Qatar Museum Aims to Start New Conversations About Arab Art

Tucked away on a side street, far from the flashier museums that have come to represent Qatar in the post-World Cup era, the Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha is about to unveil four concurrent exhibitions that can be seen as a testament to the museum’s crucial role in the world of contemporary Arab art.

It’s part of a new vision for the museum, affectionately known among locals as Mathaf (Arabic for “museum”). As Qatar has established a flashy vision of a global arts center — with several enormous museum projects planned over the next decade — Mathaf has positioned itself as a vital player in that scene, all from a nondescript former school building in the shadow of one of the stadiums built for the World Cup.

For Zeina Arida, who joined the museum as its new director from the Sursock Museum in Beirut, Lebanon, two years ago, these four exhibitions, all opening Oct. 27 and running until March 5, depict the past, present and future of an often misunderstood — or simply unknown — chapter of art from the Arab world. They reflect the museum’s vision, she said. Mathaf, which is overseen by the government agency Qatar Museums and opened in 2010, has a collection of more than 9,000 items in its 59,000 square feet in a former school building redesigned by the French architect Jean-François Bodin.

“The connecting fabric of these four shows is really about Mathaf being very much in the conversation about modern Arab art and how it can prepare for the future,” Ms. Arida said in a recent video interview. “We are changing the experience at Mathaf, and it’s going to evolve in the coming years. It’s important that we act as a platform that is local but international.”

That mix of global and local is on display in the four exhibitions, all running simultaneously and in many ways connected through themes and history.

The Iraqi artist Mehdi Moutashar, 80, is being giving his first solo museum show in the Arab world since the 1970s, according to Mathaf. Museum officials say it’s long overdue.

“Mehdi is bringing his work back to the region where he comes from,” Amin Alsaden, the Toronto-based curator of this exhibition, said in a recent video interview. “He grew up in Iraq playing in the ruins of Babylon. He was mesmerized by the stunning calligraphy and the geometric patterns. He plays with those patterns.”

Mr. Alsaden said that Mr. Moutashar in many ways personifies the history of modern and contemporary art by blending his classical training and fascination with Arab and Muslim history with modern art, which is connected in ways that Western artists and art lovers might not understand. He works in a variety of media: wood, paint, elastic wire and thread, and painted steel. “Introspection as Resistance” will show 27 works by Mr. Moutashar, from his early works in the 1960s to more recent works, such as “Three Folds at 60-degrees and Two Squares,” made of painted wood, painted steel and elastic wire, from 2021.

“Arab modernism is a movement that the world knows very little about, and there is a lot more work yet to be done to honor the pioneers,” Mr. Alsaden said. “The instability in Iraq and the region has made it difficult to access archives, artists and where art is shown and where ideas are debated.”

The curator also pointed out that Mr. Moutashar could be seen as a pioneer.

“There is a Western bias where Europe and America became known for modern art, but it’s only in recent years that major museums are beginning to pay closer attention to modern Arab art,” he added. “We’re catching up more than 50 years later. Mehdi bridges the gap between the modernism that flourished in mid-20th century Baghdad and global contemporary art.”

This exhibition, also curated by Mr. Alsaden, highlights the works of more than 60 artists, with artwork drawn from Mathaf’s permanent collection. The blending of Arab heritage with modernism is at the core, with an eye toward how abstraction evolved differently in this part of the world.

“When abstraction emerged in the West, it revolted against realistic art and became a progressive word,” he said. “However, Arab artists grew up with abstraction. For them, abstraction is not purely an aesthetic formal choice. It’s a way of thinking about their art.”

He points to two specific paintings that reflect this approach: “Untitled (The Letter Ein),” by the Iraqi artist Madiha Umar from 1986; and “Untitled (part of ‘They Always Appear’),” from 1966, by the Sudanese artist Ibrahim El-Salahi.

One of the pioneers of the movement that came to be known as Hurufiyya (or “letterism”), Ms. Umar, who died at age 97 in 2005, started experimenting with Arabic letters in the 1940s, integrating calligraphy into modern art. In this work, she used the Arabic letter “ein” to create an abstract nocturnal landscape.

