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How Public Art is Defining a Nation

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If you have taken the escalator ride that leads toward the grand foyer of Hamad International Airport, right next to the world-class duty-free hall, you have come across a 23-foot canary-yellow sculpted teddy bear. The Lamp bear has become the landmark of the airport, a symbol meant to remind travelers of their childhood and the objects they associate with home. While this remains, undoubtedly, one of the most famous landmarks in Qatar, it is one of the many public art sculptures in the country.

While the commission of public art is a new enterprise for GCC countries, UAE and Qatar have quickly become the cultural centers of the Gulf region. Qatar Museums, headed by Sheikha Al Mayassa Bin Khalifa Al Thani, is widely recognized as the most significant buyer of art worldwide. In 2014, Artnet News disclosed that Qatar spends over $1 billion each year on artwork. Other online publications like The Guardian, The New York Post, and Quartz published similar stories, expressing awe over the immense capital Qatar has invested in the art industry.

Public art is generally defined as art in any media that is staged in a public space. This form of art has been popularized by western artists such as high renaissance sculpture and artist Michelangelo who was known for pieces like Madonna of Bruges or Frederic Auguste Bartholdi who created the statue of liberty.

The need for art in public spaces has increased with time because of its recognized ability to capture the public’s attention. Public art has evolved to numerous forms, from environmental to new genre to digital to interactive, this industry is continually evolving.

During Sheikha Al Mayassa Bin Khalifa Al Thani’s TED talk, “Globalizing the local, localizing the global,” she said, “We are trying to be part of this global village but at the same time we are revising ourselves through our cultural institutions and cultural development.” Investment in public art is one way Qatar is realizing that vision.

Qatar is increasingly purchasing public art. Hamad International Airport alone has more than 20 permanent art installations. The other art pieces are situated in different locations across the country: The visibly golden thumb, Pouce, by César Baldaccini in Souq Waqif, Maman by Louise Bourgeois in Qatar National Convention Centre, Calligraphy Graffiti by El Seed on Salwa Road, East-West/West-East by Richard Serra in the Brouq nature reserve, and Perceval by Sarah Lucas in Aspire Park.

The placement of these artworks in unexpected locations is a deliberate choice engineered by Qatar Museums to increase the interaction people have with public spaces. On its website, Qatar Museums mentions its plan to integrate structures that interrupt people as they go about their daily life, to stimulate insight and discussions.

Though there is no clear indication of what dialogues they hope to incite by commissioning so much art, Qatar Museums has put in a lot of effort to situate these artworks. The installation of Miraculous Journey, a series of 14 monumental bronze sculptures by Damien Hirst, situated in front of Sidra Medical and Research Center, faced a lot of criticism since its unveiling in 2013. Qatar Museums has, however, remained relentless in supporting international artists, even those who, like Hirst, is considered controversial, more so in the Middle East.

In the Journal of Arabian Studies, Suzi Mirgani, managing editor at the Centre for International and Religious Studies at Georgetown University in Qatar, wrote about how lucrative Qatar’s investments in art are. “Over the past few decades, the GCC states have been strategically working towards diversifying their economies by translating abundant natural resource capital into other areas of investments and institutional infrastructure,” she wrote. Mirgani also believes that art speaks volumes about the current political stature of these countries. “The GCC states are increasingly seeking to capitalize on already established brand names and harness their power in order to quickly gain prominence, legitimacy, and credibility.”

This interpretation seems to match the current status quo. Qatar started gaining more recognition after its investment in the art sector. Doha was designated 2010 “Arab capital of culture” by UNESCO and Hamad International Airport was ranked as the fourth-best airport in the world at the 2019 Skytrax World Airport Awards.

Though investment in art has had a positive impact on Qatar’s image, it is hard to measure how these artworks have impacted the Qataris or migrant communities in Qatar. Western countries have already recognized the importance of grassroots art. Recent public art displays, mostly in the U.S., have paid homage to minority communities that have not always been represented in mainstream cultural discourses. An example is Kikito, a larger than life poster of a one-year-old baby peering over the border fence from the Mexican side. This piece is believed to be a response to President Donald Trump’s border wall rhetoric, as well as his efforts to rescind the DACA program that protects children of undocumented immigrants from being deported. Whether Qatar’s investment in local artists could be regarded as grassroots art, there is still a need to give more representation to Qatar’s minority communities, the largest population being Pakistani, Indian, and Nepali.

Some people would, however, argue that Qatar is already taking the necessary step to commission more inclusive art. “I think the Miraculous Journey statues from Sidra are very beautiful. I really admire the work that was done on it… It shows how far we have come to understand what happens in a woman’s body. It also shows appreciation for women and the fact that a baby is made in a woman’s womb,” said Yanet Chernet, a student at Northwestern University in Qatar.

As Qatar’s architectural and art landscape evolves, we will gain a greater understanding of how far the government plans to create an inclusive environment for minority communities. Qatar’s image is in the making and its art will tell the story.