The Museum of Modern Arab Art Case Study

Excerpt from Case Study :


This paper discusses Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Dohar, Qatar. It examines the historical developments of the museum, which was founded recently in 2010 with a collection of works provided by Sheikh Hassan bin Mohammed Ali al-Thani (Raza 2011). Mathaf, which simply means “museum” in Arabic, now boasts a collection of over 6000 works “spanning the late 19th century to the present” (Raza 2011). This paper provides an assessment of the museum’s collecting process, which is “intimately linked with the construction of a new Qatari identity for global consumption and national cohesion” (Exell 2014). The paper also analyzes the museum’s exhibition style, programmes, and overall structure and compares it to the Museum of Islamic Art, Doha. Mathaf represents an Arab perspective on modern art and contemporary life. It reflects the shared history of the Arab world by contemporary artists and fulfills the need for modern culture to be promoted as a force that shapes society and progresses it forward. Through the works of art collected and displayed at Mathaf, society is illuminated by the Arab artists who seek to influence, impact, and communicate with their contemporaries about issues that are of lasting importance. Not only does the art in Mathaf speak to the world, but so too does the curatorial expertise and the authority guiding the institution’s exhibits. This paper will show why Mathaf is recognized by critics today as one of the top cultural attractions of Qatar.


Mathaf is the first of its kind in Qatar. It owes its origins to the great love of contemporary art nursed in the heart of Sheikh Hassan bin Mohammed bin Ali al-Thani. The purpose of the modern art museum is to “foster creativity, promote dialogue and inspire new ideas about modern and contemporary Arab art” (Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art n.d.). Since museums are cultural institutions that “adjust to the changing needs of their audiences and recognize the factors that influence visitation rates in order to attract, engage, and maintain their visitors” (Karafotias 2016), Mathaf presents itself as a cultural force in the 21st century, standing at the forefront of Qatari society and the Arab community as a sponsor of cultural ideals, cultural expressions, and artistic empowerment.

The building itself is a celebration of high-mindedness and education. Situated in a renovated and architecturally transformed school (the work was achieved by French architect Jean-Francois Bodin) in Doha’s Education City region, Mathaf serves as a “remarkable example of recycled architecture that purposefully complements the building’s former identity as a space for learning and exploration” (Raza 2011). The building itself is full of elegance, charm, taste and is well-thought out in terms of planning and structure. Even though the building is only designed to be a temporary house for the museum, it is a worthy home for the collections of Sheikh Hassan.

The three exhibits that opened the museum were: “Sajjil: A Century of Modern Art,” “Interventions: A Dialogue Between the Modern and the Contemporary,” and “Told/Untold/Retold: 23 Stories of Journies through Time and Place.” Each of these exhibits showcases the talent, style, and beauty of the Arab world. It is evident that Sheikh Hassan’s aim in opening these works of art to the public was to embrace the rich culture and heritage of the Arabian people and display it for the modern world in a striking, modern setting that illuminates the significant progress made by the people of Qatar. A country that neglects to embrace its people and its past is a country that is destined to forget its identity and fall into confusion about who and what it is and who and what it should cherish. Mathaf shows that Qatar is not about to make that mistake, thanks to the well-trained eye of Sheikh Hassan.

As Shabout, al-Khudhairi and Chalabi (n.d.) note, Doha, Qatar, is part of the new Arab world and is playing an important role in shaping the identity of the
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Arab world in the 21st century. What is significant about this role is that the identity that is being cultivated in Doha does not conform “to secularized newly independent Arab countries, such as Egypt and Iraq, of the middle of the twentieth century” (Shabout, al-Khudhairi, Chalabi n.d.: 15). Instead this identity establishes a new Arabian face—one that is represented well by the state of Qatar: a rich, prosperous, modern country. Mathaf comes into play as expressing a vision that is at once regional but also global in its modernity. Mathaf embraces an ideal that is “no longer popular in contemporary rhetoric on art, but nevertheless essential to its understanding, namely, cultural Arabism” (Shabout, al-Khudhairi, Chalabi n.d.:15-6). In other words, Mathaf bridges the old and the new, and gives those passing between the two its blessing to share ideas, communicate, and embrace in peace and understanding.

