The French have a complicated relationship with Qatar. On the one hand they realize that the small Gulf state’s investments in France – in its businesses, real estate, sports clubs (notoriously, their buying of the Paris St Germain club) and in its cultural institutions – are necessary; on the other hand they resent the enormous influence Qatar thus wields over French public life.
A spate of books have appeared on Qatar recently, some of them written by well-known investigative journalists. A quick count on amazon.fr gives at least ten critical books that have appeared in 2013 alone, mostly investigating the influence Qatari money has over French politics. The appraisal of the authors about this influence is quite negative, and sometimes downright conspirational.
The late Emir of Qatar had, for example, funded an initiative by Muslim majors of the ill-famed French ‘banlieues’ (suburbs of major cities) to support social and cultural services in their constituencies. The French government blocked the fund after a huge public outcry, the French suspecting that the objective was to propagate Islam(ism). Finally, in June this year the French president Francois Hollande announced that the 300 million Euro fund would be used to support small-scale businesses in the recession-hit suburbs, thus defusing this particular conflict.
It is in this context that the critical appraisal of three major current contemporary art exhibitions in Doha, that appeared recently in Le Monde, must be understood. The three exhibitions are:
- Damien Hirst’s solo in Al Riwaq
- Adel Abdessemed’s solo in the Mathaf
- Francesco Vezzoli’s solo in the QMA Gallery in Katara Cultural Village
Why is the wealth of Qatar being used to buy this over-expensive and offensive rubbish?
Le Monde notes that, under the direction of Sheikha Mayassa, the Qatar Museums Authority – which hosts the three exhibitions – has attracted such big names of the global art world by money alone. Surprisingly, the rather one-dimensional exhibition of Francesco Vezzoli is curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist in dialogue with Rem Koolhaas, while the Italian star curator Francesco Bonami has curated the Damien Hirst retrospective, which is even larger that that organized by the Tate Modern in 2012. Between the artists and the curators, the QMA’s shows line up a fair number of the top-40 players in the art world today.
Why would prominent intellectuals such as HUO and Koolhaas, or critical artists such as Abdessemed and Vezzoli, lend their names to these grandiose but rather bland celebrations of the global art world in this refrigerated piece of desert? Certainly money cannot explain it all. And indeed, there appears to be a critical sting in most of these manifestations. Abdessemed’s works, many of them specially commissioned for this exhibition, seem to throw punches at Qatar, the Arab spring it funded, its labor policies, and its contested but successful bid to host the 2022 world cup. The statue of Zinedine Zidane headbutting the Italian goalkeeper was finally removed, after a public controversy, but his work ‘Spring’, a film of screaming chickens on fire, remained on view despite the criticism of many sectors of Qatari society.
In an interview with The Figaro Abdessemed mentions that the request by some Qatari residents to have a fatwa pronounced against him represents only a minority view, and he indicates the full freedom and support he received from Sheikha Mayassa.
As to Obrist, Koolhaas and Vezzoli, one can only surmise that the idea of creating a ‘Museum of Crying Women’ – Vezzoli’s artworks are manipulated pictures of famous 20th century women with tears embroidered by the artist – must have appealed to them in the context of the discussion of the place of the women in the Arab world. Neither Obrist’s nor Koolhaas’ involvement appears to have been very necessary.
We do not have sufficient information about the motives of the artists and curators to make pronouncements about them. But if one of the objectives was to introduce a critical discourse, by means of art, and thus to use/subvert the royal largesse that was bestowed on them to initiate a public discussion about topics the artists and curators find important, they have failed miserably. Sure, the artworks presented to the public created public discussion – Damien Hirst’s 14 statues covering the gestation of the foetus are a good case. But the discussion is not about Qatari, Arab or Islamic political, social and cultural topics, but only: why is the wealth of Qatar being used to buy this over-expensive and offensive rubbish?
The Qatar Museums Authority is evolving from a public to a private body, but this may not be enough to shield it from public criticism. My advice to Sheikha Mayassa would be: stop spending your money on Cezanne, Murakami and Hirst and see how far you can get with a fraction of that funding to support local and other Arab artists in creating a grassroots cultural evolution among Qatar’s (and the region’s) residents.