PR Kingdom: Press Debriefings and a Bit of Art in Doha. “Tea with Nefertiti” at Mathaf
It is day one of my press trip to Doha, Qatar, and our itinerary starts with a walk around the pier adjacent to the Museum of Islamic Art, which culminates in Richard Serra’s 7. As we approach the massive sculpture, a journalist walking by my side confides, “I was here while they were building it, the Indian workers, toiling under the blazing sun.” As I look up, she becomes apologetic. “I know it’s an amazing artwork, but I am only human.” Her expression betrays genuine concern, yet she cannot quite bring herself to disavow the sculpture.
I circle around the sculpture’s metal edifice and come face to face with another journalist who whispers, “After the HRW (Human Rights Watch) released a report condemning labor policies, Qatari authorities issued a ban on outdoor work when the temperature rises above 50 degrees Celsius. But since then it’s never officially over 50 degrees Celsius….” We smile and shrug whilst the press corps keeps snapping pictures. For all their concerns, there are two things that my colleagues don’t seem to question. The first is that this is a good artwork—is it? Seven slabs of metal supported by intellectual kitsch (Serra found his inspiration in Persian mathematician Abu Sahl al-Quhi’s heptagons, we are told) and erected with quasi-slave labor.
The second presumption is that an artwork is a good thing. Yet the term art can have contradictory meanings; it can refer to ways of effectively claiming representation, or it can refer to a mode of expression which employs a set of formal tropes as a means to limit ways of effectively claiming representation.
Qatar prides itself on its contemporary art and architecture commissions, yet the elephant in the room is the harsh reality of the conditions of production. Here, like in all of the Gulf States, labor relations are distorted by what are known as “sponsorship laws,” a euphemism for indentured servitude. Foreign workers cannot enter the country without a “sponsor,” nor can they leave without an “exit permit.” (1) Though foreigners marvel at how liberal this society looks from the outside, the dividing line is drawn not between male and female but between citizens and non-citizens. This is not a marginal issue when one considers that foreign workers comprise 94% of the country’s labor force. (2) Yet the art world is either conspicuously mum on such issues—a notable exception being the ongoing Guggenheim Abu Dhabi boycott—or eager to peddle the myth that radical aesthetics will eventually usher in political parity.
After visiting the pier, we are brought to the Orientalist Museum for a guided tour by its collection’s director, Dr. Olga Nefedova, who seems unable to engage with even the most innocuous inquiries regarding the number of pieces in the collection or when and if it is ever going to be shown publicly. The PR handlers swiftly jump in to cut off any questions and the visit quickly reveals itself a charade.
As a sense of disgruntlement starts to emerge, we’re back on the bus, heading to the Islamic Art Museum, for the exhibition “Arabick Roots” (sic), which presents a modest claim for the Arab forerunners of the European Renaissance. A bolder move would have been to question this chronology altogether, but here, as in the former venue, perceptions of local and regional history remain shaped by a Western gaze. In any case, the visit is a short one. We are once more promptly ushered onto the buses. During the drive we cruise past branded structures like the Weill Cornell Medical College, the Qatar National Convention Centre—with its auction-record-breaking Louise Bourgeois spider (Maman, 1999)—and Northwestern University, whilst our guides shower lavish praise on the country’s booming economy.
Charismatic investments notwithstanding, Qatar seems to lack the most basic infrastructure, and some signature skyscrapers cannot make up for what appears to be a total absence of city planning. As soon as I touched down, my driver spent forty-five minutes trying to get out of the airport parking lot; when he finally reached the exit, his pre-paid ticket had expired. Idiosyncrasies abound. Though we are put up at the Sharq Village & Spa (property of the Ritz Carlton), the hotel was built under the airport, and there is no escaping the relentless roar of airplanes taking off. The other thing that strikes me immediately is the excessive solicitude of staff everywhere, which gets burned into my mind as a signifier of social asymmetry. Not to indulge in any Middle-East stereotypes; Qatar is a product of a certain mix of authoritarianism and Western corporate dystopia.
