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January to March is the busy season for the Gulf art scene, and Qatar is no exception. In addition to a multitude of ongoing exhibitions across the country’s cultural institutions, on February 24, Qatar Museums is launching the Design Doha biennale, centered around design, creativity, and innovation. The inaugural biennale, spanning several months, will offer programs and exhibitions exploring topics from weaving traditions in Uzbekistan and Afghanistan to poster design in the Arab world and local architectural history. It will also feature a design forum, a cultural exchange program between Qatar and Morocco, and networking opportunities for the local and regional design industry.
In January, in advance of this larger, state-led initiative, two Doha-based art historians – and the minds behind the popular pan-Arab online art platform Mathqaf (a place for culture) – launched Wusum Gallery in partnership with art collector and entrepreneur Tariq Al-Jaidah, a physical space dedicated to showcasing the works of Qatar-based artists and representing them locally and internationally. Wusum Gallery was founded on the principle that pioneering and emerging Qatar-based artists should have access to comprehensive professional support and channels for engagement beyond government-led initiatives and with the international art scene and art market.
AGSIW spoke to art historians and cultural entrepreneurs Wadha Al-Aqeedi and Elina Sairanen, who are from Qatar and Finland, respectively, about their work on Mathqaf, the recent art drive for the Palestinian cause, the opening of Wusum Gallery, and the gallery’s inaugural show, “Revolving Rooms.”
AGSIW: Tell us a bit about both of your backgrounds and how you came to know each other.
Wadha: I have a background in international relations, so art was not something that I expected to pursue. I minored in art history during college and took a class on modern Arab art that instantly made me fall in love with the subject. I was also fond of Mathaf, the Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha, which holds the largest collection of modern Arab art in the world. This museum was a space that I was very eager to engage with professionally because it aligns with my interest in art as well as with topics I was really interested in during my studies, such as the sociocultural and political facets of art. After I completed my studies, I started working at Mathaf and began my master’s in the museum and gallery practice program at University College London in Qatar. That is where I met Elina.
Elina: I first started studying Arabic and Middle Eastern studies, but then I switched to art history. After I graduated, I did some internships in New York. This was around 2016 or 2017, and at that time, there was a lot of academic interest in Gulf museology, and a lot of museums were being established in the region. I became increasingly interested in what was going on in academia about Gulf museums. I then discovered the master’s program at University College London and came to Qatar, where I met Wadha.
After visiting Mathaf and becoming increasingly interested in modernism in the Arab world, I decided to pursue a PhD studying the Jordanian National Gallery of Fine Arts, which was the first pan-Arab and pan-Islamic art museum in the region. Wadha and I were both starting our PhDs and having conversations about the lack of certain resources – like information about an institution or artist or images of particular works of art. So, we decided to come together and do something about it. That’s how Mathqaf was born, and we launched in December 2020.
AGSIW: Since the start of the war in Gaza, Mathqaf has become a way to share art with an even more pronounced mission. How have you seen the role of Mathqaf evolve recently, especially with your Palestinian art drive, “Prints for Palestine”?
Elina: I think our response really came out of being hopeless, but then also understanding that this contribution was necessary – especially since we are working in this field with artists from West Asia and North Africa and in the diaspora and knowing that we do have quite a big readership, especially in the United States.
It’s really the bare minimum that we possibly can do to amplify Palestinian artists’ voices. We started to post Palestinian artists or artists whose work relates to the Palestinian cause. We had also been collaborating on an exhibition with our colleague Bandar Al-Wazzan, who runs Gallery Bawa. Launching the exhibition felt very inappropriate during this time, so he proposed doing something more tangible and related to Palestine. That’s how we ended up doing this fundraiser for the Kuwait Red Crescent around November.
Wadha: Through Instagram, we were able to develop a community of artists that enabled us to envision projects together and collaborate. “Prints for Palestine” was one example of that, but we also had so many artists who were not within our geographical focus who were reaching out and contributing to simply show their solidarity with Palestine. I found this very powerful. I’m really grateful that Mathqaf has become a platform where people can find a sense of community and togetherness. In such circumstances and situations, this is where you put your mission and words into practice. It has only reignited our mission of connecting with artists and sharing their experiences and stories.
AGSIW: Evolving from Mathqaf, what was the thinking behind creating an in-person space in Doha specifically?
Wadha: One of the projects that Mathqaf worked on in 2022 was curating the Ned Doha Art Collection. That project specifically spoke to us because the Ned occupies a repurposed heritage building in Doha, the former Ministry of Interior. Thinking of the building’s history and where it’s situated in Qatar vis-a-vis other artists who are practicing and producing works about the development of the country really sparked our interest. We worked with over a hundred artists for this project, the majority of them based in Doha. A lot of these artists simply did not have a gallery to work with and would have to think about the pricing of their work or presentation of their portfolio – things that are very simple when it comes to the formalities and tendencies of working in the cultural milieu.
