WHEREFORE ART THOU QATAR?

Qatar 2014 | TOURISM & RETAIL | FOCUS: ART & CULTURE

The capital of Qatar is growing into a world-renowned center for creative media and art collections.

A range of artistic endeavors and high-profile museum and gallery openings over the past 10 years are striking evidence of Doha's cultural ambition. As part of the state's overall diversification strategy, and outlined in the essential handbook for the country's future, the Qatar National Vision 2030, authorities are actively working to attract globally-recognized artists and designers to Qatar. Through collecting valuable works of art, commissioning noteworthy public sculptures, nurturing young talents in the fields of cinema, and contributing to the revival and protection of Arab and Islamic culture, Qatar has made itself famous not only in the region but throughout the world. As the Qatari public grows increasingly comfortable with Doha's position as an international art center, the need for prestigious partnerships with established organizations (from the Tate to the BBC Symphony Orchestra to name just two) will diminish, and Qatari culture and creativity will become an important driver of economic growth.

Qatari nationals share much with their GCC neighbors in terms of culture, with Islamic tradition foregrounded to a major extent in everyday customs, food, and clothing. However, the population has a strong sense of national identity, expressed to much fanfare each December 18 on Qatar National Day. The date was chosen as it is the anniversary of the 1878 accession of Shaikh Jassim, the man who united the people of Qatar and created as sense of unity among the tribes of the small peninsula. His figure embodies the ideals and aspirations that unite the nation. The myriad events that take place annually commemorate the leader, with the 2013 day marked by a remarkable fireworks display and music, poetry, theatre, and dance shows.

Following the 2008 establishment of the Ministry of Culture, Arts, and Heritage, the Qatari art scene has been benefiting from unprecedented investment and success. In parallel with the state's healthy focus on tradition and conservation of national customs is the progressive attitude toward art and culture espoused by the Qatar Museums Authority (QMA). The QMA has also fostered bilateral relations. The Qatar UK 2013 Year of Culture was planned to nurture existing links and create new ones among organizations from both countries, and was curated by the QMA and the British Council in tandem. HE Sheikha Al Mayassa Bint Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani, sister of the incumbent Emir and Chairperson of the QMA, is ensuring that Qatar holds on to its place as the world's largest buyer, by value, in the art market. One of the most challenging of her commissions has been from Damien Hirst, a prominent British Artist and winner of the Turner Prize. “The Miraculous Journey," a group of large, bronze sculptures that chart the development of a child from fetus to baby, is part of a series of public art installations, with contributions from international names including Louise Bourgeois, Sarah Lucas, Subodh, Richard Serra, Takahashi Murakami, and Fischli & Weiss rounding out the collection. It is hoped that such prominent pieces will encourage citizens to look at art with new eyes, and inspire a generation to create a stronger Qatari cultural scene.

Aside from outdoor works such as these, much effort and money has gone into the construction of world-class museums to house vast collections of art from around the world, and specifically from around the Islamic world. The Museum of Islamic Art was designed by the legendary I.M. Pei, creator of the Louvre's iconic glass pyramid. Its angular façade reflects the aesthetics of abstract Islamic art, and the building has become a centerpiece of Doha architecture. The QMA is also responsible for the significant collection housed in the Orientalist Museum, with prints, sketches and paintings dating to as far back as the 1500s on display. The country's oldest museum, the 1975 Qatar National Museum, was formerly a palace of Sheikh Abdullah bin Jassim Al Thani. It has been extensively restored and is today protected within the structure of the new National Museum of Qatar, designed by Jean Nouvel, which will be opened in 4Q2014. Yet another noteworthy gallery is Mathaf, the Arab Museum of Modern Art, which holds the world's principal collection of contemporary Arab art.

The key address for culture in Qatar remains the expansive Katara Cultural Village, known as the Valley of Cultures. Spread over a total area of 99 hectares, the complex is a symbol of the state's cultural ambitions. It is situated on land reclaimed from the Gulf waters and cost approximately $82 million to construct. “From high-end shopping malls and traditional souks, world-class museums and cultural hubs," explained CEO of Katara Hospitality Hamad Abdulla Al Mulla, “to parks and unique outdoor recreational facilities alongside an increasing portfolio of hotels and food and beverage concepts, Qatar has something to offer residents and tourists alike." The area is designed to replicate traditional Qatari architecture, with narrow winding alleyways to provide shade and channel wind as protection from the harsh Gulf sun. The development is home to many of Qatar's cultural organizations and festival spaces, with the QMA Gallery, Katara Arts Center, Qatar Fine Arts Society, Qatar Photographic Society, and the state's Visual Arts Center all based within its landscaped passages.

Katara is also a base for the Doha Film Institute, and served as a venue for the Doha Tribeca Film Festival from 2009 until 2013, when the partnership ended. The festival attracted tens of thousands of attendees each year, but the DFI is staying true to its original strategy. The collaboration was intended to provide organizers with the vital know-how to run an international festival, and was never planned to continue indefinitely. Instead, the Ajyal (Generations) Youth Film Festival, which showed 65 films from 30 different nations, was run in 2013, from November 26 to 30. The festival gave prominence to the Japanese anime genre, an astute move on the part of directors given the high popularity of the medium among the Qatari and Gulf youth. Such decisions are in keeping with Sheikha Mayassa's dream of galvanizing the country's largely under-30 population to create more. In total, there were 11 Qatari films in Ajyal, which entered under the “Made in Qatar" section, a segment introduced during the Tribeca festival. The Qumra Doha Film Festival in March 2014 will continue to grow the nation's appetite for cinema. In addition, Katara hosts the Doha Book Fair, which last year boasted 100,000 titles, 80% of which were in the Arabic language with the remainder in English.

The dynamic array of cultural events and collections on offer in Doha and around Qatar is growing with each passing year. With a near boundless budget for the time being, cultural entities in the state can continue to expand, and are well on the way to achieving these enriching 2030 objectives.