Qatar Museums (QM) is due to stage a major retrospective of the Iraqi Modernist artist Dia Al-Azzawi in October. The exhibition is believed to be the largest-ever solo exhibition of works by an Arab artist. Spanning two venues in Doha, Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art and QM Gallery Al Riwaq, the exhibition will cover 9,000 sq. m and include 400 works.
Curated by Catherine David, the deputy director of the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the show includes works in a variety of media, including painting, sculpture, drawing, print and artist books, as well as original and limited editions of works on view for the first time. The two venues, across the city from one another, will highlight two different narratives in Al-Azzawi’s work. The first will focus on the artist’s use of image and text, and the other will trace the artist’s engagement with the political history of Iraq and the Arab world.
Al-Azzawi, who was born in Baghdad in 1939, has been a central figure in Iraq’s art scene. Before moving to London in 1976, where he continues to live and work today, Al-Azzawi was the director of the Iraqi Antiquities Department in Baghdad and an active member of the country’s emerging art groups at the time. “Al-Azzawi is considered one of the most important artists of the Arab world and for the first time a major retrospective will allow visitors to study the evolution of his practice and themes,” says Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi, the founder of the Barjeel Art Foundation, whose collection features many works by the artist.
Alongside 90 works from the QM collection, the exhibition will feature loans from 17 private collections and four institutions, including the Barjeel Foundation, Sharjah; Centro de Arte Moderna Fundação Calouste, Lisbon; Kinda Foundation, Riyadh; and Tate Modern, London. The Tate is lending one of Al-Azzawi’s most renowned works, the vast mural Sabra and Shatila Massacre (1982-85). Often likened to Picasso’s seminal painting Guernica (1937), Al-Azzawi’s painting depicts the massacre of Palestinian refugees in 1982 during the civil war in Lebanon.
• I am the cry, who will give voice to me? Dia Al-Azzawi: a Retrospective (from 1963 until tomorrow), Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art and QM Gallery Al Riwaq, Doha, Qatar, 16 October-16 April 2017
In this report on the ‘Art for Tomorrow’ conference in Doha in March 2016 I ask the crucial question facing the state of arts in Qatar today: if we focus on the commercial then what about the art?
The question of the future is pervasive in the Gulf, almost to the point of becoming a cliché. Nevertheless, the ‘Art for Tomorrow’ conference, a joint project between New York Times Conferences and Qatar Museums, opened up the floor for predictive debate at its second edition ‘Technology, Creativity and the City’. This year’s programme included three days of panel discussions from leading art world professionals, guided visits to local art spaces, and a number of ‘art salons’. According to Achilles Tsaltas, vice president of New York Times Conferences, the premise of the conference was to consider ‘the role of art as a catalyst for economic growth and development, the role of art as a driver for tourism, and also as a mechanism for nation, city, and even corporate branding’, for which he considers Doha ‘a living showcase’.
National Museum of Qatar under construction, 14 March 2016.
Therefore, and in spite of its title, art took on a tertiary role in the ‘Art for Tomorrow’ conference. The main motivation for the event seemed rather to act as a venue for high-profile artists and arts professionals to network, and as an opportunity to introduce and present Doha favourably to such individuals, all with a predominantly commercial outlook. To this end, the conference was an enormous success – Qatar Museums and the New York Times collectively attracted big stars such as internationally acclaimed artists Jeff Koons and Marina Abramovic, who gave keynote speeches, as well as participants including art collector Dakis Joannou, director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, Martin Roth, and global director of Art Basel, Marc Spiegler. The fact that the cost to attend the conference was around $2000USD further emphasised the purposefully exclusive and commercial nature of the event, rendering it inaccessible to much of the audience in what was openly recognized and discussed as an ’emerging art scene’ in Qatar.
Tours of the Museum of Islamic Art and Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, as well as trips to Gallery Al Riwaq, and Fire Station Artist in Residence (a residency and gallery space), presented the already well-established arts infrastructure in Doha to the high profile conference guests. A tour of the National Museum of Qatar, currently under construction, was led by French star-architect Jean Nouvel (who designed the museum), presenting an exclusive selection of delegates the ‘tomorrow’ that the conference’s title promised. Those who visited returned impressed, but confused – after five years of construction and an expected completion date of 2016, the museum is far from finished and questions about the opening or approximate costs were shrugged off entirely – clearly, ‘tomorrow’ is not quite tomorrow.
