museum review - Gunpowder Art

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On December 5, Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art opens its first single-artist exhibition. Cai Guo-Qiang: Saraab is an explosive art project by one of the world’s most intriguing contemporary artists.


Saraab (‘mirage’ in Arabic) is Cai Guo-Qiang‘s first solo exhibition in the Middle East, and was inspired by the history of his hometown of Quanzhou, China, and its long-standing but little-known connections with the Arab world dating from ancient times.

Located on the southeast coast of China, Quanzhou was a significant maritime port on the ancient and legendary Silk Road, and a trade hub for silk, porcelain, tea, and spices. Quanzhou also hosted some of the earliest Muslim missionaries, now buried in the city‘s Holy Mausoleum. Since he was a boy, Cai had been curious about the traces of Islamic influence that can be seen to this day throughout his hometown, including the local streetscape, the grand Ashab Mosque, and cemeteries with countless Arabic-inscribed tombstones. The works in his exhibition trace the maritime route from ancient Arabia to Quanzhou, and echo the botanical patterns seen in Islamic decorative art.

The exhibition features more than 50 works, including 16 newly commissioned pieces, 30 recent works, and nine documentary videos. These include his signature gunpowder drawings, large-scale site-specific installations, and the pieces he created through the renowned ‘explosion’ events that were held at Mathaf in October with the help of local volunteers.

On the opening day of the exhibition, Cai will create another large-scale daytime ‘explosion’ event, titled Black Ceremony, which attempts to “confront matters of life and death, spiritual homecomings, potential transformations of symbols and the relationship between different cultures”.

Among the new works in Saraab is Homecoming, an installation of 60 rocks from Quanzhou, into which Cai has re-carved excerpts of Arabic inscriptions from the Qur’an and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) that are seen on the Muslim tombstones in his home town. These boulders form a winding path from Mathaf’s exterior courtyard to the inner atrium, and visitors can walk between the rocks, discovering the inscriptions as they pass. According to Cai, “the journey of the rocks from Quanzhou to Doha symbolises a homecoming for Muslims in distant lands from the past millennium, offering solace and closure to their long-awaited voyage to return home”.

As well as exploring the historic and contemporary iconography of the Arabian Gulf and its seafaring culture, the exhibition is an exciting opportunity to see Cai‘s artistic approach first-hand, and explore his unique art-making process. The exhibition runs until May 26, 2012.



Mathaf is located in a converted school building on the edge of Education City, off Al-Luqta Street, Doha.
Tel: +974 4402 8855
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