The First Exhibits

The Sajjil exhibit was designed to illustrate the depth of the Mathaf collection and consisted of 200 paintings, sculptures and other works, the purpose being to historicize the modern art movement in the Arab region. The works were selected by Shabout, al-Khudhairi and Chelabi—respected scholars of the modern Arab art world. The taste and knowledge of modern Arabian art shined by including works such as that of Turkish-born Iraqi artist Jewad Selim, who founded the Baghdad Modern Art Group, Turkish-born Fahrelnissa Zeid who formed the Fahrelnissa Zeid Institute of Fine Arts in Amman, and Syrian artist Madiha Umar, who joined Baghdad’s One Dimension Group, which radically explored and expressed Arabic calligraphy in abstract designs. While the Sajjil demonstrated an example of the expanse of modern Arabic art, it was still somewhat constrained by the limits of the collection of Sheikh Hassan (Raza 2011). And though it did not provide much of a glimpse into Egyptian artists, who did help to develop modern art in North Africa (after all, the museum is really a celebration of the Qatari notion of Arabia), it does project a narrative that is forceful and compelling. For example, the section of the exhibit called “Huroufiyah” exhibited works that were very experimental in terms of what they did with Arabic text and lettering. This section exhibited a thematic structure that captured the bridging of the old and new that Mathaf meant to showcase. The workd by Hassan Sharif entitled City (1981) showed a “black-and-white etching of Arabic text and numbers within an abstract urban façade” (Raza 2011), which perfectly and artistically encapsulated the newness and oldness of the Arabian world.

The Interventions exhibited was curated by Shabout as well and consisted mainly of sculptures with a few paintings. One such painting touched on the violence in the Middle East in recent years and was titled Victim’s Rose (2010). It was in the abstract genre and the canvas on which it was painted was filled with bullet holes to express the way that Iraq (the native place of the artist) had been riddled with bullet holes following the fall of Saddam Hussein. Other works echoed this sentiment and gave this exhibit a mournful and melancholy feeling.

Told/Untold/Retold also meant to capture the spirit of the times. The exhibit focused on the “forced migration within the 22 Arab states due to war and unrest: the large sculptures tread a very fine line between the playful and the menacing” (Raza 2011). This contemporary exhibit served to highlight the problems that the Arab world continues to face and it served to give voice to the struggles of the Arab world as their region and homeland is invaded and overthrown by external forces exercising geopolitical aims that do not correlate with the objectives of the native Arab population—and so violence is often the result and forced migration the outcome. For the museum to display these haunting works is to give voice to the region’s major issues and remind the viewers to come together as a community, embrace one another and be mindful of the cultural heritage that the Arab people possess even in times of severe difficulty…

Sources Used in Documents:


Al-Khudhairi, W. n.d. From intuition to institution: Sheikh Hassan and the development of Mathaf. Sajjil Catalogue.

Elkhereiji, S. 2016. Islamic architecture past present & future. SAK, Jeddah.

Exell, K. 2014. Narratives of resistance: contemporary collecting in Qatar. Paper presented at the American Alliance of Museums conference, Seattle, May 2014.

Karafotias, T 2016. Modern art in the Gulf region: the case of Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art. International Journal of the Inclusive Museum, 10: 9-39.

Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art n.d.

Murray, G. n.d. Encountering contemporary art in Qatar: Critical conversations at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art.

Raza 2011. Three inaugural exhibitions at the Arab Museum of Modern Art. Available at (accessed 29 November 2017).

Shabout, N., al-Khudhairi, W. & D. Chalabi n.d. Sajjil…a space to question. Sajjil Catalogue.

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