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Story | Community
3 December 2019

Why Qatar – and M. F. Husain – embraced modern art


The Assistant Curator of Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art explains how the art form is designed for individual interpretation

His fans and critics will agree that his art emanated from a persona that, for all its brilliance, was also impulsive and unpredictable.

Yet, if there is one aspect of Maqbool Fida Husain that seems to have been consistent, it was his respect for human psychology; a deference that helped him build a relationship with his viewers – through modern art.

It is a relationship that surfaces and cements itself across Husain’s repertoire of creations, including his final work – the Seero fi al Ardh – that will soon be unveiled at Qatar Foundation’s Education City. Although it was conceived by the artist as a portrayal of the progress of Arabic and Islamic civilization, Husain, as always, wanted to leave the interpretation of this experiential installation in the hands of those he considered his best critics – the public.

Wadha Al-Aqeedi, Assistant Curator at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art.

“The strength of modern art is often seen as its weakness,” says Wadha Al-Aqeedi, Assistant Curator at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, which is also based at Qatar Foundation. “Because it allows viewers to decipher the art work in any way they want, it causes quite a few raised eyebrows. But for me, that’s the beauty of it. And I believe Husain felt the same.”

Al-Aqeedi says that giving viewers complete freedom to interpret an art piece in the way they choose to is the hallmark of an art movement whose evolution and existence can be traced to the Renaissance period, and up until the mid-20th Century.

“Modern art accepts that there are differences in the way the human mind analyzes information, be it textual, sensual, visual or auditory,” she says. “Both artists and viewers take advantage of this latitude in creating and interpreting an art piece that is styled as modern.

“In other words, the artist is comfortable with the notion that the idea behind their creation of a piece of modern art may be understood as something completely different by the beholder.”

Tracing the evolution of modern art in Qatar, Al-Aqeedi explains that although the art form was late to leave Europe’s shores and reach the MENA region, it was introduced and evolved through dialogue and in parallel with other similar art movements around the world.

Right from the outset, Qataris embraced this artistic style – so much so that, more than five decades ago, the country’s art aficionados were already building their personal collections of modern art pieces.

Art can exist and thrive when it is shared with a third person – and this gives it meaning.

Wadha Al-Aqeedi

Artists such as Jassim Mohamed Zaini, Yousif Al-Homaid and Sheikh Hassan Al Thani were the stalwarts of Qatar’s fledgling art scene of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. All three, having traveled and trained extensively in the region and abroad, produced modern art pieces of their own, while promoting those of other artists. As the collections of Sheikh Hassan Al Thani grew, so did their urge to share them with the public.

“Art can exist and thrive when it is shared with a third person – and this gives it meaning,” says Mathaf’s Assistant Curator. “The popularity of modern art, especially, rides on it being offered for interpretation by a varied audience, and it is our role as curators to be the conduit between art and the public.

“Mathaf’s patron, Sheikh Hassan Al Thani, realized this. He offered his personal collection to Qatar Foundation to be accessed in a museum dedicated to modern art. And that is how Mathaf was born.”

Today, modern art in Qatar has grown to complement Islamic art, a style specific to the Arab world, and one that focuses on geometric patterns, calligraphy and mosaics. A visit to Mathaf provides proof of this; the minimalist building houses canvases, sculptures and installations that present a modern take on Islamic art, alongside non-Islamic pieces.

Al-Aqeedi says the beauty of modern art is that it allows people to decipher it in the way they want to.

Al-Aqeedi’s personal affinity for art was what led to her current role at Mathaf. Having studied history, international relations, and art history at undergraduate level at Sorbonne University in Paris, she supplemented that with a Masters in Museum and Gallery Practice from UCL Qatar.

The Qatari curator, who also co-curated Husain’s Horses of the Sun exhibit with Ranjit Hoskote at Mathaf in early 2019, shares more than a love of art with the Indian-born artist, who was granted Qatari citizenship. Like Husain, her roots lie both in India and the Gulf region, giving her a better understanding of the relevance of modern art to the Indian artist, and to Qatar.

“Husain’s ancestors hailed from Yemen,” she says. “So while his heart was entrenched in India, he had a subconscious pull towards this region. Modern art – with its innate malleability – gave Husain an outlet to express that dual relationship.

“I believe Qatar views this artistic style in the same manner: as a tool to articulate the complexities of humanity and cultures in the region, and as a mode of expression that befits the country’s identity – inclusive, yet explorative.”

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