The Cultural Ambitions of Qatar and Its Queen of Art

by: Andrea Lo

April 9, 2012

A little more than thirty years ago, the sovereign Arab state of Qatar was merely a secluded corner perched on the Persian Gulf. The territory struck gold with the discovery of oil and natural gas reserves, which led to it becoming one of the wealthiest states within the Arabian Peninsula. Having been ruled under the monarchy of the Al Thani family since the 19th Century, Qatar is establishing itself as a hotbed of art and culture, swiftly transforming from a “hydrocarbon economy” to an erudite one. The Qatari royal family has been acquiring a vast collection of art for a number of years; most notably, the Sheikha Mayassa Al Thani, 14th child of the Emir of Qatar, has emerged with the reputation of being one of the biggest advocates of the international art scene.
Sheikha Mayassa Al Thani Image via

A dinner was recently hosted by the Sheikha at the Museum of Islamic Art in the capital Doha, honouring Takashi Murakami’s first showing of work in the Middle East. The Japanese contemporary artist, celebrated for his collaborations with fashion houses – and especially of Louis Vuitton’s Multicolore Collection fame – was a guest amongst some two hundred of the world’s most renowned art collectors, curators and dealers. The Economist reports that also in attendance was Larry Gagosian, “the most powerful art dealer of the world,” reflecting the magnitude of influence the 29-year-old Sheikha has over the art world today.

The Sheikha has contributed towards the Emir’s efforts to “turn Qatar into a cultural powerhouse” by chairing the Qatar Museum Authority, as well as the Qatari National Foundations of Museums. Indeed, while the cultural ambition of Qatar is reflected in the construction of the dazzling Museum of Islamic Art, the Sheikha has also described the QMA to be “very much [her] father’s baby.” Educated at Duke University and later The Sorbonne in Paris, she has been instrumental in both developing and delivering to the Qatari arts and culture scene. For example, she is behind bringing the Tribeca Film Festival to Doha, after interning at Robert De Niro’s production company. Moreover, whereas museums elsewhere in the Arab states often feature art works from the likes of the Guggenheim and the Louvre, the Sheikha utilises Islamic and Orientalist collections from the Al Thani family’s own archive, while also adding to the mix by acquiring and showcasing Western pieces. Amongst many other enterprises undertaken by the QMA, it is a sponsor of Damien Hirst’s current new exhibition at London’s Tate Modern gallery, which in turn opened the doors for the artist to showcase his works in Qatar next year.
Museum of Islamic Art Qatar Image via

Qatar’s endeavour in nurturing the arts might not be the first in the region, but has been a driving force behind breaking any preconceptions of the Gulf as a “cultural wasteland.” Specifically, it has also gained the momentum and recognition towards its newly acquired status as a cultural capital. As a trustee of the QMA enthuses, “we want [it] to be a ‘cultural instigator,’ a catalyst of arts projects worldwide.”


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