A blank slate: Qatar's Mathaf Library showcases modern artistic excellence with four new exhibitions

A segment of 'Gaza Wall,
5 min read
30 September, 2022
This year, Qatar announces itself to the world with a host of seismic cultural events. Amidst such attention, Qatar's Mathaf Library has risen to the challenge by showcasing a number of stimulating exhibitions for international and regional eyes.

Last week, Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha unveiled four new art exhibitions, presenting works by both international and regional artists at the museum.

The exhibitions are part of Qatar Creates and the Qatar-MENASA Year of Culture 2022 – a cultural exchange program already in full swing in the lead-up to the FIFA World Cup in November, seeking to offer the millions of visitors coming to Qatar a rich and varied cultural program alongside the anticipated football tournament.  

“We are thrilled to present a programme encompassing a diverse cross-section of exceptional contemporary Arab artists whose backgrounds span borders and whose works utilise a variety of disciplines and subjects,” Mathaf director Zeina Arida said. “Mathaf is the modern art hub in Qatar where visitors can interact and experiment with new art forms from contemporary artists."

"Mathaf is the modern art hub in Qatar where visitors can interact and experiment with new art forms from contemporary artists"

As Qatar prepares to welcome guests for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022,” she added, “we are grateful to have this important platform for artists across the region to be able to introduce themselves and their art on the global stage."

The two major shows are Invisible Labors: Daydream Therapy by American-Qatari artist Sophia Al-Maria and No Condition Is Permanent by Palestinian artist Taysir Batniji.

The multimedia Mathaf show is Al-Maria’s first major museum exhibition in the Middle East - curated by Amal Alhaag - bringing into dialogue a group of artists, curators, scholars, and communities on themes of storytelling and speculative narratives as strategies of survival, imagination and reclaiming histories.

One of Sophia Al-Maria's collages [photo credit: Maghie Ghali]
One of Sophia Al-Maria's collages [photo credit: Maghie Ghali]

She describes the show as a “prodigal return” for her, as she used to work at Mathaf when they first opened 10 years ago. Parts of the exhibition look at the various people who were behind the scenes at the museum – such as guards, admin, and the people who set up the shows.

“The first film in here – and the genesis of the project – is an interview I did with my uncle, around 2006, where I asked him about his dreams,” she added.

“He's sitting on the porch of my grandmother's house thinking about how he wants to Lexus 2008, he wants to be out of debt; he wants his daughters to go to school, study social work and become doctors. It's really sweet to look back at because some of those things came true, but some of them didn't.

“Throughout the exhibition, there are these large prints that are from a piece of paper I found in my studio, which is archival images from Sheikh Hassan's collection, that I had printed out because I wrote the essay for the first catalogue for the museum,” she added. “Those give context and also bring the invisible history of the museum into the front.”

Taysir Batniji's piece on official documentation and identity, part of his Mathaf show [photo by Maghie Ghali]
Taysir Batniji's piece on official documentation and identity, part of his Mathaf show [photo by Maghie Ghali]

Spread over a few galleries, a series of large collage works look at the youthful pursuit of scrapbooking, based on the pages of Augusto Boal’s book on therapy theatre The Rainbow of Desire.

“[Boal] was a Brazilian philosopher and theatre director, who created this method of therapy called the Theatre of the Oppressed,” Al-Maria said. “We'll do a workshop during the show where a group of people who are [marginalized], for example, women or group of factory workers, joined together to act out a dream version of reality.”

Alongside Al-Maria’s installations, video-work and commissioned soundscapes are artworks created by janitors and guards who worked at the museum, some copying the artworks on show, others creating their own.

The entrance to Mathaf [photo credit: Maghie Ghali]
The entrance to Mathaf [photo credit: Maghie Ghali]

In the opposite gallery is Batniji’s retrospective exhibition, curated by Abdellah Karroum and Lina Ramadan. The show surveys his work between 1997 and 2022 when the artist lived in France, but created works on Palestine, relating to identity, history and loss, through various mediums.

“[All the works are] in this space between the intimate and the public, derived from my own experience and my own journey in the collective Palestinian context,” Batniji told The New Arab. “I tried to show my own beginnings, through documents in Palestine, where I tried at least three times to go and reside, but would find myself leaving again.

“Each time I would have to start again in a new place from the beginning. But beyond my experience, it's also about raising questions about humans and what means for us – this process of construction and destruction, which is permanent.”

Video work and archival images from Sheikh Hassan's collection in Sophia Al-Maria's show [photo credit: Maghie Ghali]
Video work and archival images from Sheikh Hassan's collection in Sophia Al-Maria's show [photo credit: Maghie Ghali]

One of the first works seen is a series of passports, official identity documents and travel approvals from the Israeli Military, from the many years Batniji spent applying for French citizenship. On all records, his nationality is written as ‘undefined’ or missing entirely. His French passport, received in 2012, is the only place is has nationality in writing.   

His photo series Gaza Wall, created after the Second Intifada, documents various poster-covered walls in the occupied city, which acted as a news-sharing area and chronicling of events – both social and political – for Palestinians. 

“This is a work that plays around with the idea of being in between - you see the remains of some posters and the erasure or the disappearance of information becomes this key element,” Ramadan said about Gaza Wall. 

“There is also a poster of his younger brother who was killed during the first intifada. It brings this idea of the personal that becomes political.”

In one gallery, a series of what appear to be blank white papers cover a wall. It’s only until the viewer gets very close that they can see etchings making up images. The etchings are made using photo negatives from his late brother’s wedding, taken two years before his killing. Through the lens of this deeply personal moment, Batniji comments on the disappearance of Palestinian life.

Also on show at Mathaf are One Tiger or Another, a smaller show curated by Tom Eccles and Mark Rappolt exploring the mythology and the colonisation of South Asian, and Majaz: Contemporary Art Qatar, a group show celebrating five years of the Artist in Residence (AIR) programme at the Fire Station in Doha, shown at Mathaf.

All four exhibitions are running until January 21, 2023, with the Majaz show staying on further, until February 25, 2023.

Maghie Ghali is a British-Lebanese journalist based in Beirut. She worked for The Daily Star Lebanon and writes as a freelancer for several publications, including The National, Al Arabiya English, Al Jazeera and Middle East Eye, on arts and culture/design, environment and humanitarian topics.

Follow her on Twitter: @mghali6