Qatari art gets centre spotlight
In the mid-1980s a young student caught the attention of Yousef Ahmed, a professor at Qatar University.
As Ahmed taught his class the appreciation of art, history and basic drawing skills, he sensed this one student's innate desire to study and practise more.
The relationship would expand and turn to collecting when the student, a member of Qatar's royal family, called on his mentor to help him amass works for what would become the regional hub that is Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art.
In addition, Sheikh Hassan bin Mohamed bin Ali Al Thani, the vice-chairperson of Qatar Museums Authority and Mathaf's patron, asked Ahmed to "go digging" to find local artists.
"When I found [the artists], I told them all: 'One day, these pieces will be in a museum'," said Ahmed. "Some didn't believe me. They were at the beginning of their lives and art was a hobby for them. They didn't expect their pieces to be on a wall in a museum." It has taken more than 20 years for Ahmed's insight to be realised.
On Sunday, Mathaf opened Swalif, the third exhibition since its December launch. For the next 11 weeks, 78 artworks by 23 native Qatari artists will hang on the white walls of a former school, which is the museum's temporary home. Displayed across three galleries, Swalif (which means stories, in the Qatari dialect) is expected to catalyse local interest in art where previous exhibitions have not.
The exhibition covers the period from 1965 to 2006, with the works appearing in chronological order. Many paintings are a simple reflection of what artists have personally witnessed, from fishing to falconry, burqa-clad women to men making the traditional bisht (cloak).
Ahmed, who is also the show's curator, has six of his own pieces on display.
"It's very important for our knowledge," he said. "If you want to read about the history of a country, first of all, you look at its art. Art captures the history."
The museum's director, Wassan Al Khudairi, said the show was an opportunity to highlight the importance of local artists.
Since the opening last year, despite good attendance figures, Al Khudairi conceded that "there are pockets of our community that we may not be reaching".
The museum is in Doha's Education City, where most of Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned's project, Qatar Foundation (QF), is based. American universities, a science and technology park and a television station have been built on the QF desert, a location some have yet to visit.
"We're hoping through this exhibition that we can capture the attention of people who may not be interested in art but are interested in their culture and their heritage. Hopefully, this can be the beginning of a relationship with these communities," Al Khudairi said.
About 500 people attended Sunday's opening - at least half of them Qatari. Just two of the exhibiting artists are women - Wafika Sultan Saif Al-Essa and Wafa Al-Hamad.
"There are a lot more women but we were limited by the collection," explained Mariam Helmy, the assistant curator. "We're not calling it a representation, we're showing a glimpse of our collection."
The team, which spent four months pulling Swalif together, was advised to use artwork from Sheikh Hassan's personal inventory of 6,000 pieces. Loaning art or purchasing more was forbidden.
One of the younger artists, 40-year-old Abdul Rahman Mohamd Almutawah, said he is honoured that two of his pieces are included. One depicts a serene, simple scene; blue skies and water form the backdrop to a dhow perched on shore in Al-Wakrah, a quiet city by the sea.
"The happiness of creating a piece of art is when you see a positive reaction from the people," he said. "The painting's about the past. Since we are living in a modern world, it's an honour for me to bring a piece of the past to the present."
For the 54-year-old artist Mohammed Al Jaidah, Swalif is where the younger generation can discover their history.
"I want the people to compare between the old times and now," he said. "I hope art will be taken more seriously now that they have somewhere to come."
Mathaf's second and previous exhibition, Sajjil, was less local, offering 200 modern works by artists from across the region.
The exhibition represents "big changes" since the opening of Mathaf, said Muneera Spence, the chairperson of the graphic design department at the Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar (VCUQ) - which has a student body that is more than half Qatari.
"One is that our alumni is working in the museum," she said. "The second is that our students have something to look at."
Standing in the museum's lobby on opening night, Jose Parada, a Spanish physiotherapist, said he was less than dazzled by the offerings.
"The art and the artists are pretty normal," he said. "But the concept of this building and the fact there are more women than men who came to the event is inspiring."
Gian Peretti, an Italian interior designer, struggled to name a favourite piece.
"There is more potential and more to do. Things are developing," he said. "It's nice to see there is a strong community of artists, though. It's a group and they know and respect each other."
Perhaps it was Maryah Al Dafa, a young Qatari, whose observations demonstrated that Swalif could well achieve its main goal.
As she made her way to the end of the exhibition, she stopped to look at an eye-catching piece: a giant black and white dress made entirely from feathers. Made by Sheikh Hassan in 2006 and worn by Sheikha Mozah in a photo published in Time magazine, the falcon-inspired garment closes the exhibition with a bang.
"I know it sounds cliché, but this exhibition is a good example of showcasing modernity and tradition," she said. "Art opens your eyes to a lot of things. It's important to capture your culture."
Swalif runs at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art until October 29
Updated: August 22, 2011 04:00 AM