Curating Qatar: Museum Marvels in Doha

06/21/2016 11:21 pm ET
Museum of Islamic Art in Doha
Emily Jane O'Dell
Museum of Islamic Art in Doha

Accustomed to the thriving art scene in Beirut, I recently joined up with a friend in Doha to explore the museums of Qatar to become more familiar with art in the Gulf. Our first stop, of course, was the iconic Museum of Islamic Art, designed by renowned Chinese-American architect I.M. Pei -- who came out of retirement at 91 years old to create it. 

Richard Serra's sculpture "7" in Doha
Emily Jane O'Dell
Richard Serra's sculpture "7" in Doha

On the windy ten-minute stroll to the museum from our boutique hotel in the souq, it was easy to make out "7," the 78 foot high steel sculpture by American artist Richard Serra, perched on the tip of the museum's pier. This imposing sculpture, inspired by a minaret in Afghanistan, is not Serra's only installation in Qatar -- he's also erected four similar steel plates in the middle of the Qatari desert.

War mask in the Museum of Islamic Art
Emily Jane O'Dell
War mask in the Museum of Islamic Art

Inside the museum, the impressive collection of Islamic treasures from around the world -- Egypt, Syria, Afghanistan, Iran, India, China -- feels endless. One of my favorite pieces was this 15th century war mask from Eastern Caucasus or Western Iran. Composed of steel with gold inlay, the Arabic inscription above the eyes contains the word al-'adan (Eden) -- perhaps eluding to the fate awaiting the warrior upon death on the battlefield.

Exhibition on Qajar women at the Museum of Islamic Art
Emily Jane O'Dell
Exhibition on Qajar women at the Museum of Islamic Art

A special exhibition on Qajar women highlights the prominent role of the female form in Qajar art from Iran (1785-1925). With a focus on the daily life activities of women, refinement of court life, and idealized female form at the birth of modernity (complete with monobrow and moustache), the unique objects on display depict women playing musical instruments, visiting doctors, and attending Friday prayers in the mosque.

Installation by Xu Bing at the Al Riwaq Gallery in Doha
Emily Jane O'Dell
Installation by Xu Bing at the Al Riwaq Gallery in Doha

Since I was in China soon before coming to Doha, I was delighted to stumble upon a spectacular showcase of Chinese contemporary art at the Al Riwaq Gallery. Curator and artist Cai Guo-Qiang commissioned 15 China-born artists to create pieces focused on the theme of individual creative exploration for "What About the Art?" -- the largest contemporary Chinese art collection ever presented in the Middle East.  Several of the artists incorporate environmentalism and sustainability in their messages, materials, and methodologies.  The installation above by Xu Bing resembles Qian Gu's (1509-1578) Shangfang Temple Scroll from the front -- but from behind you'll find this "traditional Chinese painting" is made entirely of garbage.

The other side of Xu Bing's installation above
Emily Jane O'Dell
The other side of Xu Bing's installation above

Exhibitions like "What About the Art?" are not solely intended for consumption by local visitors and international tourists -- they also serve to inspire local Arab artists and provide educational and training opportunities for students of art and archeology in Doha. For instance, Ileana Olmos, a former conservation graduate student at UCL Qatar with whom I excavated Islamic archaeology in Turkmenistan notes: "Studying in Qatar, I had the unique opportunity of interning at the Qatar National Museum and being directly involved in workshops, short courses, and practical exercises at The Msheireb Art Centre and the Sheikh Faisal Bin Qassim Al Thani Museum."

Xu Zhen's "Under Heaven" series in "What About the Art?"
Emily Jane O'Dell
Xu Zhen's "Under Heaven" series in "What About the Art?"

Out of all the works in "What About the Art?", young and old alike seemed to be captivated most of all by this colorful canvas in Xu Zhen's series "Under Heaven." From afar, the painting looks like an impressionistic flowerscape, but up close it resembles gobs of technicolor candy. To achieve this delicious and humorous effect, Zhen squeezed tubes of oil paint through pastry bags.

