Gulf Clap

National Museum of Qatar, Doha. All Photos: Rahel Aima.

“THIS CAMEL, we waited a long time for it to be born,” museum development specialist Karen Exell told members of the press one morning at the stunning new National Museum of Qatar, which opened this March. We were touring an installation on traditional Bedouin life, and here watching footage of the fuzzy creature lurch itself to its feet for the first time. The same might be said for the long-awaited museum, superbly designed by Jean Nouvel to mimic the angular planes of a gypsum rosette, or desert rose crystal, small specimens of which are available in one of two gift shops. Some of the floors are sloped, creating a slight, careening anxiety. We are definitely hurtling toward something—the question is, what?

Or perhaps it’s just that Doha feeling. On my first visit to the city in 2017, it seemed as if it were permeated with a kind of anosmia and the curious dead-air feeling of being inside an immaculately soundproofed room, even when you’re outside. Later that summer, diplomatic tensions led to a punitive “you can’t sit with us” blockade of Qatar from its fellow Gulf state frenemies. Two years later, with no sign of détente, I was curious to see what had changed.

As she hurried us through, Exell took pains to point out the impressive technical scaffolding required to project commissioned films onto the gargantuan screens that line the slanted walls and odd volumes of the museum’s galleries. These commissions, which feature imagery of the land, flora, fauna, and citizens of Qatar—a filmic taxonomy of nativeness—come from filmmakers and artists, such as Abderrahmane Sissako (on desert and coastal life), Mira Nair (on pearl diving), Peter Webber (on the uniting of tribes to form the nation), and Doug Aitken (on the discovery of oil). These projections form the largest video installation in the world, and also feature the highest-resolution single image (in Christophe Cheysson and Jacques Perrin’s Flora & Fauna). Nonetheless, the most consequential image on view in the museum is the one it’s constructing of Qatar: past, present, and future. This very official national narrative unfolds over eleven galleries, arranged chronologically and deftly eliding any icky bits, including the fact that the rather romanticized dangers of pearl diving were often carried out by enslaved peoples, not their Qatari slaveholders. Unfortunately, the last rooms—which will cover the country’s history from the 1971 birth of the nation up to, somehow, the future (the final gallery, “Destination Qatar,” is slated to end in the year 2030)—were not yet ready. 

View of Christophe Cheysson and Jacques Perrin’s installation “Flora & Fauna” at the National Museum of Qatar.

After having headed straight from the airport the night before to a vernissage for an exhibition of jewels from the royal Indian courts at the beautiful I. M. Pei–designed Museum of Islamic Art (MIA), I, for one, was not ready for yet another gem display, this time on the Tiffany jeweler Jean Schlumberger. But soon it was time for lunch with the very jolly MIA director Julia Gonnella. On the menu were mezze, kebabs, and a scintillating, occasionally heated exchange on museum ethics and provenance, with challenging questions from Berlin-based journalist Bernhard Schulz, who had been closely following recent demands that German museums become more transparent about their colonial artifacts. The debate continued as we made our way back to the MIA for a fascinating tour of the Indian jewels show with curator Tara Desjardins. My attitude shifted from saltiness about the museum’s ownership of other people’s cultural patrimony to appreciation of what a sufficiently rigorous institutional framing might do.

I was tempted to linger afterward in the permanent galleries, which Dr. Gonnella told us were to soon undergo a major rehang. The collection is staggering in its breadth and is known for its carpets and Mughal artifacts, though my recent foray into wheel-throwing made the Iranian ceramics especially enticing. But I wanted even more to make it to Doha’s truly remarkable slavery museum, which opened three years ago to dismayingly little fanfare. The Bin Jelmood House is part of a small quad of heritage institutions, the Msheireb Museums, whose sensitive renovation earned them an Aga Khan nomination this year. The Indian Ocean slave trade continued to flow through Gulf port cities as late as the 1960s. People’s grandparents and even parents here were enslaved or slaveholders, and it’s an incredibly sensitive topic—picture a slavery museum opening in the United States in the early 1900s and you’re close to understanding the Bin Jelmood House’s particular magnitude.

