Doha's Mathaf museum aims to protect and conserve

In addition to its role as a public museum, Doha's Mathaf is engaged in a vital project to safeguard the rich and varied legacy of modern Middle Eastern art against the ravages of time.

Dia Azzawi’s Red Sky with Birds, 1981
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A painting by the Iraqi artist Jawad Selim recently stumped a team of conservators at Doha's newest museum. They couldn't figure out what was happening with the material the artist had used to make it. Selim, who founded the seminal Baghdad Modern Art Group in 1951, died nearly four decades ago, so they couldn't ask him what he had done. Neither did they have much evidence about how he had worked in his lifetime.

Wassan al Khudairi, the museum's acting director and chief curator, decided to ask Sheikh Hassan bin Mohamed bin Ali al Thani for help. Sheikh Hassan - as he is known to all involved in Mathaf, the Arab Museum of Modern Art, which will open its doors to the public in a former schoolhouse next month - has spent the last 20 years amassing a collection of more than 6,000 artworks from across the Arab world.

Along the way he has learned a great deal about the practical workmanship of the artists in his collection. He sought the advice of another Iraqi artist, Dia Azzawi, who knew Selim well. Azzawi, in turn, told him that Selim used to make his own tempera at home, mixing colour pigments with egg yolks to create sticky, fast-drying paints (popular in the 1500s, the use of egg tempera was largely replaced by oil painting in the Renaissance, and while some contemporary artists still use it, they tend to opt for commercial products rather than homemade concoctions). From those conversations the conservators were able to clean the painting without doing any accidental damage.

"At first they were just ecstatic to have this information," said Khudairi, "because it helped them to know how to treat the surface of the work properly. But it's also incredibly rewarding for all of us as research."

Pint-sized and tough-talking, Khudairi studied art history in the US and the UK, and worked at the High Museum in Atlanta and the Brooklyn Museum in New York before joining Mathaf. She now leads a small but dynamic team, most of whose members, at least towards the top of the hierarchy, are highly educated young women, schooled in the West but with strong family ties to the Middle East (Khudairi's origins are in Iraq, and she has lived all over the region, from Eqypt to Saudi Arabia). For a month after the opening of Mathaf was officially announced this fall, she and her team went on tour to drum up support for the museum. I caught up with her in Beirut, which fell in between stops in Cairo and Marrakech.

Khudairi has been working behind the scenes on the museum for three years now. During that time, Sheikh Hassan's collection has shifted from his personal possession to that of the state (whatever he bought in the beginning has been donated to the state, everything since has been acquired on behalf of it). A historian by training who turned 50 last month, Sheikh Hassan studied studio art and art history as a young man. After graduating from university in the mid-1980s, he bought a series of abstract paintings by one of his former teachers. By the mid-1990s he was collecting Qatari, Lebanese, Egyptian, Syrian and Iraqi art. As the collection grew it moved under the auspices of the Qatar Foundation, then under the umbrella of the Qatar Museums Authority. In the process it became the core of the new museum.

Mathaf is opening on December 30 with three separate exhibitions. Two of them - Told/Untold/Retold, organised by the outside curators by Sam Bardouil and Till Fellrath, and Interventions, curated by the art historian Nada Shabbout - consist primarily of new works made for the occasion. (Told/Untold/Retold is to include commissions by Walid Raad, Akram Zaatari, Hassan Khan, Lara Baladi, Youssef Nabil and Zineb Sedira, though the final lineup is still in flux).

But the third exhibition, Sajjil: A Century of Modern Art, is the largest and most labour-intensive, featuring around 250 works by more than 100 artists, including Chafic Abboud, Etel Adnan, Saloua Raouda Choucair, Adam Henein, Louay Kayyali, César Gemayel Saliba Douaihy, Rachid Koraichi, Nja Mahdaoui, Hassan Massoudy, Fateh al Moudarres and Ramses Younan of the surrealist group Art and Freedom. At a time when the attention lavished on contemporary art is giving way to an interest in all that came before it, Sajjil also offers a perspective on what modernism in the Arab world has meant, and what it might still mean today.

"We knew we wanted to showcase the collection," said Khudairi. "But our exhibition galleries are only around 2,500 square metres, so obviously we couldn't show everything." Khudairi, Shabbout and Deena Chalabi, Mathaf's head of strategy, met for months to brainstorm and test out hypotheses. They also spent a lot of time just looking at the works.

"We were very aware that this was going to be the first look at the collection," said Shabbout, sitting with Khudairi and Chalabi at a cafe in Beirut. "We were also aware that we would really have a chance to open up the discourse, so there would be no formulas, no canon to establish or even a firm way of looking at things."

One of Mathaf's more interesting mandates is to also function as a hub for scholarly work. "We always talked about the exhibition as an invitation to research," said Chalabi.

"There's still so much work to be done on the collection in terms of research," said Khudairi. "But I think once we get some of the works out there, there's going to be a lot of feedback and a lot of information coming our way. It's the beginning of what's to come."

The exhibition also promises some intriguing lessons about what has already been. The focus of Sajjil rests firmly on art of the 20th century, but some of the works date from the mid-19th century. Amid recent talk about the expanding market and investment in contemporary art in the Middle East, one can easily forget that artworks are, for the most part, material things, not financial instruments. As such, they are vulnerable to the assaults of time and temperature.

What we call "modernity" in the visual arts stretches back over 100 years. Accordingly, many works from this period are, in fact, quite old and in need of care. One of the greatest challenges facing the new museum in Doha is the least obvious: how to save the relics of modern art from ruin, at a time when masterpieces across the region have disintegrated in the basements of negligent government agencies, gone missing from various ministries, or been so aggressively restored that little of the original compositions remain.

Mathaf's conservation department typically consists of six to eight specialists, many of them flown in from Europe for one-month rotations in Doha. In addition to working directly on the collection for the last year, they have also been training local staffers who will continue the work when they leave. Already the museum's framing is done in-house. And the knowledge has flowed both ways, with the foreign experts learning much from their local counterparts about regional weather conditions and materials to which artists have historically had access.

Conservation is just one small piece of the puzzle, but it illustrates the complexity of bringing a new arts institution into being, particularly in a context where museums have not been a part of the cultural landscape for long. The fact that fewer than half of the artists included in Sajjil are still alive and able to answer questions about their work also brings the urgency of Mathaf's research mission into sharp relief.

Mathaf is one of at least four new museum projects in Qatar, several more in the Gulf, and more still in the Middle East at large. But it is the only one to focus on the modern period and to encompass the Arab world as a whole. Mathaf (Arabic for "museum") is also rare in that it has put the collection first, and left the flashy architecture for later. The school housing the museum now is a temporary solution. Next year, the Qatar Museums Authority will consider where the permanent building should go and who will design it.

"It's not that we work slowly," said Sheikh Hassan, also in Beirut to speak on behalf of the museum. "In Qatar, the strategy of the state is to develop museums that will reach out to the public. This is humanitarian. It isn't for tourism. It isn't a financial endeavour. It's not a marketing project. And it has nothing to do with politics or religion… You know the problems of the Arab world… Art is the one thing that can bring people together."

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie is a staff writer for The Review in Beirut.