Close-up from Xu Zhen's "Under Heaven" series
Emily Jane O'Dell
Close-up from Xu Zhen's "Under Heaven" series

I found myself personally enthralled with Journey, the mesmerizing desert video game on display, since I live in the sands of the Sultanate of Oman. The hypnotizing score and mystic landscapes pulled me out of the museum and dropped me back in the dunes -- where I slid, flew, and jumped with ecstasy and abandon.

Playing Journey in Doha
Emily Jane O'Dell
Playing Journey in Doha

The game allows for no possibility of failure, just pure exploration. According to Jenova Chen, its creator, the game allows players to take an emotional "spiritual pilgrimage" that serves as "a metaphor of life." 

To venture onwards to the eclectic private collection of Sheikh Faisal Bin Qassim Al Thani, we hired a driver for the 40 minute drive outside of Doha. The stated mission of the Sheikh Faisal Bin Qassim Al Thani Museum, built in the shape of a fort and topped with traditional turrets, is to preserve and promote the cultural heritage of Qatar by displaying traditional cultural artifacts and art. Nevertheless, the collection is filled with many surprises unrelated to Qatar.

 Sheikh Faisal Bin Qassim Al Thani's car collection
Emily Jane O'Dell
 Sheikh Faisal Bin Qassim Al Thani's car collection

Since I used to go to old car shows in my youth, I was delighted to be greeted at the entrance by a large collection of old cars dating all the way back to 1885 (special shout-out to the 1938 Buick Special Series 40 and 1957 Dodge C 100 Sweptside). Off the main hall filled with cars, trucks, and even a plane, there are separate rooms filled with Islamic art, archaeology, calligraphy, scriptures, and coins.  

Sheikh Faisal Bin Qassim Al Thani Museum
Emily Jane O'Dell
Sheikh Faisal Bin Qassim Al Thani Museum

My favorite unexpected treasure was this ambulance bicycle which I wanted to take home with me (or at least hop in for a ride). Out of the museum's 15,000 pieces from four continents (including the world's largest private collection of armory), you can find Silk Road textiles, jewelry pieces, pearling equipment, dhows, and Bedouin handicrafts. To my surprise, the museum also had rooms devoted specifically to Judaism, Christianity, and Sufism.

From the Jewish collection at the Sheikh Faisal Bin Qassim Al Thani Museum
Emily Jane O'Dell
From the Jewish collection at the Sheikh Faisal Bin Qassim Al Thani Museum

The collection of Jewish artifacts includes pieces from all over the Middle East -- including Baghdad and Yemen. The torah, menorahs, prayer shawls, and Hebrew-covered bowls are not what you might expect to stumble upon in the Persian Gulf. The Christian exhibit features Arabic Bibles, the Book of Mormon, golden crosses, and vintage vestments. 

From the Christian collection at the Sheikh Faisal Bin Qassim Al Thani Museum
Emily Jane O'Dell
From the Christian collection at the Sheikh Faisal Bin Qassim Al Thani Museum

Perhaps my favorite find in the museum was this impressive collection of dervish begging bowls (kashkūls). The last dervish begging bowl I encountered was in the exhibit Light of the Sufis at the Brooklyn Museum. To stumble upon one dervish begging bowl is a treat, but to find an entire cabinet of them is rare.

Dervish begging bowls at the Sheikh Faisal Bin Qassim Al Thani Museum
Emily Jane O'Dell
Dervish begging bowls at the Sheikh Faisal Bin Qassim Al Thani Museum

In the past, Sufis used to beg with these bowls for donations and sustenance to support their ascetic and wandering lifestyles. In Sufi poetry and art, the bowls also symbolize the emptying out of the Sufi's ego in order to feast solely on divine mystic knowledge. 

