Installation view of “Contemporary Art Qatar" at Kraftwerk Berlin, 2017. Courtesy the artists, Kraftwerk and Qatar Museums, Doha.

Articulating the Particular: Contemporary Visual Narratives

Kraftwerk Berlin
Germany Qatar

Over time, language succumbs to overuse, becoming cliché and dull. Words like “breath-taking” become so banal that we forget what it means to enter a space such as Kraftwerk Berlin, formerly the power station that supplied the city’s eastern half, and feel the usual rhythm of our breathing falter. Part of Kraftwerk’s effect lies in the distance between its origins and subsequent uses—the brut concrete structure built around the same time as the Berlin wall is now home to a well-known “techno museum” and events space, and it most recently housed the largest ever showcase of contemporary arts from Qatar. Representing the finale of the Qatar Germany 2017 Year of Culture, “Contemporary Art Qatar” included three exhibitions on three levels of the edifice: a collection of photography and film from the Gulf state on Kraftwerk’s ground level; a small but powerful show of photography by Brigitte and Marian Lacombe portraying Arab women in sport one level up; and, occupying the enormous floor space above, “Articulating the Particular: Contemporary Visual Narratives,” which featured over 100 works by 19 Qatari artists and 16 international artists who have worked in the country.

Artistic language, like its verbal counterpart, can also succumb to overuse, and yet the habit of seeking something new often yields spectacles that feel shallow and ephemeral. Despite the work’s variety in “Articulating the Particular,” it felt developed, mature and often exciting because—like Kraftwerk itself—the artists involved brought new functions to existing frameworks.   

Installation view of “Articulating the Particular: Contemporary Visual Narratives” at Kraftwerk Berlin, 2017. Courtesy the artists, Kraftwerk and Qatar Museums, Doha.

AISHA AL-SOWAIDI, Concretoys 01, 2013, concrete and plastic toy. Courtesy the artist.

The exhibition was divided into three sections, the central and most coherent of which was “Building Materials.” When I first travelled to Doha in 2016, one of my companions told me that you can return every three months and each time the city will appear different, and the hodgepodge of styles and materials that characterize the fast-developing city was present in the works here. In a series of sculptures by Aisha al-Suwaidi, familiar objects from childhood were recast partially or totally in concrete, as in the standing plastic teddy bear half-swallowed by the construction material in Concretoys 01, or the gray box with fabric trimming in Concrete Jalsa (both 2013), both of which gave a powerful impression of a past struggling to keep up with a fast-developing present. Nearby, Shaha al-Khulaifi’s View from the Window (2014) had a series of glass plates bearing photographic prints arranged in a crisscross formation, their edges holding lines that culminated in a traditional Qatari pattern whose complexity mirrors that of the work, where layers of ghostly images create an eerie depth despite their individual wispiness, consciously recalling the oldest remaining photograph taken by a camera, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce’s View from the Window at Le Gras (1826). One of the standout artists in the exhibition was Hana al-Saadi, who displayed a series of warped cinder blocks created in 2016, three of which bore anthropomorphizing titles—YogaTiredAttempting—and the fourth, Depersonalisation. Al-Saadi is recognizable for this kind of wry humour—playing with the minimalist associations of a form or material, and thus playing with minimalism itself—and in Hmmm. . . (2017), a resin sculpture based on a performance in which she danced on the Doha Corniche wearing a tutu over her abaya, the young artist gives form to her own irreverent wit while questioning the willingness of spectators in both the East and West to police women’s appearances.

HANA AL-SAADIHmmm. . ., 2017, resin. Courtesy the artist.

I first encountered al-Saadi’s work on a visit to Doha’s Fire Station where she was a resident in 2016—her studio replete with collages of ballerinas and abayas—and one of the rooms at this central Qatari art space was instantly recognizable in a video work by Ahmed al-Jufairi. In the video Jam (2017), the artist—masked and dressed in a costume that is half-thawb and ghutra (men’s attire), half-abaya and shayla hijab (women’s garb)—sits at a table on which stand a row of metal teapots. Al-Jufairi uses those teapots to ritualistically pour different coloured paints over himself before standing and swiping the pots into the adjacent wall. Denying any direct interpretation, the gestural performance is felt deeply, swinging between moments of calm and aggression, and senses of gender-based tension and unity.

Among the many other works, a visual highlight was Emelina Soares’s Shifting Identities (2016/17), an astoundingly, meticulously patterned rug made of dyed sand that recalled similar if more conceptually rich work by Palestinian-Saudi artist Dana Awartani in I went away and forgot you. A while ago I remembered. I remembered I’d forgotten you. I was dreaming (2016). One of the most lucid works, however, was Nesma Khodier’s Cluster (2016), for which the artist manufactured several stunningly decorated qanuns—a traditional Arab musical instrument—and recorded their tones in a specially calibrated space, using the resulting data to create spiralling 3D-printed sculptures of waveforms that hang within wooden frames, exploring an intricate relationship between object, sound and space with a finely tuned sense of aesthetic harmony.

EMELINA SOARES, Shifting Identities, 2016/17, dyed sand, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist.

As in so many of the works here, Khodier merges traditional forms, established artistic frameworks and novel approaches to ensure an artistic language that’s familiar but far from dull. Qatar’s huge investment in the arts may be showing signs of strain with the severe drop in the price of oil on which it relies, and a failure to retain certain high-profile expats who were once hired to work for the Qatar Museums, but at the level of the artists who live and work there, at least, the scene appears to be in very good health.

Ned Carter Miles is the London desk editor of ArtAsiaPacific.

Articulating the Particular: Contemporary Visual Narratives” is on view at Kraftwerk Berlin, until January 3, 2018.

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