The arts and culture in Qatar is growing as fast as its skyscrapers. Which is why I wrote this piece for Hedge magazine on the many art galleries, art installation and cultural museums you can visit in Doha.
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From the 23-foot Lamp Bear by Swiss artist Urs Fischer to the 3,000-plus art pieces at the Marsa Malaz Kempinski hotel, you’ll see the arts and culture in Qatar is very much flourishing.
Arts & Culture in Qatar
As I stepped off the escalator at Hamad International Airport – a futuristic world of soaring arches and undulating ceilings – it was clear my experience in Qatar would be anything but mediocre. Especially when I glanced into the terminal’s Grand Foyer to spot the largest teddy bear I’d ever seen.
This 11.3 square-mile airport ranks as the ninth largest in the world. It’s a third of the size of Qatar’s capital, Doha; comprising 100 buildings in one; and is cleverly shaped like an aeroplane. No wonder it took 1,000-plus architects and engineers to mastermind it.
After winning the 2022 World Cup bid, Doha hasn’t just promoted itself as another Middle Eastern super city. Ok, so this gas-rich state can quite easily join in the game of ‘who can build the most innovative skyscrapers’ and ‘who can drive the flashiest sports car’ (which by the way, it does pretty well). But scratching underneath the surface of this otherwise conservative country seeped in tradition, reveals a burgeoning arts and culture scene.
So greeting its 30million-plus yearly visitors with a 23-foot bear wasn’t just for kicks. The whimsical Lamp Bear by Swiss artist Urs Fischer, joins a long list of public art pieces, both in and around the city, that you might otherwise overlook, for all the razzmatazz.
Having said that, in some cases, opulent hotels are the places to seek out arts and culture because they do a fine job of doubling up as a sort of five-star gallery. At the Marsa Malaz Kempinski for example, accessed on the manmade island The Pearl, visitors are greeted by a 60ft bronze horse (by Iraqi artist Ahmed Al Bahrani) before they’ve even stepped into its palatial world of 3,000 art pieces. One such highlight is the mesmerising bohemia glass installation ‘The Coral Tree’ and various bronze sculptures, also by Al Bahrani – the man behind the larger-than-life hand installations dubbed The Challenge 2015, in nearby Lusail.
For those not checking into The Kempinski, The West Bay offers myriad luxurious places to bed down. The Four Seasons offers a tiptop beach and beautiful Arabic flourishes. The pyramid-shaped Sheraton is also beach facing, while the Shangri-La, The W and Banana Island by Anantara (located on a private island) all deliver five-star luxe.
Any of these spots will put you within easy reach of The Corniche where you can stroll the palm-fringed waterfront en route to The Museum of Islamic Art (MIA) and stop by The Pearl Oyster monument – a symbol of the city’s pearl-diving heritage.
A ten-minute walk later and The MIA – designed by architect I.M. Pei (of The Louvre pyramid in Paris) – appears to ‘float’ above the Gulf Sea. Placed on its own peninsula, this boxy pyramid lures you into a photo-snapping frenzy, as it appears different from every angle. Inside, layered walkways span across a huge atrium and modern design fuses with spectacular lighting inspired by Egypt’s Mosque of Ahmad Ibn Tulun. The art here spans from the 7th to 19th Centuries so set aside several hours to absorb its Islamic calligraphy, tapestries and the world’s oldest Qurans.
If you don’t already feel small next to the colossal skyscrapers, the QM Gallery Al Riwaq, next to the MIA, should settle that.
Ceilings here soar and the sound of your footsteps travel as you pace its echoey rooms. When I visit Luc Tuyman’s Intolerance exhibition, I find myself eyeballing paintings that illustrate events from the Holocaust, Gulf Wars and other dark moments in history. The Chinese-focused What About the Art exhibition has now moved into its place. And Cai Guo-Qiang’s giant cuttlefish – a symbol for the controversial effects of humans on maritime disasters – is bound to get tongues wagging.
If you have an appetite for more of the avant-garde, Damien Hirst’s Miraculous Journey will sort that. Whether you’re in the love-it or hate-it camp, these 14 bronze sculptures that follow a fetus from conception to birth lure more than just patients to the city’s Sidra Medical Centre.
Adding to the edgier art trail, ‘Gandhi’s Three Monkeys’ by Indian artist Subodh Gupta, captures the attention. A set of three sculptured heads, it’s inspired by Gandhi’s famous ‘see no evil, speak no evil’ proverb. Each one wears a different kind of headgear; a gas mask, a soldier’s helmet and a terrorist’s hood. Next to it, Katara cultural village is worth a gander for its temporary exhibits too, with the current one celebrating the Qatar-China 2016 Year of Culture.
For the best of Middle Eastern art, jump in a cab and make the Mathaf Arab Museum of Modern Art your next point of call. Located at Education City, this school building-turned-museum houses the world’s largest collection of modern and contemporary Arab art (we’re talking a whopping 9,000 works).
When you’re ready to take a detour – both literally, and artistically speaking – drive down Doha’s Salwa Road, home to the 730 metre-long street art otherwise known as ‘Calligraffiti’. A colourful fusion of Arabic calligraphy and graffiti (by Tunisian artist El Seed) it’s not what you’d expect from an otherwise conservative country where graffiti (of the non-commissioned type) is very much punishable by law. But like I said, there’s more to Qatar than you might think.
And when you’re done with the typical desert attractions of camel riding, dune bashing and marveling at the otherworldly Inland Sea (FYI it’s worth marveling at), follow the arty pilgrims to the Brouq Nature Reserve for Richard Serra’s East West – West East exhibition. The Californian artist originally created the steel tower ‘7’ on Doha’s waterfront before installing these four 14 metre-high steel plates that span an incredible kilometre stretch of sand.
This desolate setting is a far cry from the Lamp Bear and futuristic airport, but similarly, it’s art that will provoke reaction for many years to come. First impressions count, but leaving a lasting impression that broadens your mind and surprises you about a destination – well, that ranks higher than any skyscraper, in my eyes.
This post is part of the collection of features that I’ve had published in the press across a variety of magazines and websites. If you’re interested to see my full journalism portfolio, visit the In The Press section of this website. If you would like to get in touch regarding my food, lifestyle and travel writing, please email Lucy_McGuire@hotmail.co.uk