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Art Capital of the World

Vicente Collado Jr.
Doha, Qatar
September 25, 2009

I remember how frustrated I was four years ago surfing the net and even driving around in search of art supply stores. I finally gave up when it became crystal clear that if I ever wanted to paint again I had to size, prime and stretch my own canvas and probably grind my own pigments from vegetable oil and desert sand. “Art” seemed at that time to be the last word that could be associated with “Doha”.
Museum of Islamic Art

Today, the two words have become almost synonymous and it‘s not only because oil paints and other art supplies are now available at almost every corner store. Over the last couple of years, rapid growth in art infrastructure practically transformed Qatar into the art capital of the Arab world, if not the whole world.

The construction and opening of the Museum of Islamic Art, undoubtedly, was the one major event that propelled art consciousness in this country to unprecedented heights. Not even the herdsman in the desert could have ignored the grand and majestic inauguration of the museum late last year by HH THE Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani and HH Sheikha Mozah Nasser al-Misnad. In attendance were Sheiks, Kings and Royalties from neighboring countries, international leaders and dignitaries, and even galactic personalities from Hollywood.
Lobby of the Museum of Islamic Art

Eight years in the making, the museum represents the country’s effort to become a catalyst for cultural renaissance if not the nucleus of art creation in the Arab region.
HE Sheikha Mayassa bint Hamad al-Thani, Chairperson of the Board of Trustees of the Qatar Museums Authority, said that through the museum, Qatar also hopes to portray the true nature of the Islamic culture. “We aspire, through this museum, to highlight the peaceful and sublime civilization of Islam, which continues to call for tolerance and coexistence among peoples,” she said. “This museum will also convey the beauty of Islamic culture to a world that has dealt with Islam and its civilization subjectively. This museum is an invitation to Muslims to look at Islamic civilization and to see its originality presented through a variety of Islamic arts, which reflect Qatar’s pride as a nation that is rich in Islamic cultural heritage. We also hope the Museum of Islamic Art will offer scholars and researchers from Qatar and around the Muslim world opportunities to study various aspects of Islamic art.

The museum houses 800 of rarely seen masterpieces representing the whole range of Islamic art. Some of these art pieces came from as far as Samarqand, Uzbekistan and Cordoba, Spain. Notable among these treasures is the 17th century Indian jade pendant worn by Shah Jahan to ease the pain of the loss of his wife for whom he later built the Taj Mahal as a symbol of his love. The museum is also home to a page of a 15th century colossal Central Asian Quran that was made for emperor Timur after a miniature version that could fit in a signet ring failed to satisfy him. Another precious possession is a 9th century white earthenware bowl from Iraq with a Kufic cobalt blue inscription, “what is done is worthwhile.” Precision instruments like astrolabes from Iran made by mathematicians a thousand years ago, a 10th century cast bronze fountain head in the form of a deer, and a 14th century silk carpet known as the Timurid Chessboard Garden Carpet also form part of the priceless collections of the museum.

Constructed on an island off the seafront boulevard, Corniche, the Museum of Islamic Art is in itself an architectural masterpiece, having won two international award for engineering. It was designed by the Pritzker Prize laureate, architect I M Pei who came out of retirement for the project. He tried to blend modernity and tradition, inspired by a 13th century ablution fountain of the 9th century Mosque of Ahmad bin Tulun in Cairo, Egypt.

The museum has been a crowd drawer since its inauguration. During its first two weeks alone, about 30,000 local and international guests visited the place. Certainly, nothing could have stirred up local residents’ curiosity and appetite for art more than this cultural edifice.

The relatively new Souq Waqif Art Center likewise contributed significantly to the change of local art perception. Located in the very heart of the of the old souq, a favorite tourist destination, the two year old art center makes one’s visit to the souq no longer just an adventure in bargain hunting but also an enriching voyage into the history of Islamic art. There, one can get a better understanding of Islamic culture through the works of local and regional artists.
Souq Waqif Art Center

This summer, Souq Waqif Art Center exhibited more than 20 paintings by artists residing in Doha including works from a Sudanese painter and a young Qatari artist known for his paintings of traditional buildings. It also hosted “Summer at Home” where 18 artists from 13 countries displayed about 40 paintings. The artists who came from Germany, UK, USA, Iraq, Mexico, Italy, Nicaragua, Lithuania, Syria, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Lebanon and Ireland but who have been living in Doha for some time now all showed Arabic influences in their paintings.

