In a bid to develop a curatorial strategy that looks decisively toward East Asia, Doha’s Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art picked New York-based Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang for its second exhibition of international art. Cai’s first solo exhibition in the Gulf Region also expands the museum’s curatorial remit, under Mathaf’s director and chief curator Wassan al-Khudhairi, to explore cultural and social ties between the Arab world and China. The exhibition’s title, “Saraab” (“mirage” in Arabic), suggests the institution’s intent: on face value, there is little commonality between the Arab world and China, yet closer historical inspection reveals that their cultures intersect and are entwined through a shared history of the terrestrial and maritime Silk Road.
“Saraab,” boasting more than 50 works, with 16 new commissions—including works on canvas and paper, videos and a spectacular daytime gunpowder explosion event—explored the artist’s longstanding interest in Islamic culture. Cai’s hometown, Quanzhou, is marked by the cultural influences and migrations of Muslim people from the Arab Peninsula, who first moved to China during the Yuan Dynasty (13th–14th century CE), when his hometown was a starting point for Silk Road trading. As a child, Cai was accustomed to playing among the tombstones and ruins of the local Muslim cemetery, where headstones are inscribed with verses from the Quran in Arabic calligraphy, as well as the Hadith—words and actions attributed to the Prophet Mohammed.
A direct correlation between the landscape of the Muslim cemetery and Cai’s memories are explored in the epic work Homecoming (2011), a site-specific installation of 60 rocks that greeted audiences at the plaza outside the museum and led into the atrium area. Cai replicated the boulders from his hometown’s Muslim cemetery using similar boulders from Quanzhou. Transported to Doha, these rocks were inscribed with Arabic verses that contemplate the inevitability of death. A standout inscription with great significance to this exhibition reads, “Whoever dies as a foreigner dies a martyr.” Echoed in Cai’s symbolic gesture of bringing the engraved stones “back” to an Arab land, the quote provided a metaphor for homecoming and an ode to Muslims who had historically lived, and passed away, in Quanzhou.
The idea of repatriation was echoed in Cai’s outdoor explosion event, Black Ceremony (2011), which was orchestrated especially for Mathaf in an off-site desert venue and carefully controlled by fireworks experts. Cai’s explosion events have often taken on a profound ceremonial status when performed in foreign countries. In Doha, the daytime explosion was comparable to a visual eulogy for the departed “martyrs” who had finally returned home, and resembled a flock of a thousand black birds bursting through the sky just before dusk.
The exhibition also featured a strong retrospective element, with entire galleries devoted to Cai’s earlier works of gunpowder paintings and documentation of various public projects—held in such places as the 2008 Beijing Olympics (Footprints of History: Fireworks Project for the Opening Ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, 2008) and the Sahara Desert in Egypt (Man, Eagle and Eye in the Sky, 2003)—that help contextualize Cai’s work within a broader international domain, and present his status as a multicultural artist. In “Saraab,” Cai’s interest in global projects is further explored in a study of migration between Chinese and Arab communities. Playing on the term “mirage”—an optical illusion that tricks an observer to see a distorted image—Cai challenges viewers to look past the seemingly apparent differences between China and the Arab world, and explore their historical and cultural intersections.