The impression that art was a circumstantial aspect of the conference was predominantly due to the scheduling of the panel discussions. In what Marc Spiegler described as ‘a rather fast and furious format’, each discussion featured two speakers and a moderator and lasted 30 minutes, each tackling an enormous, and often pertinent, subject. For example, a talk on ‘The Digital Museum’ with the general director of the Rijksmuseum, Wim Pijbes, and Giorgia Abeltino from the Google Cultural Institute barely allowed for an overview of the digitization projects taking place in the two institutions, scratching only the surface of a debate that deserved further analysis and discussion. Similarly, the panel ‘Culture Under Attack’ was predominantly discursive, leaving one feeling that the topics had been chosen for their timely, immediate appeal and irrespective of a desire to engage more deeply with the subject matters. While the art salons allowed for more audience interaction and debate, the overall feeling of the conference was mired by many unanswered questions.
Jeff Koons speaking at the Art for Tomorrow conference 2016.
The lack of art was a troubling aspect of the conference that ran deep into the fundamentals of the event itself. The conference was hosted by the five-star W Hotel and Residences in Doha – an odd decision considering the array of arts venues that Qatar Museums has at their disposal. There were attempts to assert the missing art elsewhere in the programming – The Lab, a temporary gallery space, was set up on the 29th floor of the hotel and open throughout the conference. Although the starkly un-glitzy aesthetics of the space were refreshing, the curatorial vision of the show – beyond the desire to have some form of art in the conference – was absent. While there were artists speaking during the event, their talks were, again, mere presentations that were not further engaged with.
The highlight of the conference was undoubtedly the opening of What About the Art? Contemporary Art from China (until 16 July), an exhibition at Gallery Al Riwaq curated by artist Cai Guo-Qiang, to which all of the delegates were invited. The show was an enormous production that included 15 Chinese artists and a number of exceptional monumental commissions. This show demonstrated exactly what ‘Art for Tomorrow’ was trying to articulate – that a city like Doha can, and does, use art as an important tool for development. But it also showed that the opposite is equally true – the development of a city can be used to improve art, stage important shows, and inspire local audiences and artists. Leaving the exhibition and returning to the conference, the question persisted: ‘What about the art?’
Etel Adnan’s life is as colourful and compelling as her art. The artist, who was born in Beirut in 1925, is a poet, essayist and painter. Working in a range of media—from oil on canvas to watercolour and tapestry—her bright abstract style has been compared with that of Paul Klee and Nicolas de Staël. We spoke with Adnan on the occasion of her first solo exhibition in a UK public institution, which opens this month at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery.
Your paintings are mostly abstracted landscapes and you have lived in many different places: Beirut, California and now Paris. How have these places influenced your paintings?
California and Beirut are really my two homes, not only physically but mentally, and so I continue to live in relation to them even though I’m in Paris. I’m still inspired by these landscapes because I’m still haunted by these places—they are still in me. I spent most of my life in California, where I had a view of a mountain from my window and, willingly or not, it entered my psyche and also my writing and painting. You begin to live with it even when you can’t see it.
Your show at the Serpentine is called The Weight of the World, but much of your work is about weightless things, such as shadows and light. Where does this heaviness come from?
The exhibition takes its name from a series of works that all feature circles. In this case, the expression “weight of the world” is less psychological and more physical—a big circle weighing down in each work. This new series was painted a year ago. I made the first one and Hans Ulrich Obrist [the artistic director of the Serpentine] happened to see it in my studio in Paris and said I should do more.
Many Lebanese artists—Mona Hatoum and Walid Raad, for example—refer to the Lebanese Civil War in their work. How has the war affected your work?
Tragedies indirectly foster creativity—[they] create tension. Look at Picasso’s Guernica; it’s like you have to create something at the same level of the tragedy that you are living in. In my own work, my response to such tragedies is more in my poetry and writing than in my painting. On the other hand, it’s not only war that can inspire creativity—overwhelming beauty can also create overwhelming works. For example, Monet’s Water Lilies triptych is epic. Nature is overwhelming if you really look at it. It’s a burst of fantastic energy. It’s a sort of positive apocalypse.
• Etel Adnan: the Weight of the World, Serpentine Sackler Gallery, London, 2 June-11 September