Can Mathaf Restore a Pan-Arab Artistic Identity?

In 2010, Mathaf (the Arab Museum of Modern Art) was opened in the Gulf state of Qatar. In his essay, Sultan Sooud al-Qassemi provides an overview of pan-Arabism in recent decades and looks at what this museum can do to restore a pan-Arab cultural identity that has been neglected and in some cases even vilified for decades

By Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi

The past few decades have witnessed a series of political, military, economic and social failures by successive Arab governments. From the occupation of Palestine and the loss of South Sudan to unemployment and a lack of human and women's rights, the picture seems to get consistently bleaker. In their attempt to mask their failures and unify their peoples behind them, these governments have sometimes targeted not only other Arab states but also downplayed or vilified a pan-Arab identity.

In recent years, as the European powers that drew the Arab states' borders started to dismantle travel restrictions on their continent, Arab governments began tightening their own frontiers. Since 1994, the border between Algeria and Morocco, which is almost 1,600 kilometres long, has been closed. Moreover, non-Gulf Arabs visiting the Gulf States have to complete complex visa procedures, while Western passport holders are largely afforded hassle-free entry. Such acts no doubt instil a sense of separation among Arabs, especially among the young, who find it easier to travel to some Western, African and Asian countries than to the "sisterly Arab states".

Inter-Arab arrogance and racism

The discovery of oil and gas in the Gulf led millions of Arabs to emigrate to the Arabian Peninsula, which in turn led some Gulf natives to look on their Arab brethren and on Asian immigrants with a sense of superiority. On the other hand, racism in Levantine and North African Arab popular culture towards Gulf Arabs has not been uncommon in recent decades.

Young Qatari Patriots during the 2011 Asian World Cup (photo: AP)
A sense of separation amongst Arabs: The age of Pan-Arabism is long gone. Currently, sectarianism and identity politics is on the rise throughout the Arab world. Pictured: Young Qatari patriots

For instance, Gulf Arabs were looked upon as being secluded from Israel's crimes against the Palestinians and for being spoiled as a result of oil revenues. In the past two years, prominent Arab satellite TV channels that had gained new viewers and played a significant role in covering pan-Arab events have turned into sectarianism-spewing networks with political agendas that are  dividing Arabs even more, while Arab political leaders who gained prominence in the past decade have fallen from grace. As a result, vile sectarianism and identity politics are on the rise throughout the Arab world.

Political Islamism and nationalism

The 1990s and 2000s saw a decline in pan-Arabism, prompting some to declare the era "The End of Arab Nationalism". Following the demise of one of its greatest modern champions, Gamal Abdel Nasser, the movement never fully recovered and suffered even more as a result of two major developments: the rise of political Islamism as a regional identity and a policy of instilling patriotism by Arab governments.

Following World War Two, Cairo, which had been home to the Arab League since 1945, was seen as the regional capital. However, following the 1978 Camp David Accords, Cairo was ostracized for a decade by its fellow Arab states, and the Arab League was moved to the Tunisian capital.

The 1990 Gulf War further deepened divisions within the Arab world, with countries in the region lumped into either the pro- or the anti-Western intervention camp on the subject of the liberation of Kuwait from Saddam's forces. Moreover, a pan-Islamic identity gained prominence during the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s as government-controlled media encouraged Muslims to rally for "holy war".

Two Kuwaiti men standing in the desert, in the background burning oil fields, set on fire by Iraqi troops (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
The 1990 Gulf War further entrenched Arab divisions with regional countries lumped in a "for or anti Western intervention camp" to liberate Kuwait from Saddam's forces, al-Qassemi writes

As the fortunes of Cairo waned, so the prominence of Islam's holiest site in Mecca grew. The Saudi King Fahd adopted the title "Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques" in 1986, while the Arab world's most popular TV news channel, Al Jazeera, began advertising its programmes as per "Mecca Time". Following the Arab uprisings of 2011, Islamic parties rose to the helm of several Arab states, looking to co-operate closely with their fellow Islamic movements. Islam became the region's new unifying ism.

In the meantime, Arab states have launched numerous programmes to promote patriotism and nationalism within their own borders.

