DOHA, THE ISOLATED CAPITAL OF QATAR, is more a half-city than a city. Only partly built up. With a resort here and a luxury hotel there and long stretches of sand in between, the Persian Gulf lapping at its eastern side. I was there for the opening of the Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, having landed a couple weeks or so after Qatar won the bid for the World Cup in 2022—an event that will quite literally make Doha. Over the next decade the workers will be brought in, the plots of land divided and subdivided, and this place at the end of the desert will materialize.
The people were visibly excited. Banners hung in the streets with a photograph from the announcement ceremony. Sheikh Hamad, who in 1995 overthrew his father as emir of Qatar in a bloodless coup, while his father was out of town, was seen raising high the symbolic copy of the trophy, his image whipping in the wind that blew up the sand. A variation showed Sheikha Mozah, self-consciously glamorous in a Western way and the only one of the three wives who appears in photographs, holding the golden object with the emir. This version was printed full-page on the back of The Peninsula.
In brushy black and white sheikh and sheikha appeared side by side again in the white lobby of the Mathaf. They were paintings by Yan Pei-ming. And for a while at the opening party for the museum, these portraits were seen only through the glass front of the building—a renovated school far out in a neighborhood called, in the new Gulf style of urban planning, Education City—the doors remaining closed.
Left: Curator Nada Shabout and designer Miuccia Prada. Right: Yassin Alsalman (aka the Narcicyst).
Guests stood around on the carpeted concrete, chilly, speculating as to whether the party would be a strictly outside affair despite the sandstorm. It wasn’t until the portrait subjects themselves arrived that the idea became clear: They would be the first to enter. They made their way up to the building, the sheikha in hijab—no sign of the Chanel icicle-heel boots she was recently photographed wearing in London—the guests following them but held back at the door by the guards. Time passed as a private tour was given. Outside Jeff Koons was poking around, seeming cheerful. On a stage below there were music and poetry performances that no one really listened to, a program led by, as if to proclaim Qatar’s allegiance to modernity, somebody named the Narcicyst.
Eventually, the volume was kicked up and the doors swung open. “Hubris,” rapped the Narcicyst, “Using my illusions. All—a—bout—the—mu—sic.” Buffered by an entourage that included, oddly or not, Miuccia Prada, the sheikh and sheikha exited the building and proceeded through the freshly parted crowd to an awaiting black car.
“Sajjil: A Century of Modern Art,” the inaugural exhibition, is less a show than a showing of the museum’s collection, which spans the Arab world and the past century and a half through six thousand works acquired by Sheikh Hassan, cousin of the emir. The 260 works on view have been arranged under ten impossibly general headings: Nature, City, Society, and so on. Deena Chalabi (who organized the presentation with chief curator and acting director Wassan Al-Khudairi and guest curator Nada Shabout) stressed a few times that the extensive display was necessary; that at this early moment in historicizing modern Arab art, it was best to put as much of it out there as possible. More focused, curated exhibitions would come later. Chalabi is the museum’s head of strategy.
Throughout, the artists are seen engaging with European and American styles, although at a lag: a cubist village scene by Faiq Hassan and a number of impressionist compositions, for example, were all made around midcentury. A standout work was an untitled painting by Egyptian artist Ramsis Younan, a surreal composition from 1942 in which an armless woman reclines amid empty hills or dunes, her shoulders descending to one triangular breast, her legs rendered as wide trunks.
Left: Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned (left). Right: A guide at the Museum of Islamic Art. (Photos: Kyle Bentley)
Rather than relying on Western art comparisons while taking in the offerings, visitors tried hard to look with new eyes. So much so that at times other faculties faltered, and they found themselves unwittingly enacting a kind of modern art parody.
“Excuse me, one question, this piece there,” one member of the press called out to Chalabi. “There’s no name. Uh, on the floor.”
“Like a book,” his female companion chimed in.
“Like a book,” he agreed.
“I’m sorry?” Chalabi said, walking toward him.
“The object.” He nodded toward the middle of the gallery.
“Oh, that’s . . .” Chalabi said. “That’s a bench. You’ll see many of those scattered around!”
Arabesque, many details, without beginning and without end. That was the refrain I heard while visiting the Museum of Islamic Art, said by a guide as he pointed to silk rugs, ceramic chargers, and carved doors. The collection is exquisite, housed in a spectacular building designed by I. M. Pei that opened in 2008 and that looks out onto the water. Yet there is an eerie silence inside that hovers over the sound of vacuum cleaners. One gets the impression that the best pieces are on view and the selection doesn’t regularly rotate, however often the vitrines are wiped down. A place that in the Doha of today lacks a real audience apart from perhaps visiting politicians.
In a warehouse space on the grounds of the MIA, two contemporary exhibitions organized by the Mathaf opened the day after the Mathaf itself did. “Told/Untold/Retold” is a grouping of new commissions centered very loosely on a theme of storytelling, by twenty-three artists with roots in the Arab world. There is a range of media and of approaches, from the unfortunately literal (Buthayna Ali’s installation of twenty-two large slingshots representing forced migration from the twenty-two Arab states) to the enigmatic (Hassan Khan’s video of a luminescent fish that transforms into a loudspeaker suspended in a room with two men dancing jerkily to Egyptian sha’abi music). The other exhibition, “Interventions,” brings together five artists in monographic presentations that are almost mini-retrospectives, each capped by a new commission. A smell of petroleum wafted through due to the final work in the show: Dia Azzawi’s new Wounded Soul, a Fountain of Pain, an installation with a bronze Trojan horse standing in a basin of crude oil.
The final party for the Mathaf was at the Ritz-Carlton. Journalists Negar Azimi and Yasmine El-Rashidi and I took a taxi up the corniche through the business district, alongside the buildings rising faster than the demand and out onto desert highways leading to the small island far north on which the hotel stands. The party, which was in a separate building out back, was crowded with people eager for house music. My companions left; I stayed a moment, then realized the error.
On the way up to the hotel to try to get a car, I saw Richard Flood from the New Museum, who was with a Belgian builder who works for Walid Raad. They were on their way to the party. I told them it was bad. Richard suggested the hotel’s cigar lounge, Habanos, which recently had had a Mambo Italiano night. We found Negar and Yasmine in the lobby, and they joined us. Inside the lounge there was a cha-cha band playing. We sat on couches under a portrait of Fidel Castro, as two young women sung Sade into microphones decorated with Christmas ornaments. “Coast to coast, LA to Chicago, Western male . . . ” drifted out into the room, but I seemed to hear a different verse: Arabesque, many details, without beginning and without end.
Left: Wassan al-Khudairi, chief curator and acting director, Mathaf. Right: Outside the Mathaf at the opening party. (Photo: Kyle Bentley)
Left: Artist Dia Azzawi and Deena Chalabi, Mathaf's head of strategy. The Museum of Islamic Art. (Photo: Kyle Bentley)