In the mid-1980s a young student caught the attention of Yousef Ahmed, a professor at Qatar University.As Ahmed taught his class the appreciation of art, history and basic drawing skills, he sensed this one student's innate desire to study and practise more.The relationship would expand and turn to collecting when the student, a member of Qatar's royal family, called on his mentor to help him amass works for what would become the regional hub that is Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art.
In addition, Sheikh Hassan bin Mohamed bin Ali Al Thani, the vice-chairperson of Qatar Museums Authority and Mathaf's patron, asked Ahmed to "go digging" to find local artists.
"When I found [the artists], I told them all: 'One day, these pieces will be in a museum'," said Ahmed. "Some didn't believe me. They were at the beginning of their lives and art was a hobby for them. They didn't expect their pieces to be on a wall in a museum." It has taken more than 20 years for Ahmed's insight to be realised.On Sunday, Mathaf opened Swalif, the third exhibition since its December launch. For the next 11 weeks, 78 artworks by 23 native Qatari artists will hang on the white walls of a former school, which is the museum's temporary home. Displayed across three galleries, Swalif (which means stories, in the Qatari dialect) is expected to catalyse local interest in art where previous exhibitions have not.The exhibition covers the period from 1965 to 2006, with the works appearing in chronological order. Many paintings are a simple reflection of what artists have personally witnessed, from fishing to falconry, burqa-clad women to men making the traditional bisht (cloak).
Ahmed, who is also the show's curator, has six of his own pieces on display."It's very important for our knowledge," he said. "If you want to read about the history of a country, first of all, you look at its art. Art captures the history."The museum's director, Wassan Al Khudairi, said the show was an opportunity to highlight the importance of local artists.
Since the opening last year, despite good attendance figures, Al Khudairi conceded that "there are pockets of our community that we may not be reaching".
The museum is in Doha's Education City, where most of Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser's project, Qatar Foundation (QF), is based. American universities, a science and technology park and a television station have been built on the QF desert, a location some have yet to visit.
"We're hoping through this exhibition that we can capture the attention of people who may not be interested in art but are interested in their culture and their heritage. Hopefully, this can be the beginning of a relationship with these communities," Al Khudairi said.
About 500 people attended Sunday's opening - at least half of them Qatari. Just two of the exhibiting artists are women - Wafika Sultan Saif Al-Essa and Wafa Al-Hamad.
"There are a lot more women but we were limited by the collection," explained Mariam Helmy, the assistant curator. "We're not calling it a representation, we're showing a glimpse of our collection."The team, which spent four months pulling Swalif together, was advised to use artwork from Sheikh Hassan's personal inventory of 6,000 pieces. Loaning art or purchasing more was forbidden.One of the younger artists, 40-year-old Abdul Rahman Mohamd Almutawah, said he is honoured that two of his pieces are included. One depicts a serene, simple scene; blue skies and water form the backdrop to a dhow perched on shore in Al-Wakrah, a quiet city by the sea."The happiness of creating a piece of art is when you see a positive reaction from the people," he said. "The painting's about the past. Since we are living in a modern world, it's an honour for me to bring a piece of the past to the present."
From / The National