One such a patriotic initiative was called "Jordan First". It promised to "consolidate the spirit of belonging among citizens". In 2005, following a series of "National Dialogue" meetings, religiously conservative Saudi Arabia celebrated its very first secular holiday, National Day. In 2009, Qatar changed the date of its national holiday from 3 September, the date on which the British withdrew in 1971, to 18 December, the date on which the country's modern founder assumed power. Doing so allowed Qatar both to distance itself from the colonial era and to celebrate the patriotic occasion in a public manner. In fact, aside from the rise of Islamism and local nationalism in the Gulf States, pan-Arab nationalism also clashed with a perceived pan-Khaleeji, i.e."Arabian Gulf" identity.

Western pan-Arab projects

Between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries, European colonial powers often pursued a policy of distinguishing between ethnicities in the Arab world in order to consolidate their rule. However, in recent decades, it has ironically been colonialist Europe that has played host to a number of non-sectarian pan-Arab cultural projects.

In 1977, the Arab British Centre was founded in London. Three years later, the Institut du monde arabe was established in Paris, with the Jean Nouvel-designed building opening in 1987.

Institut du monde arabe  in Paris (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
Historical irony: several pan-Arab initiatives were hosted by former colonial Western powers, as e.g. the Institut du monde arabe in Paris

In 2006, Spain inaugurated the Casa Arabe in Madrid and Cordoba to promote cultural and economic ties with the Arab world. And while not created specifically for that purpose, the Arab American National Museum, which opened in 2005, is playing a significant role in building bridges with the Arab world and celebrating a pan-Arab culture.

Also, in the academic sphere, prominent Western universities have established dedicated Arab world studies institutes, something that is almost non-existent in the Arab world itself.

Furthermore, the non-Arab world is dotted with film festivals dedicated to celebrating pan-Arab culture, including some in Europe, the US and Australia. With very few exceptions – such as the Oran Arab Film Festival in Algeria – film festivals in Arab countries are either global, such as the ones in Cairo and the Gulf cities, or regional, such as the Maghreb and Gulf films festivals.

The spectacular opening of the Mathaf

Finally, in 2010, after decades during which a pan-Arab cultural identity was either neglected or purposely sidelined, Mathaf: The Arab Museum of Modern Art, a new pan-Arab cultural institution, was opened in the Gulf state of Qatar.

Although various Arab capitals are home to art museums such as the Egyptian Modern Art Museum or the Museum of Modern & Contemporary Art in Algeria, these museums are solely dedicated to art produced by citizens of their countries. Again, such museums celebrate art that has been produced within the physical boundaries of the state (some don't even include artists of the diaspora). By contrast, Mathaf distinguishes itself by having a pan-Arab collection and mandate.

Artwork presented at the Sajjil: A Century of Modern Art exhibition (photo:
Although various Arab capitals host art museums these are solely dedicated to art produced by citizens of their countries. By contrast, Mathaf distinguished itself by having a pan-Arab collection and mandate

Mathaf's first show was called "Sajjil: A century of modern Art", a nod to documenting the region's modern artistic history that dates back to the mid-nineteenth century. "Sajjil ana Arabi" (Record, I am an Arab) is also a line from a famous poem by Mahmoud Darwish, the iconic Palestinian poet who died in 2008.

The show was curated by a trinity of accomplished Arab women including Palestinian-Iraqi art historian Nada Shabout along with Wassan Al-Khudhairi and Deena Chalabi, who wrote in her 2010 essay "Articulating Mathaf": "With a few exceptions, museums in the Arab world often house and promote a specific sense of national identity: a single coherent narrative told through the display of their objects, about each country and its history. Public museums of modern art in the region are few, but also tend towards collective expressions of national pride, rather than emphasizing individual creations within wider artistic and social frameworks."

Immense cultural impact

Although Mathaf is housed in a 5,500-square-metre converted school, its impact is potentially much greater than its physical boundaries. Mathaf's artistic frontiers stretch the width of the Arab world from Morocco to the Gulf and include artworks by diaspora Arabs who have often been neglected for political or geographical reasons. Mathaf's pan-Arab collection demonstrates that the struggles of Algerians and Iraqis, Palestinians and Yemenis as depicted by Arab artists blend together seamlessly as though pieces of a giant puzzle have finally started to fall into place.

Despite numerous disagreements between Arab governments, most citizens of the Arab world feel a sense of affiliation with their fellow Arabs and their causes. The Arab world's artists reflect this affiliation by depicting monumental events in modern Arab history such as the 1982 massacre in the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian camps in Lebanon, which has been powerfully portrayed by Iraq's Dia Azzawi and Kuwait's Sami Mohammed. Both of these works are part of Mathaf's collection.

