Doha's Mathaf, more of an academy than simple museum

Farah Montasser, Saturday 26 Jan 2013

Looking into Arab art and creativity, Ahram Online speaks with Michelle Dezember, Mathaf Arab Museum of Modern Art acting director and head of the education and public programmes

Video provided by Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art 

Over two years after its foundation, Mathaf, an institution located in Doha and dedicated to promoting Arab culture, has put modern Arab arts on the world map with its contributes to the cultural landscape of the Gulf region, the Middle East and the Arab diaspora. With its recent exhibition “Tea with Nefertiti” Mathaf aimed to create a dialogue across time and geography in the context of art.

"Mathaf’s mission is to create welcoming spaces that host evolving discussions about art in the region and beyond," Michella Dezember, acting director and head of the education and public programmes, tells Ahram Online.

From its name 'Mathaf', this new premises in Doha carries a meaning larger than a simple art gallery in the Gulf region. Meaning "museum" in English, Mathaf is a 5,500- square-metre building that serves as a cross-culture meeting point, space for arts education and creativity, and a museum for art antiquities.

"We strive to facilitate vibrant exchanges of ideas and cultivate multiple perspectives through our physical and digital environments. And we aim to be a platform for thought, dialogue, and individual expression by engaging with art on a local and transnational level," Dezember says.

"Mathaf’s growing collection represents a priceless resource to help connect our rich cultural heritages to the promise of contemporary art movements."

Inaugurated back in December 2010, under the auspices of H.E. Sheikh Hassan bin Mohamed bin Ali Al-Thani, the founder of Mathaf, Mathaf aims at creating a space for dialogue and offers all Arabs a perspective on international modern and contemporary art in the region and the Arab diaspora.

Upon its opening, Chairperson Qatar Museums Authority H.E. Sheikha Al Mayassa bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani says in her statement, "Mathaf's mission is to expand people's ideas about art in the region to show that the story is bigger and more exciting and more surprising than might be supposed."

The story of Mathaf began 20 years earlier when H.E Sheikh bin Mohamed bin Ali Al Thani imagined Doha to be the first in the region to carry a vision for Mathaf, Arab Museum of Modern Art. Seeking Doha to hold a representative "treasure house," as Dezember describes, of modern Arab art, he started collecting art from the entire Arab world, particularly Qatari art, and making it available for the Arab public. He also began to form an arts education hub and creativity centre for more artistic endeavours.

Located in an ex-school building in Doha's Education City, Mathaf holds rare art antiquities that represent "major trends and sites of production of modern Arab art spanning the 1840s through present," Dezember reveals. According to a Mathaf press release, the building has been re-designed by the French architect Jean-François Bodin.

Reviving the oriental Arab culture, all divisions at Mathaf carry Arabic names beginning with Mahal (another name for museum)."The antiquities we have on display currently help to contextualize and explore the research that curators Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath present in 'Tea with Nefertiti' by creating a dialogue across time and place on how we perceive and make meaning of a work of art," Dezember explains.

"Tea with Nefertiti" is the current exhibition at Mathaf by artists Till Fellrath and curator Sam Bardaouil, in which the artists present installations and images that play with time and location in Egypt, capturing its heritage over the course of history. Among its images is Anobis enjoying tea in Islamic Cairo today. This exhibition runs until end of March 2013.

“Tea with Nefertiti" represents our ethos of not wanting to reduce the artists in our collection and exhibitions to labels by nationality, but rather to have a dialogue stemming from the perceptions, histories, and politics of place and identity," Dezember clarifies. "We are interested in exploring the ways in which the individual with ties to a nation, culture, or other group might influence their work and how we perceive it, but aim to do so in a way that opens up discussion rather than confining the artist to a label," she highlights some interesting survey of works by Egyptian modern artists in Mathaf's collection.

Nevertheless, Mathaf focuses on bringing Qatari arts to the world. "We highlight Qatari artists from time to time, as we did in the exhibition "Swalif: Qatari Art from Memory to Modernity." But we balance these more locally focused shows with other thematic exhibitions that present a dynamic, alternative perspective on contemporary art from an Arab perspective," Dezember defines.

Aside from the museum and art exhibitions, Mathaf puts arts education a priority for all young and old Arab artists. "We are committed to education, to creating a sense of place, process and context, and conveying relevance of multiple ideas and social factors to the creation of art," she tells Ahram Online.

Among its Manara (Enlightment) education programmes, is the year-long internship, Mathaf Voices, that trains local university students to give exhibition tours from their own perspectives. Another popular one is Artists Encounters, in which Mathaf gives "a unique opportunity to work with living artists," as Dezember puts it. Through this programme, contemporary artists are invited to Mathaf to design a workshop that links an element of their personal creative process with an aspect related to the creation of the artworks on view in our galleries. "The workshops encourage an intimate interaction between artist and participants, and focuses on the types of thinking central to the art making process rather than techniques or a finished work of art," she continues.

In spite of these educational initiatives, Mathaf as an institution still finds it challenging to reach out to the community in Doha and the rest of the region. "We have to grow the public's interest in the arts among our audiences, and naturally it will take time to develop the appreciation and understanding of art," Dezember remarks.

Interestingly, Mathaf's other functional units also carrying Arabic names like Manara for education, Dezember sheds light on its Maktaba (Library), and Maqha (Coffee Bar), all designed for further art engagement.

Tea with Nefertiti, open daily 11am- 6pm, except Mondays and Fridays 3pm- 6pm
2777, Education City, Doha, Qatar

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