After another stint in traffic, we arrive at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, for the press preview of “Tea with Nefertiti: The Making of the Artwork by the Artist, the Museum and the Public.” Also on view is “Forever Now: Five Anecdotes from the Permanent Collection.” Both shows seek to highlight the plundering of history and the genealogy of Arab modernism. The guest curators, Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath, together with the Museum’s advisor, Dr. Nada Shabout, lead us on a guided tour. The curatorial concept is somewhat flimsy, and the show tries to have it both ways—opening up three lines of inquiry that trace the manifold ways artworks are contextualized, re-contextualized, or instrumentalized, while still claiming that the presentation allows the artworks to “speak for themselves.” Nevertheless, the exhibition is not lacking in interesting works, namely The Body of Nefertiti (3) by Andras Galik and Balint Havas, known as Little Warsaw. Or Susanne Kriemann’s Ramses Files (2007), shown together with David G. Tretiakoff’s A God Passing (2008), both dealing with the removal of the statue of Ramses II from downtown Cairo, which was put into storage while awaiting the construction of a museum that never came.
Yet just as the exhibition is about to open to the public—and before we have a chance to see it properly—we are rounded up and dispatched to yet another location for dinner. During the meal, the PR staff consistently stifles communication and surveys conversations. I notice that two journalists are locked in an argument with the “team leader” but fail to hear what is being said. Another journalist calls them the “thought police” and notes that American agencies, in particular, are notoriously sinister. Though I am here to review the Mathaf show “Tea with Nefertiti,” by the end of my first day it has become clear that the behavior of the PR agencies—Polskin Arts & Communications Counselors and Bolton & Quinn, which organized our trip on the behalf of the QMA (Qatar Museum Authority)—is clearly more deserving of coverage.
On day two, I’m woken up by the voice of one of the PR persons urging me to present myself at the breakfast briefing with Ed Dolman, executive director of the QMA. As I signal my reticence, the command is reiterated. When I point out that whilst I have no use for another PR session, and I could use a bit more sleep, I am told in a menacing tone that there is no opting out of the full press itinerary. “I will quote you on that,” I reply, causing the PR enforcer to shriek, “We are not quotable; we do not represent the QMA. Is this clear?!” Very little is clear, I must say, except that in Qatar indentured servitude (4) is not only consigned to construction workers, but seems to inform the whole ethos of contractual transactions, tainting all social relations.
The press is left with plenty of unanswered questions: what is Mr. Dolman, the former head of Christie’s, acquiring and for whom? Do these collections belong to private sponsors or to the state? Where, if at all, can that line be drawn? And what are the motives behind it all, other than the personal “vision” and “passion” of Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani and Sheikha Al-Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani?
When I ask Mr. Dolman what kinds of works he is busy acquiring, he replies, “We have a focus on the region.” But geographical provenance does not the content of an artwork make. Thus allow me to fabricate the answer he failed to provide: we buy famous artists who display a certain cynical attitude toward the self, which is the proper expression of pop psychology but that, under the conditions of globalization and Western imperialism, currently masquerades as human nature.
As Martha Rosler once wrote, Pop, whatever its virtues, is not an art of critique but of celebration. And its current iteration, expressed in the works of, amongst others, Damien Hirst—the next big solo show the QMA is hosting—is the off-shoot of market demand. Also, if one considers that—as a friend of mine recently noted—increasing privatization of funding might ultimately return art to pre-modern motifs, like portraits of patrons, it comes as no surprise that one of the current shows the QMA Gallery is hosting is a portraiture exhibition by Yan Pei-Ming.
