Qatar buzzes

As its year as the Arab Capital of Culture draws to a close, there's much to experience in Qatar for anyone seeking a cultural fix.

From the Museum of Islamic Art, above, to the second edition of the Doha Tribeca Film Festival and the launch of the much-anticipated Arab Museum of Modern Art, Qatar has much to offer this autumn.
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Performers prepared their jokes, audience members tossed red squishy-balls, and a film crew jostled through the jam-packed upstairs room of the Colombiano Coffee House last Sunday as the pre-show chatter reached fever pitch.

"This is amazing," said Mahmoud El-Achi, 27, crouching in his chair amid the hubbub of the Doha Tweet-Ups' comedy night. A Lebanese telecoms manager, he was born and raised in Doha. "There's almost nothing to do here, compared to Beirut," he added. "So I wasn't expecting this kind of turn-out and energy."

A small, roiling sea of students, artists, academics and professionals had successfully injected the event with that most rare and precious quality in Qatar: buzz.

Maybe it's a sign of things to come.

"The scene is young, but it's maturing," said Tariq al Jaidah, a Qatari entrepreneur and the founder of Doha's first private gallery, Waqif Art Center. "The Arab Capital designation has been a good inspiration and put Qatar on the map for these activities."

Doha is the UN-backed Arab Capital of Culture for 2010. But as recently as a few years ago this city had no major museum and hosted only the occasional small art exhibition. Now, a government vision that views cultural development as integral to national growth has begun to take root.

In 2007, a couple of small galleries opened in Souk Waqif, the faux traditional Arab market in downtown Doha. Late 2008 saw the debuts of IM Pei's Museum of Islamic Art, a cubist masterpiece regarded as an arts anchor, and the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra. And last year the inaugural Doha Tribeca Film Festival put Qatar on the international movie map.

In addition to the second edition of the film festival, which kicks off this week, consumers of culture should have a full plate over Doha's final months as the cultural capital, with an Oriental music festival, a major musical production, an exhibition of Ottoman art, a series of national cultural weeks and the launch of the much-anticipated Arab Museum of Modern Art, called Mathaf, on the menu for the remainder of the year.

Opening on December 30, Mathaf will house a collection of 60,000 works spanning 170 years. The Qatar Museums Authority has been promoting the museum on a regional road show. Antonia Carver, the director of Art Dubai, was among the speakers at a recent stop in Beirut. She believes it will be the world's largest public collection of modern Arab art.

"There's been a major shift of international attention towards the Arab world over the past 10 years, and it's been a phenomenon, really," Carver said during a recent interview. She appreciated how Mathaf officials had amassed their collection methodically and incorporated an educational aspect.

"What's really exciting is to be able to trace back through history and find those threads that pull out on the whole development of the Arab world and the Gulf and the connection between the two," she said.

Al Jaidah was also looking forward to Mathaf. "The new museum will change art in the Middle East because it will change the perspective and take Arab art to another dimension," he said.

Mathaf's opening is among the more promising events of an autumn schedule that, since the end of Eid, has seemed relentless. Qatar's National Theatre has hosted a steady stream of cultural weeks involving dancers, musicians and singers from countries such as India, Syria and Sudan. Still to come are Venezuela, Lebanon, Iran, Tunisia and the UAE.

In Souk Waqif, Al Markhiya Gallery is hosting the Lebanese artist Ginou Choueiri's solo show, For Your Eyes Only, a series of paintings exploring the veil and the women behind it. It's part of the gallery's ongoing survey of Arab artists under 40 years old.

As of last Wednesday, four new galleries at the Sheikh Faisal bin Qassim Al Thani Museum began showcasing Islamic art and works of Qatari heritage. On that same day, the gallery at Virginia Commonwealth University-Qatar launched New York Chronicles, a month-long exhibition featuring eight Arab artists' creative responses to New York City.

