Nada, Peace1978; Jassim al Zainy, Features from Qatar, 1973; Madiha Umar, The Letter Ein, 1986. Credit: Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art