Tea with Nefertiti is the museum’s current exhibition, a display that offers visitors the chance to explore a mix of ancient relics, modernist and contemporary works. The subject, the amassing of thousands of ancient art pieces and artefacts from Egypt in European museums from the 19th century onwards, carries obvious overtones, perhaps a reflection of the growing curatorial confidence of Mathaf and Qatar’s ambitions as an increasingly powerful resource-rich nation. Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath, the curators of the exhibition and the co-founders of Art Reoriented, are back at Mathaf for the second time with this exhibition, and explain the 3,300-year-old Nefertiti bust’s role in the exhibition. ‘The choice of Nefertiti became a matter of giving concrete form to a rather theoretical notion. 2012 marked the 100th anniversary of the discovery of the bust. 2013 marks the centenary of its arrival to Berlin.’
Bardaouil adds, ‘[The exhibition] is, first and foremost, occupied with the inquiry into the appropriation, decontextualisation and re-semanticisation of an artwork. The bust of Nefertiti is a striking example of that.’
While the bust itself remains in Berlin and does not physically appear in Tea with Nefertiti, one of the main notions of the exhibition seems to be of appropriation (whether of art, resources or antiques), as does the celebratory statement of a region finding its feet, again. Fittingly, this is the first exhibition curated in the Middle East to be exported internationally, with a tour of Valencia, Paris and Brussels due this year.
The exhibition also serves as an educational lesson about being aware of how exhibitions are structured. As Fellrath explains, ‘It is important to understand how certain mechanisms of visual display and literary representation end up framing artists in contested narratives of “cultural otherness.” Key to such awareness is the interrogation of curatorial approaches and how they too can lead to the construction of certain rhetoric or perception vis-à-vis notions of centre versus periphery, the writing of art-historical narrative, the establishing of a canon and the intermarriage of art and market or politics.’
Michelle Dezember, acting director of Mathaf, explains the impetus for Mathaf, which began more than twenty years ago when Mathaf’s patron and founder Sheikh Hassan Al Thani developed the idea of a modern museum to record the narratives of Arab art and encourage the future development of regional artists. ‘He started to build a collection that could serve artists and the public as a rich and representative treasure house of modern Arab art,’ Dezember explains. ‘He saw this collection as a starting point to create more opportunities for artists and for art lovers in Doha and around the world.’
The group say their main mission at Mathaf is to educate the people of Qatar and the region on contemporary Middle Eastern art. ‘Our goal is to connect art, artists and art enthusiasts by contributing to the cultural landscape and infrastructure of Doha,’ she says. Other countries in the Gulf have already embarked on ambitious, often grandiloquent art and cultural projects, inviting some of the art world’s biggest names to add to their portfolio of attractions. Mathaf, on the other hand, works as a repository and platform for some of the region’s most valuable contemporary art pieces, while encouraging educational initiatives to develop the essential skills and theoretical knowledge of budding local artists.
Dezember says that the multinational makeup of the museum’s content and staff is a vital component for making Mathaf a regional meeting place, where visitors can engage and explore the diversity of the region through art. Qatar, she believes, is a fitting location for such dialogue. ‘Qatar is a place that is committed to developing its human capital by investing in education and endeavours that will connect people,’ she explains. Working as a progressive museum, Mathaf is seeking to develop ‘cross-cultural sharing’ in the Middle East through its collections, exhibitions and programmes.
This will partly be achieved by creating a pool of skilled curators and specialists based in Qatar, Dezember explains. ‘We draw on local talent to make sure that there is a rooted tone of voice and decision making process relevant to the place where we are. We also actively train and develop Qatari nationals through staff development programmes and internships such as the Mathaf Voices programme,’ she says. The training programme offers local university students a year long internship at the museum. Eventually, they will lead tours of Mathaf that will be shaped around their own interpretations and perspectives of the artwork on display.
Still, despite these visionary plans for the future, the team recognise that as the museum is still in its teething stages (Mathaf opened at the end of 2010), these programmes are at a development stage. ‘Like any new institution, we are in the process of laying our foundations and establishing a rhythm of how our operations can work best,’ the acting director says. This has given the museum scope for experimentation and as such they have opted for guest curators rather than a static on-site curation team. ‘Because we don’t have any in-house curators, we choose to work with guest curators while we search for the right fit, so that we can keep active and engage in a variety of perspectives.’
Artists from across the world are already exporting their skills to the region, with Mathaf organising workshops for up-and-coming local artists to learn from their peers. ‘The workshops encourage an intimate interaction between artists and participants,’ Dezember says. This investment in the arts should transcend borders, yet Dezember says the aim is to connect artists and art enthusiasts with Doha and contribute to the cultural landscape and infrastructure of Qatar.
This should help to cement the aesthetics for Qatar’s new experience in urbanity and of curation. ‘This is a remarkable time for cultural initiatives across the region. Mathaf’s growing collection represents a priceless resource to help connect our rich cultural heritages to the promise of contemporary art movements.’