Modern art in Doha

Meet the chief curator of the new Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art

Modern art in Doha
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When Wassan Al Khudhairi first saw the collection for the new Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, she knew she must work there. ‘I’m from Iraq. I heard about the collection, and wanted to be involved,’ she tells us. ‘I had a chance to visit it, left my information as a visitor and someone contacted me a year later.’

Today she sits in her new office at the museum’s temporary space – opening later this month, with plans to move elsewhere at a much later date. She is its chief curator, getting the place ready for its grand opening on December 30. ‘I studied art history; I have a bachelor degree in art history and a masters in Islamic art and architecture. I developed a passion for wanting to know more about art from the Arab world because that’s where I’m from, and I was very curious about why wasn’t I learning about Arab artists when I was studying. That’s how I ended up here – when you really want something, it just happens.’

The museum itself is the fruition of a dream dating back to the ’80s, when His Excellency Sheikh Hassan bin Mohamed bin Ali Al Thani first started collecting the art that would one day fill the exhibition halls. There are over 6,000 pieces, which will be displayed in rotating exhibitions, the first launching at the end of the month – entitled Sajjil: A Century of Modern Art – with a collection from over 100 different artists.

Sajjil is an Arabic word meaning ‘to record’, while the works on show will overlap in terms of their themes. There will also be Interventions, celebrating the work and development of five major Arabic artists, and also Told/Untold/Retold, which will feature newly commissioned work by 23 contemporary artists with connections to the Arab world.

The space itself, located in Education City, was still under construction at the time of our visit, but we could see that it will house exhibition halls, education wings, and indoor and outdoor spaces, as well as a café and boutique where the community can engage with art, and each other. ‘This collection is something that is very close to his [HE Sheikh Hassan’s] heart,’ Al Khudhairi reveals. ‘He developed it, and in many cases he bought works directly from the artists, so there’s a very strong tie between the collection and this place.’

Modern art is the term broadly given to works generated between the end of the 1800s and the 1990s, and includes such artistic giants as Vincent Van Gogh, Henri Matisse, Paul Cezanne and Pablo Picasso, celebrating new movements in art from impressionism to cubism, throwing off the old in favour of experimentation – something not limited by international or cultural borders. According to Al Khudhairi, the Arabic version is something people here in Doha, and all over the world, need to see. ‘It’s the only comprehensive collection of modern art by Arab artists that is really out there,’ she tells us. ‘It’s important to have a collection like that because it’s a particular field that is not yet fully developed. It’s also relevant in that it’s a record of what was happening in the Arab world during a particular moment in time.’

Since the opening of the Museum of Islamic Art two years ago, Qatar has turned a spotlight on the Arabic art scene. However, Al Khudhairi is quick to point out that the new museum will be nothing like those that came before it, focused as they are on what sets Arabic art apart. But what is it that makes modern Arabic art different? ‘Nothing, just that it’s made by Arab artists,’ she argues. ‘Each person brings something to the work, based on the colours they know or their interactions with people. I exaggerated about the differences by saying “nothing”, but there is a common misconception that Arabic art is just calligraphy. The artist is Arabic, and they bring their perspective to the work, but there is no clear way of defining it as being an “Arab” painting.’

Getting Arab art, however you define it, into the international lexicon is important, according to Al Khudhairi. ‘This field is not yet developed, and so if you take an art history course, you only get a very particular view on art history,’ she says. ‘You assume there’s no art in India or in China or in the Arab world – only the West. And I think that’s what this museum is trying to do: it’s trying to say that Arab artists, art from the Arab region, is not an alternative to the West. It is something that was engaging with what was happening there.’

Of course, the other goal of the museum is to make people engage with art. The opening festivities on December 30 will focus on not only the collection, but on how art relates to film, music and culture, and how the creation of art itself impacts the world. ‘The building is in Education City. It’s a former school that we’re converting to a museum,’ says Al Khudhairi. ‘It’s going to have of course exhibition galleries, but we’re also going to have a very minimalist coffee bar café, a shop selling works designed by Arab designers, an education wing where people can come and sit and draw and colour, and just kind of hang out, and also a studio where we’ll host classes.’

Turn a corner, and you’ll find the museum has even more to offer. ‘We have a research library, and a video viewing room where you can check out DVDs that are part of our archives,’ Al Khudhairi adds. ‘We have a big open area as well, and large outdoor sculptures, so we’re hoping it’s going to be a place people want to visit with their friends, have a coffee, and there is Wi-Fi throughout the whole building. It’s meant to be a place to look at art, engage with art, but also to be a place where you can come and be inspired, and to meet with your friends, or have your book club or whatever. It’s not just a museum in the sense that we want to speak at people, we want them to speak with us. We want to become a platform that engages people in conversation.’
Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art opens its doors on December 30 in Education City. For more info, go to

Opening programme

Here’s what you can enjoy on the museum’s opening day.

Dec 30, doors open 3pm-9.30pm
Hands-on art-making workshops:
Inspired by a large-scale outdoor sculptor, educators from local art organisations will be on hand to help children and families develop their own work

‘Micro tours’ of the exhibition Sajjil:
Mathaf staff will be on hand to guide visitors through the works and their context

Library open house:
See the library and the new audio-visual room

Creativity scavenger hunt:
Children are challenged to find mystery objects in the exhibition, with prizes for the most creative responses

Art/poetry reading:
In collabortation with Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing, selected poets present their work along with the artwork that inspired them

Film screening:
The Doha Film Institute (DFI) education team will screen a new film by an Arab filmmaker, with discussion on what it means to be creative locally and in the wider Arab world

‘Mathaf voices’ night tours:
Enjoy an English or Arabic night tour of the museum

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