After working on that project and with those artists, we felt the need for a space, not only for exhibiting the works of artists but also for representing artists and providing them opportunities through collaborations, productions, and publications. In 2023, we partnered with Tariq Al-Jaidah, a cultural entrepreneur, art collector, and trailblazer in Qatar’s cultural scene. Together, we joined forces to create a new art gallery with a fresh and innovative perspective on art.
AGSIW: Could you tell us a bit about the name “Wusum” and its significance in this context?
Wadha: “Wusum” refers to tribal symbols that have been used in the Arabian Peninsula and countries including Jordan and Morocco. They’ve been passed through generations and are still being used today. We wanted the name to reflect that kind of legacy and heritage that has been carried on throughout the millennia as well as to reflect the identity of the gallery, which works with early and mid-career artists but also pioneering artists. When people think of the Gulf region, they wouldn’t think that tangible heritage would go that far back in history. We also wanted to create a dialogue between traditional and contemporary artistic expression. As art historians, we have the responsibility, in a way, to put forward research-based exhibitions that delve into the layers of art history and contribute to the overall canon of art history.
AGSIW: You’ve both lived in Qatar and have been around its art scene for a while. Could you lay out the current art scene and some of its main features? What is Wusum aiming to add to the scene?
Elina: What differentiates Qatar from perhaps the other Gulf countries is the fantastic museum infrastructure. There’s a lot of institutional support, state-level involvement, and resources put into the artistic and cultural scene. What perhaps is missing from Qatar more than, let’s say, Dubai, is the involvement of commercial galleries and spaces that aren’t affiliated with the government or the state. As a result, Qatari artists or Qatar-based artists are not very well integrated into the regional or international market because there aren’t so many galleries in Qatar that systematically connect local artists with the regional scene.
This is one of the reasons that Wusum exists: to highlight the rich creation that takes place in Qatar in beautiful, plentiful ways but is for some reason not so present in the wider region. Both large institutions and smaller players are needed to have a thriving arts ecosystem, one that is connected not only at the institutional level – it is fantastic to see collaborations between the Met and the National Museum of Qatar – but also at the grassroots level to ensure that the scene is whole and more wholly connected to what’s happening abroad.
Wadha: In addition to the museum scene in Qatar, there is now an emphasis on biennales and festivals, like the upcoming Design Doha. The fact that they’re ephemeral and temporary pushes artists toward more contemporary expressions and creativity. They’re also more active, engaging, and stimulating because a lot of programming takes place at the same time. We also have a very exciting and thriving film scene in Qatar, led by the Doha Film Institute, which supports regional filmmaking, so I think on many different levels these institutional initiatives are vital and necessary, but we also need more room for grassroots and private initiatives that give more agency to cultural workers and artists who put forward projects that are not state led.
AGSIW: Could you briefly share the curatorial framework and idea behind “Revolving Rooms,” Wusum’s inaugural exhibition?
Wadha: We wanted to put together an art exhibition in which the focus is truly on the artist, their universe, and their own thoughts. The show was inspired by Virginia Woolf’s feminist essay “A Room of One’s Own,” in which she suggests that if women writers only had rooms of their own, they could have excelled like their male peers. We wanted to extend that concept to all artists in Qatar, regardless of their gender – giving each a room of their own – and empower them by giving them that agency to present work that represents their artistic practice and preoccupations.
The show brings together the work of 29 artists from Qatar. It was a very exciting opportunity –not only for the artists but also for us – to work collaboratively with the artists and give them the floor to introduce or reintroduce themselves to the art community. With this exhibition, we hope to present a reading of contemporary art in Qatar through the lens of artists in their own head space and physical space.
Elina: It was important for us to ensure this is an opportunity not only for artists to introduce themselves to the audience but also for us as a gallery to introduce ourselves. We wanted to frame or bring all the work together without being too imposing; this is not a thematic group show but rather an introduction to a project.
AGSIW: Tell us a bit about some of the projects or programming that you have planned for the gallery.
Wadha: Our vision for Wusum is to have a space not just for the exhibition of artwork but also for film screenings, workshops, and artist talks to activate the space. To people who are willing to make the effort to come all the way to our gallery, we would love to offer them more of a holistic and comprehensive public program that responds to their interests, while also deepening their appreciation for the arts.
Elina: We find it essential to have programming that takes place after the opening and to direct effort toward the community and audience. That’s why we have invested a lot of thought into building a program that is engaging but also into connecting and offering the space to artists who couldn’t necessarily be part of a regular exhibition.
AGSIW: What are some of the ways that you hope to use the gallery to support Qatari artists beyond Qatar?
Elina: Of course, going to an art fair is something we are working toward. The starting point for the gallery, however, is to work with our artists individually, so we are thinking, “What are the goals and aspirations for all the artists we represent?” and then carving out a plan to reach those goals. While we are aware of our location, the focus isn’t so much on changing the perception of Qatar-based artists in the West or the region but on making sure the artist comes first. At the end of the day, this is a project by art historians, so it is led by the art and our belief in these artists and the scene.
Nada Ammagui is an associate in arts, culture, and social trends at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
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