Renowned Qatari artist says upcoming art installation brings nation’s art journey full circle
“I remember the front cover of the brochure we developed for M. F. Husain’s first exhibition in Qatar, way back in 1984,” says Yousif Al-Homaid, a renowned Qatari artist. “It had the words Seeroo fi al Ardh in Arabic across it.
Now, 35 years later, it is wonderful that Qatar Foundation plans to unveil Husain’s last art work that is reminiscent of that very first exhibition – the Seeroo fi al Ardh.
“Now, 35 years later, it is wonderful that Qatar Foundation plans to unveil Husain’s last artwork that is reminiscent of that very first exhibition – the Seeroo fi al Ardh.”
Al-Homaid’s role in Qatar’s art history makes him well-placed to pass this observation. From holding the first solo art exhibition in the country in 1977, through being the first Qatari to earn a Master of Fine Art degree in 1982, to having his artwork displayed at the headquarters of the World Bank in Washington D.C., again in 1982, the Qatari artist – and Qatar – has come a long way.
Indeed, Al-Homaid’s evolution as an artist is a microcosm of the country’s journey to its current status as a regional nexus for art.
“Young adults living in Qatar would perhaps be surprised to hear that, 50 years ago, there was no dearth of art exhibitions in the country,” he says. “The difference was that we didn’t have technology as we do now. There was no internet or social media to spread the word of an upcoming exhibit.
“News of such events were usually passed on through brochures, word of mouth and even through small posters displayed in grocery shops and supermarkets. Prior to telephones becoming popular, we’d even paint the announcement on to the compound walls of houses – a bit like artistic graffiti. And people would take note and attend these events in droves.”
In the absence of dedicated museums and galleries for such events, the artwork of local and international artists was often laid out in the banquet halls of hotels such as the Sheraton, adjacent to the Corniche.
Some of the more memorable exhibitions included those organized by UNESCO, under the patronage of the then Ministry of Education. The public were given the opportunity to view and appreciate the original works of artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir, Paul Cezanne, Vincent van Gogh and Henri Rousseau.
It was a period that also saw Qatari artists and their work being feted across the world. Exhibits of their art were on display in museums and galleries in London, Paris, Tokyo and other major cities. Al-Homaid recounts one such exhibition in Paris.
The level of global acceptance of Qatari artists had risen to the point where our work was being seen by art connoisseurs who were also viewing Picasso’s work.
“I was in Paris for an exhibition on the paintings of Qatari artists,” recalls Al-Homaid. “During the event, I was surprised to learn that the renowned Spanish artist Pablo Picasso was in the hall next to ours, exhibiting his work.
“That’s when it struck me that the level of global acceptance of Qatari artists had risen to the point where our work was being seen by art connoisseurs who were also viewing Picasso’s work.”
Al-Homaid himself grew up surrounded by art. A child of the pre-digital era, he drew inspiration from the scenery in the glossy calendars his father brought home.
His house was located in an area that was home to budding poets, artists, craftsmen and art patrons – the Al Jasra neighborhood in downtown Doha, which currently houses Souq Waqif, Doha’s iconic heritage market.
All these factors gave the young Al-Homaid the confidence to hold his first exhibition at the entrance to his home in 1962, at the age of 10.
We were blessed to have teachers who were passionate artists themselves … Artists of my generation owe a lot to them.
As he muses over his childhood, the artist points out the role that school teachers played in fostering the love for art across a generation of locals, more than 50 years ago.
“We were blessed to have teachers who were passionate artists themselves,” he says. “They are the unsung heroes of Qatar’s art history during the 1950s and 60s. These teachers came from Egypt, Palestine, Syria, and other countries in the region, and shared their artistic traditions and styles with us.
“Artists of my generation owe a lot to them. It shows that, throughout history, Qatar not only welcomed artists from other countries, but was also willing to learn from them.”
After high school, Al-Homaid opted to study art at university level, completing his undergraduate studies from Egypt. Later, following a short stint in the then Ministry of Education, he went to the US to earn his Master of Fine Art degree.
Upon settling back in Qatar after his studies, he progressed through a series of senior governmental positions, while teaching painting and art history at Qatar University – a role he enjoyed for 24 years.
To my surprise, he ignored the brushes and started painting with his bare fingers.
It was while he was the Head of Art and Exhibitions at the Ministry of Information that the government of Qatar invited Husain to conduct his first exhibition in the country. Al-Homaid, who was then in his 30s and part of the team that organized the event, says he will never forget his first encounter with the Indian-born artist, who held Qatari citizenship.
“I had bought him blank canvases along with tubes of paint, and brushes, so that he could paint at the venue,” smiles Al-Homaid. “To my surprise, he ignored the brushes and started painting with his bare fingers.
“Today, having evolved as an artist myself, I feel I know why he did it; I assume the sensation of touch allowed him to feel what he was creating – it removed all the barriers between his emotions and his canvas.”
The Qatari artist says that, in a way, the two exhibits – the painting exhibit in 1984 and the installation in 2019 – do more than bookend Husain’s association with Qatar.
This latest installation is poised to bring Husain’s legacy, and Qatar’s journey as an art-loving country, full circle.
“Qatar has always recognized that art is a universal language,” he says. “There is no doubt this latest installation is poised to bring Husain’s legacy, and Qatar’s journey as an art-loving country, full circle.
“And it also sends another strong message across the world – that Qataris have been, are, and always will be supportive of talent, irrespective of nationality or culture.”