When I first visited two years ago, I was unreservedly blown away. This time, I noticed that the place had gotten the kind of multimedia face-lift that comes with being ushered under the centralized Qatar Museums authority. The same narrative arc remains, offering a broad overview of global slavery before explaining how the Arab slave trade differed—and, it is intimated, was less awful “because Islam”—from its Atlantic counterpart. The following rooms are rich with archival materials and audiovisual testimony, which zoom in even further on Qatar’s role in perpetuating as well as abolishing slavery (it did so in 1952), before easing off the pedal when it comes to the present. The last section features some wall panels on modern-day slavery around the world: trafficking, sweatshops, and more. There is an image of “workers having lunch in Doha,” with a caption about the Gulf States’ kafala system in a section on contractual enslavement, other examples of which include migrant farm labor in the United States and the United Kingdom. The exhibition closes with panels affirming Qatar’s dedication to protecting human rights and the country’s 2005 ban on child camel jockeys (who were replaced with spindly robots), leaving out the coordinated campaign from a number of international human-rights groups that forced this reform in both the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.

One suspects that the equivocation here has more than a little bit to do with Qatar’s poor labor-rights reputation, but the small museum’s very existence is a testament to the peninsula’s commitment to openness and discourse, in contrast to its neighbors. Running on empty, I forewent dinner at the souk in favor of crashing asleep as soon as I got to my hotel room. I was later told there was a whirling dervish.

View of Richard Serra’s East-West/West-East.

The sun was already blazing the next morning as we piled into SUVs for an hour-long trip across the country, to see Richard Serra’s East-West/West-East, 2014, a mammoth installation of four steel plates in the empty desert. Khaliji pop music segued surrealistically into George Michael’s “Careless Whisper” as we pulled up to the Serra structures. They were fine, inoffensive, even sort of interesting as monumental benchmarks in that their height matches unusual geologic formations on either side, which in turn record a prehistoric sea level. I was coaxed up one of these small cliffs to enjoy the view over the desert expanse, but mostly I just worried about how I was going to get down the steep track again. Crab walking seemed safest.

Following a visit to the Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art for a solid Okwui Enwezor–curated El Anatsui survey—though, of course, Sharjah is set to have the last posthumous clap here—I made a detour to the stunning new Qatar National Library, designed by OMA. Did I already say “stunning”? Doha is the kind of place that makes you run out of admiring adjectives for its buildings, and possibly even believe, if only for a minute, in the transformative power of starchitecture. 

When I lived in Dubai, I used to be desperately curious about Doha. I really wanted to like it, this utterly intriguing place that elicits such strong, overwhelmingly negative reactions from everyone who used to live there, and from everyone who still does or flies out most weekends. This time, the city didn’t induce quite the same panicky claustrophobia as it had on my first visit, but I was relieved to leave all the same. I feel the same way about KAWS, whose work I had never seen and whose opening at Doha Fire Station closed out my trip. Would those signature dead eyes come alive in an equally glassy-eyed city? The answer was a resounding no. 

“I knew a tattoo artist in the early 2000s in Florida who would tell girls he was KAWS, which is the funniest worst lie,” artist Andrea McGinty offered over Twitter. “I don’t really like American artists. I don’t think they know how to paint,” added a Shanghai-based critic. She was in town to review the show but decided she doesn't have the emotional resilience to try. “What’s amazing here is the complexity,” a nearby viewer said, gesturing importantly to some noncomplex paintings.

“It’s kind of an energy show,” the exhibition’s curator Germano Celant enthused, like some kind of Reiki master. The kids were excited. I watched in grim bemusement as people made a beeline for the gift shop to buy limited-edition pink Elmo figurines and other merch—before going in to see the show. The artist signed toys. I did my best to eavesdrop, but the air was buzzy and electric: Excitement levels were high. I talked to some longtime superfans who were thrilled he was finally there, in their city. Who am I, an avowed Enya fan, to judge? The art wants what it wants.

Curator Germano Clement and artist Brian Donnelly (a.k.a. KAWS).
Qatar Museums Public Art Director Abdulrahman Al-Ishaq.
Museum of Islamic Art Director Julia Gonnella.
Museum of Islamic Art curator Tara Desjardins.