A Surgically Implanted Camera And More At New Arab Art Museum

December 29, 2010

NPR Staff

The tiny Persian Gulf nation of Qatar is often overshadowed by its neighbors. But the country is gaining its own reputation -- as a player in the art world.

Qatar is on an ambitious construction schedule to build some half-dozen museums by 2016. The newest of these is the Mathaf, the Arab Museum of Modern Art. And unlike the Guggenheim in Dubai or the Louvre in Abu Dhabi, the Mathaf is not a branch of a Western museum.

It will be home to more than 6,000 pieces of modern and contemporary Arab art. More than 200 of these will be on display initially, some of which push traditional cultural boundaries.

Wassan al Khudairi is the director of the museum. She's tired of talking about perceived censorship in Arab art instead of the actual artwork. Many people assume that modern Arab art is somehow innately different than Western art.

"Arab artists were engaging with the modern art movement in the West," she says. "What makes it Arab is that the artist is coming from an Arab context. And so you will find works that are abstract, cubist, surrealist ... You know, it's about an engagement with what was happening at that time, and not an alternative modernity."

The Mathaf has commissioned 23 contemporary artists to produce original pieces of art. Wafaa Bilal is one of those artists; he had a webcam surgically implanted into the back of his head. The camera takes a picture every minute and sends those images to the museum.

Bilal believes photographers hold tremendous power to shape images, depending on how they look through the lens. "I wanted to lose that subjectivity over the image and arrive to the objective image that is not influenced by the power of our eyes," he says.

The Mathaf's opening has been anticipated not only in the region, but in the rest of the world as well. Shadi Hamid, the research director at the Brookings Institution's Doha Center, thinks the museum may be a sign of shifting power in the region.

"It's not just about diplomacy or traditional foreign policy," he explains. "It's about getting involved in the arenas of culture, the arts and education, and this has been the area where Arab countries have been lagging." Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.