Credit: Qatar Museums
Qatar's ambitions to become 'the art Mecca of the Middle East'
The Middle East nation of Qatar has announced an ambitious plan to expand its public art program as it prepares to play host to the 2022 Fifa World Cup.
Leading the initiative, Qatar Museums -- the state-run organization under which many of the nation's cultural institutions sit -- says it will display over 40 new and commissioned works by Qatari and international artists across public spaces in the capital, Doha, and surrounding cities.
The idea is to turn the local urban landscape into "a vast outdoor art museum experience," according to a press release.
"As the rest of the world turns their eyes on Doha, we thought one of the best ways to introduce ourselves and create a dialogue would be through art in the public sphere," Qatar Museums' Director of Public Art, Abdulrahman Ahmed Al-Ishaq, said in a video call.
Art on show
The installations will appear in public squares and shopping centers, schools and athletic facilities, railway stations and the Hamad International Airport, as well as a few stadiums set to host the matches.
"All the artwork we're showcasing will fit within the context of Doha and Qatar," Al-Ishaq said. "It will be placed strategically or territorially to reflect something about our country."
An example is Dutch sculptor Tom Claassen's "Falcon" outside the Hamad International Airport -- a golden, abstract representation of Qatar's national bird that was installed over the summer.
Other pieces that have already been unveiled include Bruce Nauman's "Untitled (Trench, Shafts, Pit, Tunnel and Chamber)," an experimental work made by the American artist in the late 1970s -- outside of the M7 in Msheireb Downtown Doha. Near the National Theatre stands German artist Isa Genzken's monumental "Two Orchids," a large 2015 sculpture that stands as an idealized version of the plant symbolizing the relationship between architecture, nature and popular culture.
"The aesthetics of both artworks complement their selected locations," Al-Ishaq said. Nauman's piece "is a scaled down version of a previous earthwork, and Msheireb (where it has been exhibited) is a block known for its advanced urban practices and its attention to material use."
Placing Genzken's "Orchids"' in the garden of the National Theatre, "one of the oldest structures along the Doha Corniche and one associated with celebration, beauty and elegance of the artform," Al-Ishaq said, was equally intentional. "The public may see them as a symbolic reflection of the theater," he explained.
While the full list of artists has yet to be released, many of the confirmed names also include Qatari and regional talent. Among them are exiled Iraqi sculptor Ahmed Al Bahrani, known for works that touch on the political realities of the Arab Diaspora as well as war, displacement and memory; and Faraj Daham, who focuses on the nation's architectural and urban alterations, as well as the subsequent economic, social and political consequences arising from those changes.
There are a few female talents, too: acclaimed Lebanese American artist Simone Fattal, whose figurative work draws on sources such as war, displacement and migration, landscape painting, and ancient religions and mythologies; and Qatari visual artist Shua'a Ali, who will unveil her first public work -- an abstract sculpture titled "Tawazun" (an Arabic word meaning "balance").
The sculpture, a pillar made of stacked stones signifies the country's "progression" and "the balance between traditional and modern elements in our everyday life," the artist wrote in an e-mail. "Using both modern and old construction materials, it marks the balance in contemporary local civic and architectural accomplishments."
Ali added that she felt "proud and honored" that the work will be showcased in downtown Doha and said inclusion in the program would allow her to reach global audiences that would otherwise have been hard to attain. "The public art program provides a solid platform for artists and creatives to thrive from."
"Having local artists showcase their work was a must for us," Al-Ishaq said. "This is an opportunity to shed some light on the wealth of talent from Qatar and its neighboring countries, and give them the platform they deserve.
"Since the very start, we've been working towards bringing art outside of museum walls," Al-Ishaq explained, saying the program's new additions will bring the total number of works on public display to 100.
Building an 'art Mecca'
The road to the 2022 World Cup hasn't been without controversy. Qatar has faced criticism regarding its treatment of migrant workers involved in constructing stadiums and concerns over the country's anti-homosexuality laws. On the latter subject, Qatar 2022 CEO Nassar Al Khater told CNN in November that nobody should feel threatened when visiting the country. "Qatar is a tolerant country. It's a welcoming country. It's a hospitable country."
Cultural initiatives like the public art program might help shift perceptions.
"The program aims to offer a snapshot of our identity, our culture, past and present. It's an invitation to look at Qatar beyond the World Cup," said Al-Ishaq.
The public art program initially launched in 2013, when it kicked off with a series of artworks that included British artist Damien Hirst's controversial "The Miraculous Journey" -- 14 bronze sculptures of a gestating fetus from birth to conception -- at the Sidra Medical and Research Center. The installation, which showed a sperm fertilizing an egg and a 46-foot-tall sculpture of a naked baby boy, was covered up soon after outrage was expressed on social media. Some perceived it as a graphic depiction -- though the official line for the covering was because of on-going building work. It was reinstalled in 2018.
Qatari artist Ali Hassan's "Desert Horse," is also exhibited just outside the Hamad International Airport, as part of the program. Another one of his works, "Wisdom of a Nation," was shown near the visitors' entrance at the National Museum of Qatar.
"After being exclusively showcased indoors in museums or galleries, art can now be seen in public places," he said in an e-mail, adding that the organization is helping to shape the local art community.
"The feeling of leaving an imprint on such important landmarks is beyond expression for me as a Qatari artist, because of the great significance these two locations represent locally and globally."
The initiative has also expanded to support other projects that publicly engage locals with contemporary artists.
Among these efforts is an open call to students, which encourages young people to create temporary public artworks made from recycled materials; and Jedariart, an annual program inviting artists to paint murals across the city that reflect on social, historical, and cultural issues.
The latter is currently "on tour" in the US as part of Qatar-USA 2021 Year of Culture, an international cultural exchange first established by Qatar Museums in 2012 under the patronage of its chairperson, Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani to strengthen ties between Qatar and a new partner nation each year.
"Public interventions allow people to get closer to art, and feel more at ease with it than in a museum context," Al-Ishaq said. "Our goal with all these projects is to make art a permanent part of Qatar's urban fabric."
But the overarching plan is even more ambitious. "Looking ahead, we want Qatar to become the region's main art hub," Al-Ishaq said, "the art Mecca of the Middle East."
Top image: "Falcon" (2021) by Tom Claassen.