Mr. El-Salahi, 93, is known for paintings and drawings that refer to Arab, Muslim and African iconography. “Untitled” includes folkloric motifs, plants and mythological creatures, all depicted in earthy tones in a visual field that seems neither figurative nor abstract.

“Both of these works, despite their obvious differences, exemplify the ambitions of this exhibition, which asks the simple question: What were the most distinctive experiments that Arab modern artists engaged in, and what were their most unique contributions to the world?” Mr. Alsaden said. “Abstraction is a way of thinking through problems. When you look at their works, they are distilled lessons. If you engage closely with them, you will understand their processes.”

The installation is a tablelike structure that stands about 1.5 feet tall, measuring about 8 feet by 4 feet and covered in a canvas of sand. A metal ball about the size of a marble moves across the surface, controlled by a magnet underneath, writing coded sentences in an aesthetic font that evokes the calligraphic visual heritage of the Arab world. The phrases, developed by four artists from the Doha campus of Virginia Commonwealth University who also designed the installation, are inspired by the philosopher Jacques Derrida, who developed the deconstruction theory, which re-examines language and how it is interpreted. The curators, Noora Abdulmajeed and Rim Albahrani of the Mathaf staff, said the machine showcased the evolution of the post-colonial Arab region and how words and language could take on new meanings and evolve over time.

“After the machine writes the phrases, they are erased in a few minutes,” Ms. Abdulmajeed explained. “Through the machine’s mechanism, the audience can observe that meaning is not fixed, similarly to how history is perceived, as we write and rewrite it.”

There will be about a dozen or so sentences on a loop, each addressing topics from culture to language to geography and how they are multilayered and constantly being reinterpreted.

“We have multiple cultures and countries in the Arab world,” Ms. Abdulmajeed said. “Through Derrida’s theory, we understand the complexity of reading these histories beyond ‘either’ or ‘or,’ east or west. True and false. He strongly challenged that.”

“The phrases and words written will reflect upon the diverse identities of the region and the narratives that we continue to rediscover,” Ms. Albahrani said. “People have perceptions about the past; this is important to use critically when analyzing the sociocultural histories of a particular Arab country. To what extent do our fixed notions shape the truth?”

The Covid pandemic was a time of loneliness and fear for the Lebanese artist Abed Al Kadiri. But it also turned out to be an opportunity to connect to his fellow artists in a way that only isolation could bring about.

“During the first three weeks of the pandemic, I was alone in my studio in Beirut and hearing news of death around the world, so I was in a moment of self-reflection,” said Mr. Al Kadiri, 39, director and co-founder of Dongola Limited Editions in Beirut, a publisher of artist books, an art form inspired by the structure of a book, often painted or presented in pop-up form. “I thought to myself: Well, we cannot travel, but books can travel.”

He remembered the quote, “It’s difficult to put a painting in a mailbox,” from the American artist John Baldessari in his 1972 artist book “Ingres and Other Parables.” But books can travel, and an artist book can certainly be an artistic expression.

He and his business partner, Sarah Chalabi, and the art director and Iranian artist Reza Abedini oversaw the in-house creation of 59 12-page books that were mailed to fellow artists in 20 countries.

“The artists, all of whom are Middle Eastern, were able to create or write about whatever they wanted,” Mr. Al Kadiri explained. “Many of them expressed feelings of fear, uncertainty and loss. The pandemic had a big influence on them. Some of them did collage, others did drawings, embroidery or pictures. The options were unlimited.”

The exercise was cathartic for Mr. Al Kadiri and many of his fellow artists, and the exhibition at Mathaf will be the first time all 59 books will be displayed together. He collected the writings for a book that will be published during the exhibition, and Mathaf visitors will be able to scan QR codes to get the details of the inside pages since not all books have all of their pages displayed.

“In case I died, I wanted to implement an idea that brings together as much as possible the artists I knew personally,” Mr. Al Kadiri said. “I consider this project of a love and friendship during one of the most critical times in our history.”

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