The bottom line is that one cannot simply shrug off questions of policy and privilege. Social concerns are not a secondary question, something external to art’s essence. Art is not a metaphysical entity; it’s a product of social relations. Though we tend to forget it, the world of art we inhabit is correlated with the rise of the modern state and its institutions, such as the university, the museum, and the parliament. The democratic privilege of being a speaking subject is concomitant with the modern regime of representation through which the repressed, the overlooked, or the neglected have found their voice.
And I suspect that the staff of Mathaf would fundamentally agree with my assertions, as they struggle to make contemporary art from the region visible and to address the current ideological distortions. In fact, we find ourselves back at Mathaf once more, for a symposium with Dr. Mercedes Volait, a researcher at the CNRS, Paris, on the migration of Mamluk architectural motifs. By now, the PR agency reps have managed to antagonize most of the press corps and the curators apologize profusely for the treatment we met. Somehow, under the press handlers’ radar, we get invited to Sheikh Hassan bin Mohammed bin Ali Al Thani’s private residence for dinner. It turns out to be, oddly, the only moment in the whole trip when we manage to get in touch with people actually based in Doha. After a bit of small talk, I realize my position is not beyond reproach. It is way too easy to fly in and out and claim the moral high ground. And yet change cannot be effected by someone who refuses to get involved, but only through the continued efforts of those who, however troubled, manage to strike a compromise.
Obviously most of the issues I address here are not uniquely Qatari problems. In Europe, too, there are those who believe that purchasing some charismatic mega-fauna will magically bring an ecosystem into existence; or that educating the taste of the well-heeled will bring about social change. As European countries withdraw their cultural subsidies one by one, the Gulf is virtually the only place where funding for art is available and abundant right now; thus its impact in production, most notably in the region. But wouldn’t it be infinitely more enlightened to implement structural measures instead of flashy ones? And shouldn’t the conditions for the development of some be the conditions for the development of all?
1. Typically, a company fronts the money for a worker’s entry visa in the form of a loan. What is rarely disclosed is that the interest accrued on this debt will grow exponentially, leaving the worker virtually unable to pay it back. The employers are thus in a fine position to intimidate and systematically prevent workers from leaving the country.
2.And this is according to the Qatari government itself, whose Statistics Authority made those numbers public in 2009.
3. The work—which was shown in the Hungarian Pavilion at the 2003 Venice Biennale—consists of a bronze sculpture of a female body intended to be united briefly with the 3,300-year-old limestone head of Queen Nefertiti, which had been on permanent display at the Egyptian Museum in Berlin.
4. An indentured servant is, not incidentally, a person who is bound to work for another for a specified time especially in return for payment of travel expenses and maintenance.
- 1Richard Serra, 7, 2011. Framed by the Doha skyline. Courtesy of Qatar Museums Authority (QMA).
- 2Richard Serra, 7, 2011. With view of the Museum of Islamic Art in the background. Courtesy of QMA.
- 3Entrance to Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Education City, Doha, Qatar. Courtesy QMA.
- 4Entrance hall of Mathaf: Arab Museum of Contemporary Art, Doha. With portraits of the Emir and first wife by Yan Pei-Ming. Courtesy QMA.
- 5J&K, Horus and Anubis in Islamic Cairo, 2006. Photo, 75 x 112 cm. From the exhibition "Tea with Nefertiti: The Making of the Artwork by the Artist, the Museum and the Public" at Mathaf. Copyright and courtesy the artists.
- 6Ala Younis, Nefertiti, 2008. Installation. From the exhibition "Tea with Nefertiti," Mathaf. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Ahmed Kamel.
- 7Mode in which the young Memnon’s head (now in the British Museum) was removed by G. Belzoni, ©The Trustees of the British Museum.
- 8At the opening of the exhibition "Tea with Nefertiti," Mathaf. Courtesy Jorell Legaspi, Mathaf.
- 9Yan Pei-Ming, Zinedine Zidane, 2012. Watercolor on paper, 56 x 38 cm. Copyright the artist and ADAGP, Paris. Photo: André Morin. Courtesy QMA.