SALMAN ALMALIK, Untitled, 2011, acrylic on canvas, 200 × 120 cm. Courtesy the artist.


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The world’s biggest buyer in the art market by value, the Gulf emirate of Qatar established itself on the international cultural map with the inauguration of the IM Pei-designed Museum of Islamic Art in 2008, the Doha Tribeca Film Festival in 2009 and Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in 2010. In June 2013, the ruling emir abdicated in favor of his 33-year-old son.

The new emir’s sister, Sheikha al-Mayassa Bint Hamad Bin Khalifa al-Thani, chairperson of the Qatar Museums Authority (QMA), wields the world’s largest acquisitions budget. The QMA oversees museum building and collection acquisitions, while the National Council for Culture, Arts and Heritage administers cultural development.

In June, Mathaf announced a new director, Moroccan-French curator Abdellah Karroum. The first exhibition under his stewardship was the controversial solo show by Algerian conceptual artist Adel Abdessemed “L’Age d’Or” (11/6–1/5/14), curated by Pier Luigi Tazzi, which brought together recent pieces and specially commissioned works on the themes of exile and violence. Those depicting violent acts against animals—particularly Printemps (2013), showing live roosters strung upside-down and burned alive—sparked a public outcry. The QMA removed Abdessemed’s five-meter-tall sculpture of two footballers mid-headbutt from its location on the Corniche after objections from religious conservatives. In November, the museum inaugurated its new “Project Space” initiative with Egyptian artist Magdi Mostafa’s sound installation, “Sound Element” (11/27–1/5/14).

Located on the Corniche, the Museum of Islamic Art (MIA) houses cultural treasures from across the Muslim world. In collaboration with the British Museum, the MIA hosted “Hajj: The Journey Through Art” (10/9–1/5/14), which examined the Muslim pilgrimage through both historic and contemporary works, including Ahmed Mater’s widely shown photographic print Magnetism (2012).

Also in the grounds of the MIA is the boxy al-Riwaq Exhibition Hall, which hosted “Damien Hirst: Relics” (10/10–1/30/14), the artist’s first solo show in the Middle East, spanning 25 years of his career. All of the touch points of the artist’s practice were shown in the hall, which was decked out in Hirst’s candy-colored spots. The exhibit was part of the yearlong Qatar UK 2013 Year of Culture, celebrating cultural and economic ties between the two nations.

Hirst also unveiled some unexpected public art in October. The Miraculous Journey (2005–13) is a series of 14 monumental bronze sculptures chronicling the gestation of a fetus from conception to birth, which fittingly stands near a women’s hospital and children’s health center.

In the Katara Cultural Village, the QMA operates another gallery space, where it presented Francesco Vezzoli’s “The Museum of Crying Women” (10/7–11/30). His signature portraits of women’s faces embroidered with colored tears were complemented by a series of new works about legendary Egyptian songstress Oum Kalthoum. 

In May, the QMA and Fondazione Prada joined forces to announce the launch of Curate, a global competition to find new talent. The QMA also appointed Sheikha Amna Bint Abdulaziz Bin Jassim al-Thani as director of the upcoming National Museum, scheduled for completion in December 2014.

With its top-down, bureaucratic approach, Qatar is a difficult place for activities outside official art circles, though one venture is an exception. Under curator Mayssa Fattouh, the Katara Art Center featured Iraqi-Canadian artist Mahmoud Obaidi’s darkly humorous sculptural objects inspired by his reflections on war and violence (10/6–11/9). This followed Syrian photographer Jaber al-Azmeh’s poetic “Traces” show on time-worn objects (1/31–2/28).

 Looking ahead to 2014, Mathaf will host “Turbulence,” foregrounding the diversity of Mona Hatoum’s work over the past 30 years, opening in mid-February. As Doha’s Hamad International Airport nears its 2014 completion, there is much speculation, but no information, about 14 QMA-commissioned works to be housed there.