Christie's, the leading London-based auctioneer, recently hosted a two-day exhibit of paintings from the collection of the Egyptian collector Dr Mohammad Said Farsi at Doha's Four Seasons Hotel. At the opening gala, the director of Christie's Middle East, Isabelle de la Bruyere, said the Middle East art market was the world's fastest growing.

The show, called Journey Through Modern Art, included works by modern Egyptian, Iranian and Lebanese artists worth up to $400,000 (Dh1.5million). "People in Qatar are starting now to see art as a symbol of status," al Jaidah said.

The Museum of Islamic Art remains the defining symbol of Doha's cultural status. This autumn, MIA is hosting a series of arts and historical lectures. In December, Bruce Lawrence, MIA's scholar-in-residence, will speak about Ibn Khaldun, the father of sociology.

The Orientalist Museum, which has no physical home and no plans for one, is launching an exhibition of Ottoman art there on Friday. Most works are from its own collection, but several are from Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum and private collections. The show will conclude with a two-day international conference at which scholars from around the world will discuss the exchange between Ottoman and European cultures.

New cultural education developments include Doha Kalakshetra, a secondary school for Indian classical music and art that opened this month. It will instruct students in dance forms including Kathakali and Bharatnatyam, and in musical instruments such as guitar, tabla, piano and flute.

And the Qatar Foundation is set to open the Qatar Music Academy in January. It will focus on Arab music, highlighting links to American jazz and European composition.

This year's DTFF will, naturally, shine a spotlight on Arab film, and it's not alone in Doha. The $200 million Al Noor Film Fund is one of the region's largest film production firms. The executive director Raja Sharif says the fund has received hundreds of film ideas and plans to make several movies each year.

The Doha Film Institute, which aims to build a sustainable film industry in Qatar, launched this May. DFI has been helping a handful of local filmmakers make 10-minute films that are likely to be shown at DTFF. DFI also manages the Doha Film Fund, which will provide financial backing to up to 10 films per year.

DFI's camera crews are regularly seen at events around Doha, including last week's Tweet-Up comedy night, where Mohammad Kamal, a Qatari student at Carnegie Mellon University-Qatar, made light of his compatriots' foibles. "The first thing a Qatari says in a fight: I cancel your visa!" he said to a burst of laughter.

Hannadi Hassan, another Qatari student, explained how she could always tell a Khaleeji in London. "They wear their jeans too high," she said to titters.

Still, the road to cultural prominence is not always smooth. Earlier this year, Qatari officials promoted the Qatar Marine Festival at press conferences and in newspapers. A programme was announced and a website set up. Suddenly, the event fell off the radar, never to be heard of again.

"They promoted it and then it was just cancelled," said George Ayache, general manager of International Fairs and Promotions' Qatar, which organises conferences and exhibitions. He expressed disappointment in the number of events this year. "There's really nothing major here, in terms of cultural exhibitions."

Optimists call for patience. "This is a very young country, with very young minds," said al Jaidah. "They cannot immediately jump and make themselves equal with major players, there needs to be time to progress, and it is happening."

Next year will see the completion of five new theatres, according to cultural minister Hamad bin Abdulaziz al Kuwari. The highlight will be the Cultural Village, or Katara, which is hosting DTFF during its forthcoming soft opening. When completed, the 100-hectare arts compound is expected to include an opera house, an enormous state-of-the-art amphitheatre, a cinema/theatre, souk, bookshop and beachfront, in addition to the offices of theatre, music and fine arts organisations.

QMA is to begin construction on the Jean Nouvel-designed Qatar National Museum this autumn, aiming for a 2013 opening. With 40,000 square-metres of exhibition space, it will be larger than the MIA. Also next year, production is set to begin on Al Noor Film Fund's $150m epic on the life of the Prophet Mohammad.

For now, though, Doha residents and visitors are focusing on other films, as they dust off their tuxedos and ready themselves for the red carpet.

For coverage of the Doha Tribeca Film Festival, see Monday's Arts & Life