The Iraqi artist Dia Azzawi (photo: Avveroes, source: Wikimedia, rights info: CC)
"Mathaf, it seems had given Arab artists an address and a sense of belonging to a greater family," al-Qssemi writes: Pictured: the Iraqi artist Dia Azzawi who is represented in Mathaf's collection

Mathaf was inaugurated in Doha's suburbs on a chilly winter night in December 2010, just a few weeks before the Arab uprisings began. I found myself in a circle of leading Arab artists that included Gaza-born Leila Shawa, famous for her "Walls of Gaza" illustrations, and Abdallah Al Muharraqi, a Bahraini artist whose work depicts the perils of the Gulf pearl-diving industry in the early twentieth century. Others included Dia Azzawi, an Iraqi collected by the Tate Modern.

Egyptian diaspora artists such as Ghada Amer and Youssef Nabil exhibited commissioned artworks. Iraq's Wafaa Bilal, an NYU professor, showed me his artistic project "The 3rd I", a camera drilled into the back of his skull broadcasting live 24 hours a day.

Dozens of other Arab artists had come together to celebrate modern and contemporary Arab art. Young Arab artists I have met since have spoken fondly of the institution. Mathaf, it seems, has given Arab artists an address and a sense of belonging to a greater family.

"Mathaf's collection of modern Arab art pieces is clearly spearheading and fostering the Arab contemporary arts scene," says Khaled al-Baih, a Sudanese artist based in Qatar. "I think all Arab artists would love to be part of a collocation that houses works from Ibrahim El Salahi and Dia Azzawi," he added in reference to the respective Sudanese and Iraqi masters.

Previous pan-Arab art efforts

Arab citizens attempted to establish the idea of "Mathaf" on their own long before the Qatari institution was founded. In Saudi Arabia, Adel al-Mandil's Kinda Foundation showed art from across the Arab world at Paris' Institute du Monde Arabe in 2003, and a young Qatari Sheikh Hassan al-Thani, whose collection today forms the bulk of Mathaf's artworks, continually supported pan-Arab art back in the 1980s.

However, the idea of a pan-Arab art space was always ephemeral. Arab capitals such as Baghdad and Kuwait held pan-Arab art shows that lasted for no longer than a few weeks. Most of the art was then shipped back to the countries of origin without documentation. There have been a number of non-government initiatives in the past few decades to rally around a common Arab theme and identity. Some came together in Damascus in 1971 and established the Union of Arab Artists, picking Palestinian artist Ismail Shammout (1930–2006) as its first secretary-general. The union held its first festival in Algeria in 1987.

More recently, in 2002, a prominent Kuwaiti business family established the Al-Kharafi Biennial for Contemporary Arab Art. However many of these efforts were discontinued for financial or political reasons.

No art is an island

To be sure, there is a risk that must be acknowledged in viewing and promoting Arab art and culture in isolation as though it is disconnected from the region or the rest of the world.

Screenshot of the Mathaf's Google art project (photo: Google)
International cooperation: 2012 saw the launch of Mathaf's Google art project that allows high-resolution online viewing of 90 artworks by 51 Arab artists

The Arab world and its surrounding cultures – whether religious, ethnic or geographical – cannot be seen in isolation, with the Arabian Peninsula influenced by East African and Iran, the Levant by Turkey and Egypt, Sudan and the Maghreb by sub-Saharan African cultures and vice versa. Therefore Mathaf's two-way dialogue is essential for maintaining links outside the Arab world.

In 2011, Mathaf collaborated with a number of art institutions in London to present dialogues on Arab art. In December 2011, it invited the acclaimed Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang to present a show entitled "Saraab" (mirage). In 2012, Mathaf collaborated with the Japanese Mori Art Museum to present "Arab Express", the first dedicated Arab art show in Japan. 2012 saw the launch of Mathaf's Google art project that allows 90 artworks by 51 Arab artists to be viewed online in high resolution. Mathaf's hit show, "Tea with Nefertiti" is probably the very first exhibit conceived in the Arab world to go on tour in the West.