To further promote art education, art creation and art appreciation, Souq Waqif Art Center opened its own art school this summer. The school caters to visitors and residents, amateurs and professionals, young or old alike. It offers courses on painting, drawing, printing, ceramic, textile and sculpture, and also holds workshops with visiting international artists.

With an average of 3,000 visitors during peak months, the art center has become a hub of cultural activity.

And as if these two were not enough, more cultural centers are being erected . In fact, a whole district dedicated solely to art and culture with a total area of 99 hectares is going up in the West Bay area and is scheduled for completion very soon. Dubbed the Cultural Village, the place was designed to reflect the heritage of Qatar through traditional architecture. Its main feature will be a large amphitheater surrounded by about 40 low-rise buildings some of which will be theatres, libraries, art galleries, museums, retail outlets, coffee shops, museum facilities and market areas all constructed in line with the historic theme of the site.
Artist Perspective of The Cultural Village

All these art infrastructures no doubt appear to be an overkill but they are absolutely indispensable as Doha will assume its seat next year as the 2010 Arab Capital of Culture. For the first three months of 2010 alone, the city will be hosting about 70 cultural events.

Naturally, this flurry of art-related constructions not only heightened art awareness but also set off a frenzy of exhibits by galleries and by professional and aspiring artists in all sorts of venues like hotels, embassies, malls and cafes.

Early this year, an art exhibition, ‘Going Dutch in Doha,’ featuring works by seven Dutch artists residing in Doha, was hosted at the Netherlands Residence. The event, hosted by the Netherlands ambassador’s wife Ellen van Vloten Dissevelt, was opened by the National Council for Culture, Art and Heritage secretary general Mubarak bin Nasser al-Khalifa . The participating artists were Willemien Mansell, Jeannette Nieuwenhuijs, Linda Nijenbandring de Boer, Winnifred J Bastian, Lenie van Duijn, Jannie van der Hagen, and Ufuk Kobas.
Mall Exhibits

Indian artist Aparna Shere and her students likewise displayed their creations at the Sheraton Hotel last June in an exhibit entitled “Brush & Canvas.” The artist and her students tried to capture on canvas the essence of life and natural beauty, which, according to her, are God Almighty’s creation. She added that such exhibitions would nurture the talents of budding artists.

During this holy month of Ramadan, the Cultural and Art Districts of Porto Arabia are also bustling with activities to entertain visitors strolling by the waterfront after breaking their fast. Traditional Islamic paintings are on display, including some by the local artist, Isam Ibrahim Babikr.

Last week, the Gallery at Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar in cooperation with Al Markhiya Gallery and the Arab Museum of Modern Art launched “Qatar Now: Ali Hassan - A Retrospective,” an exhibit in honor of Qatar’s most prolific contemporary painter, Ali Hassan, who is celebrating his 25th year as an artist.

Exhibits have also become regular events in shopping malls where areas reserved for art display offer shoppers momentary rest while being treated to a visual feast.
Young at Art

Many exhibits are also organized in private houses especially when more prominent venues are not available. In fact, our house has become one such venue; an exhibit has been ongoing all year round. Sema has pasted every available space in our wall including our headboard with his school artworks and with his “Atlantis Squarepantis”paintings. Even Carol’s favorite Persian rug was duly converted into an acrylic canvas.

But, two days ago, a different kind of the exhibit, “Open your heart in Qatar,” opened at Grand Hyatt hotel. It differs from the rest because the collection was not locally produced but came directly from France. In fact, the featured works are nothing else but those of Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, Maurice de Vlaminck, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, Salvador Dali , Joan Miro, Andy Warhol, Jean Dubuffet Yves Klein, Niki de Saint Phalle and Bernard Buffet. The center of attraction is Picasso’s L’Enfant au Beret Ecossais that he painted for his daughter and costs $7.5mn. Organized by Opera Gallery Dubai in conjunction with the French Embassy, the exhibit obviously seeks to introduce Western art in the Arab region. French Ambassador Gilles Bonnaud said this is just an appetizer compared to what France will be bringing next year. Twenty percent of the event proceeds will go into funding the art therapy program in the Shafallah Centre for Children with special needs.
With Picasso's $7.5M L’Enfant au Beret Ecossais at Grand Hyatt
A $2M Painting
Before a Renoir

An ever-growing interest in art is now a palpable reality in Doha.The large number of recent artistic events could not but captivate the attention of the populace, nudging them to devote more time if not money to this thing called art. It is not hard to see that this phenomenon can only lead to the cultivation of existing homegrown talents as well as the emergence of new ones. More importantly, this will stimulate a greater inflow of western art into the region, creating a fusion of cultures that will no doubt make Doha ever more visible in the art world.

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