A small desert peninsula is an unlikely location for a global art hub, and with Abu Dhabi’s Guggenheim and Louvre, and Dubai’s opera district soon to be just an hour away, it doesn't seem like a convincing argument to make.
But Doha is home to a growing number of artists, musicians and film-makers who are beginning to turn their attention inward. Instead of heading to the world’s most famous artistic and cultural cities, their mission is to develop the culture of this one.
The city is bursting with talented artists, curators and musicians who are eager to show the world what the Middle East can do, from exploring the history of Islamic civilisation, to celebrating the fascinating modern art that has grown out of the region over the last decade.
We meet with some of the city’s most forward-thinking creatives to find out how Doha’s cultural landscape is evolving, and how they are playing a part to put it on the region’s cultural map.
Al Markhiya Gallery
Summer Collection Part 2 will be showcasing work from a range of artists including Qatari artist Faraj Daham, who explores the connection between people and their suffering through a diverse range of media: drawing, painting, sculpture, pottery and collage. Other artists hail from Iraq, Bahrain and Palestine, among others.
Free. August 2-September 16. Katara Art Center, Building 5 (3396 6342).
Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art
Focus Volume 2 is a spotlight on work by Emirati artist Hassan Sharif. His work is included as part of the museum’s permanent collection and the exhibition includes sculptures made with objects bought from Dubai’s souqs or salvaged from the city’s construction sites. Free. Until September 4.
Red/Red is a poignant exhibition by Turkish artist Aslı Çavuşoğlu exploring ideas of cultural identity in Turkey and Armenia through the use of red inks indigenous to the countries. Free. Until September 11. Education City (4402 8855).
The Fire Station
The current exhibition showcases pieces from the Artists in Residence programme, displaying their work from experimentation through to completion. The artists worked with world-renowned artists like Cai Guo-Qiang, who curated this year’s epic What About the Art? Contemporary Art from China exhibition at Al Riwaq.
Free. Until November. Civil Defence Roundabout (4452 5555).
The big players
While other cities in the Gulf are importing big-name artists and institutions, Doha’s focus is firmly on regional art, and its art spaces are filled with work by artists from Qatar and the Gulf region.
Al Markhiya Gallery (www.almarkhiyagallery.com) represents more than 30 artists, all of whom are from the Arab World. One in particular, Mubarak Al Malik, creates work that can be seen adorning abandoned walls across the city. Not just a fine artist, Malik’s graffiti art combines Arabic calligraphy with stunning portraits and traditional Arabic symbols and motifs (particularly the batoola, used by ladies to cover the face).
Malik has said in recent interviews that using these traditional symbols is important to him. It makes him feel constantly connected to his culture.
It’s not an unfamiliar sentiment. When The Fire Station (www.firestation.org.qa) opened last year in an old civil defence building, its studios and gallery space were set up specifically to develop local artists (there are plans in the pipeline for a cinema, bookshop and art supply shop, too). Its yearly residence programme was opened to regional talent, and for nine months of the year it’s a space where local up-and-coming creatives can experiment and grow.
The Station is a sign that local artists are finding inspiration from the city around them, and that a growing number are choosing Doha as their base.
“[It] highlights just how much our art community is flourishing,” says the Station’s director Khalifa Al Obaidli. “To see Qatar and its interest in artists grow is a great thing for the next generation of talent.”
And The Fire Station isn’t the only gallery to take advantage of Doha’s old buildings. The city is full of disused spaces ripe for transformation. Qatar Museum’s mission to preserve and highlight Qatar’s heritage continues with the Art Mill which is planned to open in the old
Qatar Flour Mill before 2022. An international competition is underway to find an architect, though retaining the building's original features will form the basis of the design.
Meanwhile, over in Education City – a hub for some of the world’s best universities and most innovative architecture – Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art (www.mathaf.org.qa) is also blazing a trail. Since it opened in 2010, it has been showcasing work owned by H.E.
Sheikh Hassan bin Mohammed bin Ali Al Thani, who collects and curates modern and contemporary art from across the Middle East and North Africa. It’s now the world’s largest specialised collection, home to more than 9,000 works.
