Qatar: An Oasis Of Culture Ancient To Contemporary – Leila Lebreton

As we made our way out of Qatar National Airport, my travel companions and I noticed a beautiful waterfall, a large glass pane of several meters, designed to look like water was pouring onto it from outside. “It’s rain”, our guide joked, and we laughed as Qatar is not famous for its wet climate. “If we had been in London, it would be,” we joked back. In hindsight, this was one of the first glimpses of the design scene we would explore in Qatar, always finding a balance between the artificial and the natural.

Another sight was the lush greenery surrounding the airport. My initial assumption that there must be some inadequate distribution of a natural water source was quickly rebuffed by one of my travel companions, who explained that there are huge desalination plants all around. These allow for clever use of one of Qatar’s plentiful albeit unfavourable to life natural resources, seawater.

The Old Souq Wakif, © Artlyst 2023

We stayed in the newly developed Msheireb neighbourhood in Downtown Doha, adjacent to the old Souq Wakif, a vibrant place showcasing how adeptly Qatar combines tradition and modernity. The neighbourhood is entirely walkable and has a bustling restaurant, art, design, and shopping scene.

We were privileged to dine in a newly built members club called Sanad, in their Sawad restaurant, a beautiful dining hall with stone walls carved in intricate embroidery. Everything from the Levantine food to the décor paid careful homage to Arab culture while distinctly modernising it.

The next day, we got an early head start on a tour of the National Museum of Qatar (Top Photo). The architecture by Jean Nouvel is designed to mimic the shape of a desert rose (a formation of compact sand that has formed to create a crystallised rose-shaped structure found in the desert). It was a personal favourite of mine, as it was one of the most unique buildings I have encountered. Standing inside the central courtyard with the sun beating down, staring at the giant desert rose that is the museum, you feel completely enveloped in the essence of the desert. Our guide pointed out in a fascinating tour that on the inside of the museum, there are no right angles, which enables the architecture to flow organically from exterior to interior as visitors travel through time to learn about Qatar’s history.

I was struck by how carefully curated and designed the whole museum was. Certain rooms showcasing traditional tents with a projector showing a video of a family settling in the desert (traditionally done in the colder months) truly made the tradition come alive. Another particular attention to detail was the thought put into accessibility. For example, in a section describing the age-old coffee tradition in Qatar, there is a braille explanation, and next to it, an interactive area where visually impaired visitors can experience an olfactory station, where the smell of coffee wafts out of a hole in the wood.

On a quick pitstop for lunch, we were treated to a tour of the graffiti in the Old Doha Port. Under the beating sun, our guide explained how many were produced by foreign artists who were invited to “decorate” in a sense the buildings there. In Qatar, there seems to be a simultaneous acceptance of more modern art forms like graffiti while not interfering with the existing buildings through the controlled expression of this art and, in some ways, enhancing and gently bringing into the future what is already there.

Museum of Islamic Art Photo © Artlyst

We were off to the Museum of Islamic Art for our second museum tour of the day. Now, this museum is the pride and joy of Qatar. It is located on a corniche jutting out into the sea at the request of architect I.M. Pei. The structure is beautiful, different from the National Museum, and much more reminiscent of traditional Islamic architecture brought into the modern age.

Inside the museum, built around a hollow centre with rooms around the side, visitors are treated to a pervasive collection of anything one could think of, from tapestries, carpets, weapons, furniture, paintings, and manuscripts. What was fascinating was how broad the idea of Islamic Art truly is, as opposed to our narrow Western view of what both art and Islam are.

Following the museum, we proceeded a short way through the grounds to the Judd/Flavin exhibition.

We finished off our tour of the day with some public art, notably Jeff Koons’s Dugong (2022), a giant representation of Qatar’s national animal. What is ingenious about it, other than its playful aspect, is that it is entirely made out of stainless steel yet gives the very realistic impression of a floating aluminium balloon.