Monumental task ahead

The significant underinvestment in the Arab art world means that institutions such as Mathaf – long overdue as it is – have a monumental task ahead of them. Modern Arab masterpieces are either lost or stolen, while incidents of forged Arab art are not uncommon. Modern Arab artworks that have been inherited by families for generations lack documentation. In extreme cases, countless Arab artworks have been destroyed, including Suleiman Mansour's "Camel of Burdens", depicting a Palestinian man carrying Jerusalem on his back, which was lost in the American strike on Muammar Gaddafi's compound in Tripoli in 1986, as well as 7,000 modern Iraqi paintings and sculptures that were looted following the collapse of Saddam's regime in 2003.

Suleiman Mansour's Camel of Burdens (photo:
Modern Arab artworks that have been inherited by families for generations lack documentation. Also, countless Arab artworks have been destroyed in conflict, as e.g. Suleiman Mansour's Camel of Burdens, depicting a Palestinian man carrying Jerusalem on his back

Museums in Western Europe, Asia and southern Africa emerged in the latter half of the twentieth century as instruments of a collective identity that is inclusive of all facets of society. Thus although the American, German and South African museums include people of difference races and ethnicities, their identities are ultimately American, German and South African. These museums arrived at this juncture by highlighting not only past collective triumphs but also past collective pains. Numerous scholars have demonstrated how museums influence a person's identity and both preserve and help construct history and memory.

Monira Al Qadiri, a Kuwaiti artist based in Lebanon, says: "I think pan-Arabism as a political dream is dead and long gone. However, questions about what constitutes an Arab identity or what differences exist can best be highlighted by cultural and artistic practices, which is why I think an institution like Mathaf is important. Art doesn't only show the commonalities, but the discrepancies as well."

The contemporary definition of a pan-Arab cultural identity that is espoused in modern Arab art is comprehensively inclusive of various minorities and regional identities whether ethnic or religious. The ethnic Armenians Paul Guiragossian and Chant Avedissian are identified as Palestinian/Lebanese and Egyptian respectively in modern Arab artistic culture. Turkish artist Fakhrelnissa Zeid married into the Iraqi ruling family and died a Jordanian. Baya and Mohamed Issiakhem, pioneering Algerian artists, were Amazigh Berbers.

Kurdish-Iraqi artists Waleed Siti and Azad Nanakeli represented Iraq at the Venice Biennial in 2011, the first Iraqi pavilion in 34 years. Countless Gulf artists are of Persian, Balouch and African descent and yet they are integral part of the Arab family of artists. It must, however, also be acknowledged that too often in the twentieth century, Arab leaders suppressed minorities in the name of Arab nationalism, including Kurds, Amazigh, Africans and Jews, minorities who had lived among ethnic Arabs for centuries.

Sultan al-Qassemi (photo: Jonathan Rashad/Wikipedia/CC)
* Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi is an Emirati writer and founder of the Barjeel Art Foundation

Arab government media and official rhetoric had failed to highlight our past and current failures that were subsequently depicted by numerous Arab artists. Ultimately, the Arab world won't move forward without confronting its past with all its dark chapters, including issues that both divided and brought us together. Mathaf and other emerging museums in the region will have to tackle such issues head on in order to cement their role as a pan-Arab art institution.

Mathaf is perhaps today the only functioning regionally based pan-Arab institution dedicated to promoting Arab art. Backed by Qatar's immense wealth, Mathaf is able to institutionalize efforts to preserve, document and promote what was previously a largely neglected artistic treasure. Such institutionalization provides continuity and the possibility for future planning that individualistic initiatives are often unable to carry out in the long term.

In the wake of the regional sectarian tensions created following the 2003 American invasion of Iraq and the Arab uprisings, momentous efforts must be made to promote social harmony in these countries. Cultural institutions such as Mathaf may have an inadvertent role to play in these efforts. Going forward, Mathaf's backers would do well to institute a pan-Arab independent board and an endowment fund that would ensure the artistic independence of the institution.

Only three years after its inauguration, it is perhaps too early to pass judgment on Mathaf's ability to contribute to the restoration of a sense of pan-Arab cultural identity. However, there is no doubt that Mathaf has started a necessary groundbreaking process that is long overdue.

Sultan Sooud al-Qassemi

© 2013

Sultan Sooud al-Qassemi is an Emirati writer and founder of the Barjeel Art Foundation.

Editor: Lewis Gropp/