Then there is, of course, the Museum of Islamic Art (www.mia,org.qa), which houses a vast display of work spanning more than 1,400 years, including textiles, ceramics, glasswork, manuscripts and metal work. Plus, the MIA and Mathaf partnered up recently for a huge exhibition in Madrid, with more than 160 works on show from the museums’ collections.
None of this, however, is to the exclusion of world-renowned international talent. Al Riwaq Gallery (www.qm.org.qa) is bringing some of the best artists in the world to the city. It was the first gallery in the Middle East to host Relics, Damien Hirst’s solo retrospective of his more than 25-year career – preserved shark, halved cow, diamond skull and all.
It’s easy for the city’s biggest and most talked-about galleries to dominate conversations about art in Doha, but the city is also home to some fascinating small, independent galleries and organisations.
East Wing (ww.east-wing.org), for example, began five years ago as a platform for contemporary photography. Through the curation and creation of international projects, their mission is to show the world what the Middle East can do.
“We present new perspectives on topics that matter,” says founder Elie Domit. “[We] originate from the Middle East, but our activities have a global reach... the work we show is there to surprise and trigger curiosity”.
Qatar is still very much at the forefront of what East Wing does. Their project Radiant, created by Antje Hanebeck, is an exploration of the spaces and architecture of the MIA.
The resulting images – which were made using the antique process of photogravure – are a ghostly interpretation of the buildings’ architecture through light and shadows.
Domit says Doha does still have some way to go, at least in terms of photography. “Every place has its advantages and challenges, [but] education and critical thinking are processes. People’s habits need to change a bit, people need to be more curious and willing to go and see a show.”
On the other hand, she applauds the level of government investment into art and culture, pointing out that the city is lucky to have this kind of mass funding.
With huge new museums on the horizon, and the attention that the ever-closer World Cup is bringing to the city, platforms for international publicity are opening up at a faster rate than ever. Doha-based artists, like photographers Chritto Sanz and Andrew Weir, are gaining critical acclaim and passionately representing Doha at international art fairs – proof that Qatar has what it takes to hold its own on the international scene.
Look out for
Treasures of China is another exhibition opening this September as part of the Year of Culture at QM Gallery in Katara Cultural Village. More than 100 pieces from 5,000 years of Chinese history will go on display including pottery, jade, porcelain, gold and enamel. Selected from 11 museums and heritage institutions across China, the most exciting exhibit will no doubt be the soldier from the famed First Emperor’s Terracotta Army.
From October 16, Al Riwaq and Mathaf will be showing a retrospective of Iraqi artist Dia Al-Azzawi, looking back over 50 years through 350 different works. Organised in two parts, one will chart the relationship between image and text in Azzazi’s work, while the other will follow the artist’s engagement with key moments in the political history of modern Iraq and the Arab World.
Iraqi-Canadian artists Mahmoud Obaidi’s exhibition Fragments will open in October at QM Gallery in Katara. Obaidi’s work is a heartfelt response to the chaos – and ensuing destruction of – Iraq. He tries to piece the city back together again and represent the way that a civilisation, thousands of years old, was laid to waste in a fraction of that time.
Also in October, see a photography exhibition created in collaboration with the Zhejiang Province Department of Culture in China. Some of the best photographers from Qatar and China documented real people in their home environments during a photography exchange, and their work will go on display at QM Gallery in Katara, before heading to Zhejiang in November.
Katara Art Center
From September, Katara Art Center will be running a whole new programme of regular events. Sign up to art workshops and learn all sorts of crafts from book-binding and clay-modelling to printmaking and Arabic calligraphy, or head to their bi-monthly Word & Strings open mic poetry evening – the first of its kind in the city. Watch this space for more developments being announced soon.
Five minutes with Christto & Andrew
The two Doha-based photographers tell us why they have chosen the city as their base and why working in a developing art scene is so exciting.
Why Doha as your base?
Andrew’s family decided to move to Qatar, and Andrew has lived here for 12 years. We both studied in Barcelona and after graduation we thought that it would be really interesting to start working on projects in Qatar.
What inspires you most in this city?
Doha is a very new concept and the way that it has opened itself to such a wide array of people is what makes it very interesting. You can really find people and make friends from all parts of the world, with very interesting backgrounds and different stories.
Huge amounts of investment into art and culture in Doha has meant the art scene in the city has grown extremely quickly. How do you see it evolving?
We believe that any art scene needs to evolve, and we think that in Qatar that is what's happening. Having such a young art scene is very challenging and at the same time exciting. [A developing art scene] always has something new to offer. An art scene that is very developed can sometimes feel a bit stale and rigid. It's definitely interesting to be here.
A lot of your work has aesthetic motifs and references to Doha. How does your work reflect on the city?
Many big-name artists have been brought to Qatar and create work here, but we have found that many artists fail to include aspects of everyday life in Qatar. We take that into consideration and try to create a bridge between different cultures. We like to use very traditional elements, which adds to a contemporary dialogue on what is happening here, and then address these themes under a greater agenda [relating to] what is happening in the art world at large.
You were chosen as the campaign artists for Unseen Photo Fair Amsterdam. Tell us a bit about your work for that.
After having exhibited in Unseen Photo Fair with East Wing gallery last year, we received great reviews. It is a really great privilege to have been chosen as the 2016 Campaign artists. The decision is made with many other important artists in consideration, so it is a great accomplishment [for us]. Our campaign tries to speak to a global audience and uses a particular aesthetic to which many people can recognise our work. The main idea of the campaign is about foreseeing the future.
How do you think Doha compares to other artistic cities, internationally?
As artists, we don’t want to be biased towards Qatar. We think that there is still work to be done in terms of creating a local art scene, with the development of private art galleries. But on an international level we feel that Qatar is one of the few places that manages to put on well-curated international shows, which is really great.
Qatar, take one
A less developed branch of the arts in Qatar is its film industry, but stepping into the artsy, wood-panelled office of The Film House (www.thefilmhouse.qa), you’d never know it. In Justin Kramer’s office, one wall is taken up by a huge shelf of DVDs.
“We have our own cinema space,” he tells us. “It’s a colour grading suite and we use it for editing, but we also stay, after work and watch movies together. We have 19 different nationalities here, so I’ve seen films from places that I had no idea even made films. And I’ve been blown away by some of the stuff.”
Kramer is the founder of The Film House, a Cannes-award-winning production company in Doha. He arrived from New York in 2009 to work on the Doha Tribeca Film Festival. Back then, he says, the concept of a film festival was totally foreign to Qatar, but something about the youngness of the film industry drew him to stay and he began teaching film at Doha Film Institute. But, after spotting a gap in the market, he made the leap into starting his own company.
“Being here from 2009 to 2012, I realised all the things that were missing,” he tells us, “and [there was] so much potential because clients here really want films made, and they want them done to a high standard, and there’s money to do it. I looked at this whole thing as the Wild West. No-one had staked their claim yet.”
Now, many of his enthusiastic students have become the writers, directors and crew behind some of The Film House’s most exciting work. It’s a company disinterested in making the same standard corporate films that populated the market for so long. What Kramer, and all the other film-makers at The Film House are interested in are beautiful, cinematic films that tell a meaningful story. Even if that’s as part of a commercial.
What they are most passionate about, however, are the documentaries, shorts and feature films brought to them by Qatari and Qatar-based film-makers. Shooting one of their most recent films To the Ends of the Earth by Qatari director Hamida Issa – a film about a Qatari girl’s quest for environmental change – has taken them from swimming with whale sharks off the coast of Qatar, all the way to Antarctica.
“There are such unique stories here, it’s just no-one’s heard of them. Qataris need Qatari films,” Kramer says. “I really believe that. Oral storytelling here is so important. The younger generation, they’re not hanging onto the culture. They’re driving Lamborghinis and travelling to Europe for half the year. When the older generation of Qataris pass away, [their] stories will disappear, and that’s devastating.”
Like Christto & Andrew, film-makers who work with The Film House are also bursting onto the international scene. Qatar-raised Sophia Al-Maria’s cinematic installation Black Friday – a look at how the Gulf has embraced the concept of the shopping mall – recently opened at the prestigious Whitney Museum in New York.
But, like Domit, Kramer still thinks the industry has some growing to do. Though something of a film industry now exists, the lack of access to a broad range of cinema is stunting its growth. Hollywood and Bollywood films dominate screens, while films made by some of the greats – Jean Luc Goddard, Fellini, Scorcese – are hard to come by. As he says, “the appreciation of film can only go so far when you only have certain films available to you”.
Doha Film Institute (www.dohafilminstitute.com), at least, is working to change that. Screenings, Qumra Film Festival, masterclasses and themed film series – it’s aim, much like The Film House, is to develop the film industry in Qatar. Its quarterly screening series Hekayat Khaleejiya – which translates as “stories from the Gulf” – showcases cinematic voices from the region, while its Qatari film fund supports up-and-coming film-makers with grants, one recipient of which was Issa for To the Ends of the Earth.
And, as the film industry is emerging, slowly but surely, the musicians of the country are clubbing together to create an industry of their own...
The next Hekayat Khaleejiya screening will show Emirati feature Going to Heaven by Saeed Salmeen, a film exploring the connections and distance between different generations in Emirati families. It follows 11-year-old Sultan as he travels between the Emirates in search of his long-lost grandmother. The screening will be followed by a Q&A session with the director.
Tickets QR35; QR25 (with Student and Culture Pass by Qatar Museums). August 4-5, 7.30pm. Museum of Islamic Art Auditorium, www.dohafilminstitute.com
The sound of Doha
Dana Alfardan’s independent record label DNA Records (www.dnamusicrecords.com) launched at the beginning of the year, signing artists from both abroad and in Qatar. Their first Qatar-based musican, DJ Juan Pestana, debuted his first track under DNA last month, and Dana hopes to begin laying foundations for a successful music scene in the country.
“DNA Records is aspiring to achieve a very simple objective: to create a long-term platform that will be able to support local, regional and international artists, and to help grow their careers,“ says Alfardan. “I want to see that every artist under my record label has a lasting career in the music industry.”
One of the most unique things about DNA is its all-encompassing approach to music. Al Fardan reaches out to musicians and organisations for unexpected collaborations, such as with Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra (QPO).
Founded in 2007, the orchestra is the most established musical institution in Qatar, playing fusions of Western and Eastern music, laced with traditional sounds from local instruments like the Oud.
“[We try] to find the bridge between Arabic and Western classic music,” says QPO executive director Kurt Meister, adding, “the orchestra should be an ambassador in Qatar and worldwide.”
Ticket sales, he tells us, for the last season were at an average of 90 percent. “The classical scene is growing,” he says, “People [are interested] in different kinds of music.” Which is exactly what Qatar Philharmonic is providing. From orchestra-backed vocal pieces to the quirky Video Games Live show that they staged in March, you’d be hard-pressed to find another such diverse orchestra.
“[We will] perform fewer concerts in the coming years,” Kurt tells us, “[and] start recording and participating in film music and video games.”
Behind this, no doubt, will be Katara Studios (www.facebook.com/KataraStudios), the sprawling recording facility set up by London’s Metropolis. It’s the most technically equipped audio-visual facility in the world, boasting three studios, a full orchestral room (with Qatar Philharmonic as the resident orchestra), a dubbing theatre and far more besides.
The team behind it hope to integrate the regional and international music scenes, by amplifying local talent on a global scale, and attracting producers, musicians and composers from across the world – including, thanks to its location, the Bollywood industry.
“Obviously it will take a few years to build the reputation of the facility as a quality destination, but so far the enquiries and response has been overwhelmingly positive,” studio manager Mazen Murad tells us. When its reputation is cemented, he firmly believes it will be a global music destination.
“We have the facilities, the musicians, the producers and the location,” he says.
“Qatar is a young, fast-growing and dynamic market, but it still needs to open up more to tourism.” Cash-back incentives, like those in the neighbouring UAE, Murad points out, would also help attract foreign work and expose the country internationally.
The studio is currently in its testing and soft-launch phase, but will officially open in 2017. In the meantime, it has already begun to work with world-famous musicians, including the likes of Cat Stevens – now known as Yusuf Islam, he’s the man behind bestselling ’60s hits The First Cut is the Deepest and Peace Train, and made a return to music in the mid ’00s – Journey, John Ezra, Toto and Maya Jane Coles.
So, where will the industry go next? What artists will arrive? What galleries will spring up? How will these creatives continue to inspire the city?
“That’s why we’re here,” says Kramer. “People who are here, and stay here, it’s because they really like this country. We want Qatar to be seen as a place that’s setting an international standard… We want to see Qatar become as awesome as it has the potential to be.”