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Thu December 30, 2010
The Picture Show

A Surgically Implanted Camera And More At New Arab Art Museum

Originally published on Wed May 23, 2012 10:36 am

The tiny Persian Gulf nation of Qatar is often overshadowed by its neighbors. But the country is gaining its own reputation -- as a player in the art world.

Qatar is on an ambitious construction schedule to build some half-dozen museums by 2016. The newest of these is the Mathaf, the Arab Museum of Modern Art. And unlike the Guggenheim in Dubai or the Louvre in Abu Dhabi, the Mathaf is not a branch of a Western museum.

It will be home to more than 6,000 pieces of modern and contemporary Arab art. More than 200 of these will be on display initially, some of which push traditional cultural boundaries.

Wassan al Khudairi is the director of the museum. She's tired of talking about perceived censorship in Arab art instead of the actual artwork. Many people assume that modern Arab art is somehow innately different than Western art.

"Arab artists were engaging with the modern art movement in the West," she says. "What makes it Arab is that the artist is coming from an Arab context. And so you will find works that are abstract, cubist, surrealist ... You know, it's about an engagement with what was happening at that time, and not an alternative modernity."

The Mathaf has commissioned 23 contemporary artists to produce original pieces of art. Wafaa Bilal is one of those artists; he had a webcam surgically implanted into the back of his head. The camera takes a picture every minute and sends those images to the museum.

Bilal believes photographers hold tremendous power to shape images, depending on how they look through the lens. "I wanted to lose that subjectivity over the image and arrive to the objective image that is not influenced by the power of our eyes," he says.

The Mathaf's opening has been anticipated not only in the region, but in the rest of the world as well. Shadi Hamid, the research director at the Brookings Institution's Doha Center, thinks the museum may be a sign of shifting power in the region.

"It's not just about diplomacy or traditional foreign policy," he explains. "It's about getting involved in the arenas of culture, the arts and education, and this has been the area where Arab countries have been lagging."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

The tiny Persian Gulf state of Qatar has been using its oil wells to forge a reputation in some non-traditional arenas. It's home to the Al-Jazeera satellite television channel and it was recently named the place where soccer's World Cup championship will be played in 2022. And as NPR's Asma Khalid reports, it's now seeking to make a name for itself in the art world.

ASMA KHALID: The country is on an ambitious construction schedule that includes building some half a dozen museums by 2016. Qatar's museums director says it's like building the Smithsonian from the sand up. The newest one opens today. It's called Mathaf, the Arab Museum of Modern Art. And it's the first of its kind the Middle East. Unlike the Guggenheim in Dubai or the Louvre in Abu Dhabi, Qatar's museum has local roots.

It will be home to over 6,000 pieces of modern and contemporary Arab art. Over 200 will be on display initially, some which push traditional cultural boundaries.

Ms. WASSAN AL KHUDAIRI (Director, Mathaf Museum): We have works in the collection that have some nudity. We have some works that are more suggestive than others.

KHALID: That's Wassan al Khudairi. She is the director of the museum. She's tired of talking about perceived censorship instead of the actual artwork. She says people assume modern Arab art is somehow innately different than Western art.

Ms. AL KHUDAIRI: Arab artists were engaging with the modern art movement in the West. What makes it Arab is that the artist is coming from an Arab context. And so you will find works that are abstract, cubist, surrealist. It's about an engagement with what was happening at that time and not an alternative modernity.

KHALID: Wafaa Bilal is one 23 contemporary artists commissioned to produce original pieces of art for the Mathaf. He surgically implanted a webcam in the back of his head. The camera takes a picture every minute and sends those images to the museum. Bilal says photographers hold tremendous power to shape images, depending on how they look through the lens.

Mr. WAFAA BILAL (Artist): And I wanted to lose that subjectivity over the image and arrive to the objective image that is not influenced by the power of our eyes.

KHALID: Shadi Hamid is research director at the Brookings Institution's Doha Center. For him, the Mathaf is a sign of shifting power in the region.

Mr. SHADI HAMID (Brookings Institution): It's not just about diplomacy or traditional foreign policy. It's about getting involved in the arenas of culture, the arts and education, and this has been the area where Arab countries have been lagging.

KHALID: The arts are helping put Qatar on the map. The museum's opening has been anticipated not only in the region but in the West as well.

Asma Khalid, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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