Exploring the history of slavery at the Bin Jelmood house
Emily Jane O'Dell
Exploring the history of slavery at the Bin Jelmood house

Finally, since the Bin Jelmood house -- the first museum in the region to focus on slavery -- had not yet officially opened when we were in Doha, we made an appointment for a preview showing. One of the four historic heritage museums in the ambitious Msheireb Downtown Doha project, the slavery museum is actually housed in the white-washed home of a former slave trader who sold East African slaves in the courtyard.

Film on the history of slavery in Qatar
Emily Jane O'Dell
Film on the history of slavery in Qatar

Passing into the museum, we were greeted by a Nelson Mandela quote projected onto the wall in English and Arabic: "For to be free is not merely to cast of one's chains but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others." The detailed displays at the Bin Jelmood House illustrate the history of the global slave trade -- with an emphasis on slavery connected to pearl diving in the Gulf. Slavery in Qatar was officially abolished in 1952.

Exhibit on child camel jockeys and human trafficking in Qatar
Emily Jane O'Dell
Exhibit on child camel jockeys and human trafficking in Qatar

The opening of this contentious museum comes in the wake of widespread international criticism over the poor labor conditions of migrant workers building stadiums for the World Cup in 2022. The museum, however, does not shy away from connecting historic slave-trading to human trafficking, child camel jockeys, and modern exploitation today. We ended our Msheireb museum tour in the "Company House" -- the former headquarters of Qatar's first oil company -- to learn how the discovery of Qatar's oil and gas reserves made modern Qatar and all of the museums that we visited possible. 

Souq Waqif
Emily Jane O'Dell
Souq Waqif

No cultural trip to Doha, however, is complete without some shopping and fine dining. In downtown Doha, the lavish brunch spread at Shangri-La is expensive and indulgent but worth it. If you're looking to have lunch in the souq, you have a medley of international cuisines to choose from -- Iraqi, Lebanese, Turkish, Moroccan, Indian, Italian, and Thai.

Persian dining in Souq Waqif
Emily Jane O'Dell
Persian dining in Souq Waqif

Perhaps the most decadent interior in the souq can be found at Parisa -- where Persian dishes are served up under twinkling mirror mosaics. For dinner in the souq, my friend suggested we try the sumptuous Syrian mezze at Damasca One, where we were treated to a whirling dervish performance that brought back fond memories of my time visiting Sufis in Syria.

Whirling dervish in Doha
Emily Jane O'Dell
Whirling dervish in Doha

Since this trip marked my friend's finals days in Qatar before relocating home, we decided to splurge and stay in three hotels during my short stay. We started out in Souq Waqif Hotel by Avani -- a charming assortment of nine hotels scattered throughout the heart of the souq. You can have breakfast in one, swim on the rooftop of another, and dine under the stars at Al Matbakh's rooftop grill.  From there, we wandered on to enjoy a relaxing respite in paradise at Banana Island Resort Doha by Anantara.

Arriving at Banana Island
Emily Jane O'Dell
Arriving at Banana Island

The jetty trip to Banana Island takes about forty minutes from Doha. Banana Island is an ideal place to go swimming in the Persian Gulf with the cityscape of Doha set in the distance. For breakfast, the fluffy banana waffles at the "Banana Station" (bursting with all kinds of banana-flavored treats) are not to be missed. We ended our time in Doha at the Ritz-Carlton Sharq Village & Spa -- where a good night's sleep and a much-needed Balinese massage helped us recover from so much time on our feet wandering through Doha's museums.

Ritz-Carlton Sharq Village & Spa
Emily Jane O'Dell
Ritz-Carlton Sharq Village & Spa

The development and promotion of Qatar's museums on the international art scene would not have been possible without the extraordinary efforts of one woman -- Sheikha al-Mayassa Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, a sister of the Emir of Qatar and a Duke University graduate. Visiting museums in Qatar was a welcome reminder that art and cultural heritage are powerful mediums to foster global cultural dialogue, provoke reflection, and inspire creative solutions to remake or see the world anew.  

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