A non-figurative approach

A carefully selected choice of works intends to explore the world of modern Arab art at Mathaf Discuss this article

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A carefully selected choice of works intends to explore the world of modern Arab art at Mathaf. We take a tour of their latest exhibition with the assistant curator Tamar Hemmes to find out more.

You walk through three galleries while visiting Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art’s newest exhibition. The first room presents works that are brightly coloured with clear-cut lines and shapes, while the second is in slightly darker hues and has calligraphy incorporated in its pieces. The third, on the other hand, explores earthen tones and is the most tranquil.

But all of them take a look at almost five decades of purely visual works by Arab artists. Assistant curator Tamar Hemmes describes them as ‘non-figurative’. They’re not quite abstract but far from realism.

‘This exhibition is called ‘Selections from the Collection’ and that’s exactly what it is,’ she explains. ‘We have a collection of over 7,000 objects [at Mathaf] and so far we’ve had exhibitions with works from our permanent collection but we wanted to show more.’

Overall, in the three galleries, there are works by 17 artists from ten different countries around the Middle East and North Africa region. As you wander through there is a stark contrast between the pieces and the rooms. In the first room, for example, there is a large mixed-media work by Emirati Hassan Sharif which covers the floor (pictured top right). They chose this piece, Tamar says, because ‘it’s very much about the process of making the artwork – the feeling of the texture and the materials’.

Alternatively, hanging on the wall just next to it, are three paintings by Palestinian artist Kamal Boullata that are made up of sharp intersecting lines which create shapes that have been painted in various bright colours. Tamar says he’s doing something very similar to Hassan in terms of focusing on the process but in a different way. ‘[Kamal’s] main thing is that he uses the square as his grid,’ she explains. ‘The way he sees it is that creating this grid and creating these lines is something that involves thought but putting the colour is something that comes out of this intuitive feeling.’

At the back of the room there are three striking artworks by Moroccan artist Mohammed el-Melehi that dominate the room (pictured bottom right). ‘These are purely abstract as there are no recognisable objects in there,’ says Tamar. ‘He works with the shapes and colours and what’s interesting is that he experiments with materials. So this artwork is made with car paints and that’s why you get the shiny surface.’

We move from room to room looking at paintings, calligraphy, mixed media, and small and large sculptures made of various materials. One trio of smooth sculptures by Egyptian Armen Agop in room three catches our eye because it’s one of Tamar’s favourites.

‘They’re called Sufic and they’re connected to Sufism,’ she tells us. ‘A lot of people see it as though it is the Sufi dance [like whirling dervishes].’

It’s up to the onlooker what they see though, she says. ‘I would say in general the exhibition is quite open to interpretation which is why we don’t have explanations because we want people to use their own imagination and see what they want to see.’

Representing Qatar there are two artists, including Ali Hassan. His piece is a roughly painted letter nun in Arabic. He uses this in every single one of his works but incorporates various materials so they look different. ‘He somehow has an affinity for the letter,’ explains Tamar. ‘The letter nun is used for chapters in the Qur’an so there’s a spiritual connection too.’

The overall idea is to not only inspire art enthusiasts but also to encourage interest from scholars. Tamar tells us that in November Mathaf opened up a research centre on Arab modernity. ‘It’s very important to build up research on these artists,’ she says, ‘because [in this exhibition] some of these artists are still alive but some have passed away already.

‘So if you don’t do research now that will be lost eventually and we’re noticing already that sometimes it’s quite difficult to find information about certain artists.’

But their main aim with this exhibition for now is to open up and share their permanent collection with the public. Tamar says, ‘It would just be great if people could come in, see this and get inspired.’
Selections from the Collection is on at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Qatar Foundation’s Education City until August 31. Visit www.mathaf.org.qa or call 4402 8855.

By Katy Gillett
Time Out Doha,

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