Languages
Page last updated at 14:05 GMT, Sunday, 23 November 2008

Doha museum stakes cultural claim

The Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar
The museum is part of plans to make Doha a cultural capital of the world

By Lawrence Pollard
BBC News

A few years ago, prices in London auction houses went through the roof - not for the classic modern or contemporary art, but for works from the Islamic world.

Fabulous jewels, manuscripts and ceramics were fetching 10 times their estimate and more, and it soon emerged this was thanks to the al-Thani family, rulers of Qatar, the tiny gas-rich Gulf state.

They had tempted the veteran architect I M Pei - the man behind the glass pyramid at the Louvre - to design one last statement building, a spectacular museum on a purpose-built island in Doha, which would house only the best Islamic art.

Then they went shopping for their collection.

And this weekend the museum opens, a dramatic pile of white limestone shapes inspired by Islamic architecture and full of 800 of the finest examples of Islamic art.

Planispheric Astrolabe, Iran or Oraq, 985AD at the Qatar Islamic Art Museum
Many of these things, as well as being objects of beauty have functional usage, but then hidden beyond that is the sense of transcendence
Navid Akhtar
Designer and writer

Not long ago, the idea of culture being a reason to visit the Gulf would have made other Arabs laugh. No longer.

The Syrian cultural historian Rana Kabbani sees a political element to the museum, putting Doha on the cultural map.

"I think all the rulers in the Gulf see what they really lack is culture on a grand scale, as a kind of imperial identity. It's a political-cultural lack. They have the means, and they're going for it."

The hope is that - like hosting a Grand Prix or buying a football club - a fabulous collection of art will bring prestige, attract tourists and create a brand.

That's why along the coast, two museums are planned for Abu Dhabi - branches of the Louvre and Guggenheim.

New conversation

But what exactly is the Islamic art in the collection? What can ceramics from southern Spain have in common with metalwork from the Silk Route city of Samarkand?

One thing which links them is the misconceptions about Islamic art held by both east and west.

Designer and writer Navid Akhtar explains: "The conversation tends to go: 'How come you don't paint people? Because its forbidden.'

"There's little understanding of the scriptures or commentaries, or the concept of art, so we're left with a limited conversation.

"There's a lot of figurative Islamic art. And the geometric patterns aren't just pattern."

The Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar
There's not enough research and that's a mistake of the Muslims. There has to be a reawakening - they have to start studying their own history
Reem al-Faisal
Saudi artist-photographer

The Koran has no comment on the visual arts.

The prophet was firmly against idols, but then so were Jews, orthodox Christians and puritan Anglicans at various times.

Many religions mistrust images but their cultures still end up using them - Islam however has had less use for them.

"The Koran is not a narrative like the old or new testament, it doesn't tell a story, a narration you can illustrate," says professor Doris Abouseif, author of Beauty in Arabic Culture.

"The Koran is precepts, it guides but doesn't narrate."

Any museum will show Persian and Indian miniatures, or Arab pottery with figures of animals or people.

They won't be from a mosque, but the figure isn't banned from wider Islamic culture.

'Whole language'

One element Islamic objects have in common is intricate geometric patterns.

Some scholars think this is a craft habit, pure and simple, but to many younger Muslim artists the geometry holds something else.

"Pattern is a whole language of colour, form and shape," says Reem al-Faisal, a Saudi artist-photographer.

"Each colour symbolises a state of the soul or being. It's poetry translated into material elements."

Mr Akhtar agrees: "Many of these things, as well as being objects of beauty, have functional usage, but then hidden beyond that is the sense of transcendence that they create."

The chief curator of the new museum, Oliver Watson, is British, as are many of the staff.

Bowl from Iraq 9th century, Qatar Islamic Art Museum
The museum houses 800 artistic and historical works from three continents

The study of Islamic art is a western creation, which Ms Faisal says is not a problem so long as more Muslims now take up the study.

"I don't care if it's Muslims or Westerners - the problem is that there's not enough research and that's a mistake of the Muslims.

"They should have studied their own civilisation far more, they've been in hibernation for 500 years. There has to be a reawakening - they have to start studying their own history."

Qatar's museum will be just a glittering collection of greatest hits unless it manages to become, as promised, a centre of education and research into the history of this beautiful art.

Print Sponsor


SEE ALSO
Advanced geometry of Islamic art
23 Feb 07 |  Americas
Revisiting Islamic art in the West
21 Jul 06 |  Middle East
The word in contemporary Islamic art
17 May 06 |  Middle East

RELATED INTERNET LINKS
The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


FEATURES, VIEWS, ANALYSIS
Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit

BBC navigation

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific