Arts and Culture: A Cultural Oasis
Written by Lord Brown
Qatar National Day: a time for citizens, residents, and visitors to honour Qatar’s past, celebrate its successes, and look forward to creating a bright future – and the arts are shining.
Each year on December 18 Qatar celebrates the day in 1878 that the founder of the State, Sheikh Jassim, succeeded his father Sheikh Mohammed bin Thani as ruler, and its cultural organisations shine at the heart of these festivities.
The Corniche in Doha is the focus for the National Day celebrations each year, and a string of cultural venues sparkle like jewels along this shore of the Arabian Gulf. From the landmark beauty of I. M. Pei’s Museum of Islamic Arts to the stunning traditional architecture of Katara, this is an exciting time of the year to explore the very best of local and international arts in Qatar.
Established in 2007 by Emiri decree, National Day, also known as Founder’s Day, marks the succession of Sheikh Jassim bin Mohammed bin Thani, the founder of the State of Qatar. It is a celebration of national identity and history, of Qatar’s heritage, and the country’s growth as a modern nation. Throughout the capital, but particularly along the 7km Corniche, there will be maroon-and-white flags flying from buildings and cars. Parades of horsemen and camel riders provide a marvellous spectacle, and visitors can enjoy the sight of traditional boats on the harbour, and a fly-past of military planes, as well as taking part in cultural events. It seems sometimes that citizens and residents paint the entire city maroon and white, expressing their national pride in flags, flowers, and lights.
While the National Day celebrations are a recent initiative, artistic expression in the region dates back to the petroglyph rock carvings in Al Jassasiya. Qatar has always been a bridge between the East and the West, and the art and cultural events of National Day reflect that. It is a celebration of unity and Qatar’s place in the world. 2014 saw a year of cultural exchange between Brazil and Qatar, culminating in a show at the ALRIWAQ exhibition space this National Day. There have been other landmark exhibitions throughout the year at the galleries of Qatar, including Mona Hatoum at Mathaf, Arab Museum of Modern Art, and an outstanding public art installation by Richard Serra. In the desert near Zekreet, on the west coast of Qatar, Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the chairperson of Qatar Museums, unveiled a monumental sequence of sculptures, East–West/West–East. The four 15m steel plates span a kilometre, towering above a natural corridor in the gypsum plateaus of the Brouq Nature Reserve.
Thanks to Qatar’s visionary leadership, one is able to experience world-class exhibitions and public art for free, or at little expense. The museums and galleries are growing organically, and not only preserve art but also catalyse creative projects. Looking forward to 2016, the National Museum of Qatar is an exciting example of how cultural institutions are retaining a sense of the country’s unique identity while connecting and communicating regionally and globally. The landmark building, designed by Jean Nouvel, will be the latest cultural addition to the stunning contemporary architecture on the Corniche, and will present the ‘past, present, and future of Qatar’. Objects donated by the community to the museum’s collections will preserve and share Qatari heritage and culture.
During the celebrations that lead up to National Day, there are cultural events to suit all tastes. At the Museum of Islamic Art, it is possible to enjoy everything from world-class exhibitions such as ‘The Tiger’s Dream: Tipu Sultan’ to the MIA Park Bazaar, a modern version of the souq tradition (December 6, 12–8pm). Over at Katara, the Cultural Village Foundation and Qatar Arts Society have a handicrafts and arts market (December 11–12, 4–10pm), which showcases local artisans and artists. Meanwhile the QMA galleries at Katara and ALRIWAQ are hosting major exhibitions of Qatari artists. Katara is also home to the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra. Founded by Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al-Missned in 2007, the orchestra inspires adults and children with Arab and Western music, often playing free concerts at MIA. In December, the orchestra will be playing a selection of music from Bartók, Prokofiev, and Verdi at the Qatar National Convention Centre. Meanwhile, near Education City, Mathaf celebrates with a show selected from the permanent collection of 8,000 artworks from the Arab World.
The arts thrive at all levels and bring together people from different backgrounds and cultures to both appreciate and create. Organisations such as the Doha Film Institute, which hosted the acclaimed Doha Tribeca Film Festivals, not only show a wide selection of films from around the world throughout the year at Katara, but also train filmmakers to tell their story in their own voice, and December sees the Ajyal Youth Film Festival. There is also a thriving literary scene, which brings together Qatari and expat writers. As Mohana Rajakumar, founder of the Doha Writers’ Workshop said, “Qatar is a place of diversity, complexity, and contrasts. Since setting up the workshop eight years ago, both have given me endless inspiration.”
Arts and culture are thriving in Qatar, and the next generation of artists, writers, filmmakers, and actors are being encouraged to grow and develop, and are being exposed to the finest local and international work. It is a rich and cosmopolitan environment which nurtures creativity, growing its own museums and a vibrant knowledge-based economy. A young Qatari writer at a summer school organised by Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation some years ago declared that she loved everything about her home country, "even the dust". There is a famous saying attributed to Picasso that ‘art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life’ just as precious rain brings life to the desert. If that is what art and culture does, then Qatar is encouraging the next generation of Picassos, and on National Day this desert nation can proudly celebrate its place on the world stage as an oasis of the arts in the Middle East where creativity grows and flourishes.
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