At first disturbing and controversial, public art in Qatar is becoming for many people an acceptable means of provoking debate and making political and social statements.
“When Qatar Museums started improving the public art scene in 2013, there was a volcano of things at the same time,” said Layla Ibrahim Bacha, senior art specialist at Qatar Foundation. “Suddenly we were moving from decorative pieces at roundabouts to rotten cows and burnt chicken. So when you ask the public about their reaction to this, I think the answer is very simple: It was too much.”
In 2013, a series of 14 bronze sculptures chronicling the gestation of a fetus inside a uterus from conception to birth, by the controversial British artist Damien Hirst, created a public uproar. The pieces, first installed at Sidra Medicine healthcare facility in 2013, remained covered for five years. In the same year, Qatar hosted Hirst’s first solo retrospective exhibition in the Middle East, titled Relics, featuring pieces like decomposing cows and sharks preserved in formaldehyde.
L’age d’or, an exhibition by Adel Abdessemed, opened around the same time at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art. It included a video featuring a line of chickens against a wall of fire, which attracted a lot of criticism.
A five-meter bronze statue of the French footballer Zinedine Zidane head-butting the Italian player Marco Matezarri in the 2006 World Cup final by the same artist was taken down from the Corniche in Doha two weeks after its installation because of the strong reactions it caused on social media.
‘A Learning Path for Everyone’
Bacha, who oversees Qatar Foundation’s public art strategies, collection management, and commissions of major artworks, says that you can’t dictate what the public thinks of an artwork or how they interpret it, but you can give them context. (See a related article, “Young Art Executive Has a Key Role in Qatar’s Public Art Scene.”)
“It’s a learning path for everyone. It’s all about us learning, the public learning and telling the public why those artworks are here and what are the stories behind them,” she said. “Now we can see that the public is more open to view new designs and themes because of all these experiences.”
In 2016, the Qatar Foundation started tours to introduce its collection of about 150 pieces of art to the staff and students of the organization. As interest in the art pieces grew, the foundation organized guided tours for the public.
“That’s when it became really successful,” Bacha said. “The Art Trail program made those pieces accessible to everyone and created a connection between public artworks and the public who want to learn more about the pieces.”
Murals and Street Art
In November last year, Qatar Museums launched a project called Jedariart, which allowed local artists to express themselves on walls across the city through murals and street art.
The project enabled Michael Anthony Perrone, an assistant professor in the painting and printmaking department at Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar, to connect with his students when he was stuck in the United States due to Covid-19 restrictions.
At the time, Perrone was painting a mural that traces the crack lines on a wall under renovation at his home in Vermont. He had students replicate the mural at an underpass that leads to a well-known shopping mall in Doha.
“It was a good way for me as an artist to connect my two worlds,” he said. “By having that mural come here, a part of me and of my life in the U.S. could come here and connect with my life in Doha,” he said.
Perrone had always wanted to see his artwork displayed in an art gallery or a museum, but the Jedariart project made him excited about the prospects of public art.
“I think the goal of this project was to engage the public and make art a safe place to come to,” he said, “because sometimes people are afraid to look at art. They think that they are not smart enough or not trained to know what to think.”
Perrone said public artists should be aware of the cultural context and make work that is more embraceable and acceptable to the public.
‘Public Art Speaks to Society’
Ali A. Al-Raouf, a professor of architecture, urbanism and planning theories at Qatar’s Hamad Bin Khalifa University, agrees.
“Public art speaks to society,” Al-Raouf said. “Therefore, it is necessary to understand the values of the society that lives in this city when making the choice of public art.”
Al-Raouf, who is interested in the interaction between the human and the public spheres, identifies three major changes in the public art scene in Qatar. First, people who previously could choose whether to visit museums and art galleries have an almost obligatory relationship with public art, which forces them to interact with it.
The second change was moving from direct and simple artwork to work that stirs debates, raises questions and inspires viewers. The third was from scattered art pieces to a strategy of installing public art in places that attract people.
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A research paper to be released soon by Al-Raouf examines the success of Matafi, a renovated fire station that was transformed into an art center and a hub for the city’s residents, combining public space, public art, and places where people go to have a good time.
Al-Raouf says this type of architectural planning creates a spirit of belonging that can only be achieved when people begin to sense that these places embrace them.
“The highest degree of success is that a place of public art becomes a destination for society members,” he said. “When this happens, nationality, social class and prejudices fall because people feel that this space addresses them as human beings.”