The next day, we were up bright and early and headed for some much-needed coffee at M7, a building that is a central design hub for young creatives in Doha. It is yet another example of multifunctional spaces for creatives in Doha. We were given a presentation about the Design Expo in February 2024, another exciting event for art and design lovers.

Shortly after, we were off to Mathaf, the Museum of Modern Art, but not before stopping to take in Damien Hirst’s Miraculous Journey (2013), a series of gigantic sculptures outside of the Sidra Medicine, showing the miracle of life from conception to various stages in the womb. It was quite something to see such a graphic representation of the miracle of life in a country which is still very much Muslim and conservative in many ways but also shows that when it comes to art, there is more leeway to express what might otherwise be seen as inappropriate in Qatar.

Once at Mathaf, we explored all that is modern Islamic art. Devoid of any other symbolic representation save for the two large-scale portraits of Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, the Emir of Qatar and Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned in the lobby; the museum is a masterclass in abstraction. Mehdi Moutashar’s Introspection as Resistance was particularly poignant, as it featured primarily abstract calligraphy inspired by his early years in Baghdad before moving to France. So too was Cities Under Quarantine: The Mailbox Project, which asked participants to fill in a notebook during quarantine with art of their choice, an excellent example of creativity during the pandemic.

Mathaf and the Qatar National Library are situated in Education City, an impressive sprawling area that houses eight foreign universities.

The Qatar National Library designed by Rem Koolhaas Photo: ©  Leila Lebreton Artlyst 2023

The Qatar National Library was designed by renowned Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, further cementing Qatar’s place as a hub for design and architecture. Among many of its impressive accolades, one is that it houses the world’s largest digitalisation centre after the US Congress. For history lovers, the lower ground floor, designed to look like an archaeological excavation sight from above, is where one can find ancient manuscripts and texts from around the Muslim and Arab world. The location of these reflects the idea that knowledge of history is at the centre of everything, which is why Qatar seeks to house and preserve historical texts from areas as far as India to keep the history of the Muslim world alive.

Another teaching from Islam, which is directly implemented in the architecture of the QNL, is that through knowledge, one is elevated. Therefore, the books are elevated all around the library. Similarly to the Qatar National Museum, there was attention to detail and inclusivity, which was quite striking. A teen-only zone has Playstations, so teenagers can relax and choose to spend time at the library and maybe pick up a book. Books are free to borrow. There are large interactive screens everywhere. There is even a sensory room for autistic children, which is specially designed and where you can also book a slot for a specialised librarian to come to work with you and your child. The commitment to inclusivity is not just an afterthought here; it is an integral part of the design process of these spaces.

Richard Serra’s East-West/West-East Installation Photo Leila Lebreton

The Qatar National Library mainly took every group member, and there was very much an unwillingness to leave so soon as there was still so much to discover. Luckily for us, our next and final stop on the trip was the most spectacular. Switching to 4×4 cars, we went further into Qatar’s desert. As we bumped along on uneven terrain, trying to reach our destination before the sunset, we were met with the first glimpses of Richard Serra’s East-West/West-East installation.

It is difficult to describe the feeling provoked by Serra’s work, four steel plates approximately fourteen meters high in the middle of the desert. Although we were there to find it, it still gave me the feeling that we had accidentally stumbled upon something in the desert that was somewhat otherworldly. Immediate comparisons to Kubrick’s Space Odyssey came to mind. We slowly approached the first of the magnificent structures, and I touched it, thinking it would be cold, but it had absorbed the heat of the sun during the day and was emanating it. Of course, anything left out in the desert’s blazing heat must withstand the elements. We walked along to the following structures, all carefully placed in the uneven desert terrain, taking in the view from the top of a nearby sand plateau.
Slowly, the sun began to set, perfectly positioned behind Serra’s sculptures. Everything about the installation felt raw and ancient, like the desert.

As we drove along back out through the desert, and I saw the setting sun reflected in the sea to my right, I thought to myself that Qatar is truly a magical place, merging old and new, natural and artificial, all seamlessly to create an almost futuristic yet dreamlike reality on the ground.

Top Photo: Artlyst © 2023

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