Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha, Qatar, has staged some blockbuster exhibitions since it opened a decade ago—Cai Guo-Qiang in 2012, Mona Hatoum in 2014, Shirin Neshat in 2015, and recently El Anatsui.
Mathaf began not with a building, but as an idea of Sheikh Hassan bin Mohammed bin Ali Al Thani to publicly display and share his collection. The Qatari patron started collecting in the 1980s, focusing on works by artists from the Middle East, North Africa, and the Arab diaspora. Now including over 9,000 pieces, the collection is co-owned by Qatar Museums and Qatar Foundation, and exhibited alongside temporary exhibitions in a renovated former school.
WHITEWALL: What makes the collection that is the basis for Mathaf so unique?
ABDELLAH KARROUM: When you look at the global art scene in the 1990s, Mathaf is truly pioneering as an institution dedicated to modern and contemporary art from North Africa and the Middle East. First, the multiple connections and circulation of artists and ideas since the 1960s culminated at regional level first in Algiers in 1969, then in Baghdad in 1973, before Rabat in 1976. Second, the dynamic of the pan-Arab intellectual movement continued in the fields of art, literature, and cinema, but most of the political regimes barred the route for the most engaged artists and their influential platforms.
The originality in Doha is that from the very beginning, with the development of research, residencies, and curatorial programming, Mathaf challenged the idea that modernism can only be understood as a Western phenomenon. This is somehow an early decolonial position. Today, the permanent collection galleries at Mathaf offer a comprehensive survey of modern and contemporary art production from the region, and it is accompanied by a strong education and publishing platform, with the Mathaf Encyclopedia of Modern Art and the Arab World. This is one of the projects we are most passionate about.
WW: What role do artist commissions play in the programming of Mathaf?
AK: Living artists are at the heart of our mission. Artists’ commissions are an important part of the program for Mathaf, particularly encouraging younger artists to develop their work within the supportive environment of an institution that serves as both as a community resource and a world-class museum. The idea is also to support artists to produce works in response to the social, cultural, and political context.
WW: What have been some of the more successful local engagements and projects in Doha initiated by Mathaf?
AK: Every department at Mathaf is involved in education, even those who are working behind the scene. We welcome schools at our Conservation Lab. We offer series of art lessons with Ismail Azzam and Asma Al Mannai, for example. There have been many lessons, ranging from regular free life drawing classes, children’s workshops and visits, drop-in talks, school programs, through to more complex projects such as the development of a collaboration between students and Cai Guo-Qiang when he spent several weeks working on his exhibition here in Doha.
WW: Tell us about the upcoming show—a first in the region—of work by the Moroccan artist Yto Barrada?
AK: Yto Barrada is an exceptional artist, an activist and an educator, a perfect profile that reflects Mathaf values. Barrada spent her early life in Tangier, Morocco. Her work focuses on serious sociopolitical and cultural issues, such as border tensions and immigration, exploring strategies of resistance and challenging social order. Many of these works replicate and reproduce objects, stories, and images, exploring notions of authenticity.
WW: Mathaf will also present this spring a major retrospective of work by the late Huguette Caland. Can you tell us about this exhibition?
AK: We are proud to be able to show fully the work of this extraordinary artist, so little shown in her lifetime. It will be a revelation, I think, for audiences in Doha. She sadly passed away last year but was fully involved in the development of the exhibition. Presenting works that reflect Caland’s bold, distinctive character and a life lived somewhat outside of social and political convention, the show will celebrate the artist’s interdisciplinary practice and remarkable, diverse career. I hope this will be a fitting memorial to a wonderful artist.
WW: Outside of your role as director at Mathaf, you are also the founder of L’appartement 22. Can you tell us about what you’re currently working on with the experimental collective?
AK: L’appartement 22 will celebrate its 20th anniversary soon. I am proud to see the result of many years I invested working with artists and intellectuals in Morocco and creating opportunities for discussion and rethinking ways of production and distribution of artistic ideas. This year L’appartement 22 is offering two artists residencies and commissioning several artists who have very little budget but big ideas.
Working at Mathaf allowed me to achieve so much with artists I am interested in. It is not only about money. It is about real engagement to put art at the center of a larger project of changing society.