Qatar brings desert sands to snowy Berlin

Contemporary Art Qatar transcends cultural boundaries at the Kraftwerk

Art from Qatar on show at Kraftwerk in Berlin Michael Philipp Bader. Courtesy of Qatar Museums

A glittering forest of skyscrapers on a flat, sandy strip overlooking the ocean is one of the first images at the Contemporary Art Qatar exhibition in Berlin. This is modern Doha.

“All of that has been built since 1995,” says Giles Hudson, the curator of photography at the Orientalist Museum in Qatar. The shiny new buildings in Liu Zhining’s photograph contrast with the unpolished industrial space of the former power station hosting the exhibition.

Hudson’s museum—the first of the Qatar museums—has only existed since 2008. Since then, Qatar’s cultural life has advanced at a breathtaking pace: four further galleries and museums have opened, and three more are planned. In December 2018, the National Museum of Qatar, designed by Jean Nouvel and inspired by the desert rose, will open by the Emiri palace.

To showcase its burgeoning art scene, Qatar has developed a programme called Years of Culture, involving one partner country each year. This year was Germany’s turn, and Contemporary Art Qatar, which brings the sun-baked desert to the Kraftwerk in wintry Berlin until 3 January, is the crowning event and the largest exhibition of contemporary Qatari art ever held.

In a year when Qatar has faced a blockade from its neighbours—Saudia Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt—cultural ties are more important than ever, says Sheikh Saoud Bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, the Qatari ambassador to Germany.

“Culture helps to remove boundaries and build bridges,” he said at the opening press conference of the exhibition. “And that is what we want with our neighbours—dialogue is the only way to solve issues.”

Curators and organisers said the blockade did not hinder the show. “In some ways, it has helped us to showcase our art,” says Bin Abdulrahman Al Thani. “A lot of journalists have travelled to Doha and, of course, when they are there, they are not only reporting about the blockade, but also about the culture.”

Not surprisingly for a new country, many of the artists represented in the exhibition are young and their origins are diverse. A society in flux and the confrontation of tradition with modernity are recurring themes.

Hana Al Saadi’s resin sculpture shows a woman wearing a niqab with ballet shoes and a tutu over a long black gown. The artist herself wore this outfit as a performance piece designed to show the contradictions of Arab and Western life.

The artist Emelina Soares created Shifting Identities, a carpet that expresses her Indian, Portuguese and Qatari roots. Combining motifs from those cultures, it is made of sand coloured with natural dyes from India. At the opening night, visitors were allowed to walk on the “carpet”, which Soares sees as a temporary work.

“It’s a physical manifestation of how contact with different people affects identity,” the 24-year-old artist explains.