At first disturbing and controversial, public art in Qatar is becoming for many people an acceptable means of provoking debate and making political and social statements.
“When Qatar Museums started improving the public art scene in 2013, there was a volcano of things at the same time,” said Layla Ibrahim Bacha, senior art specialist at Qatar Foundation. “Suddenly we were moving from decorative pieces at roundabouts to rotten cows and burnt chicken. So when you ask the public about their reaction to this, I think the answer is very simple: It was too much.”
In 2013, a series of 14 bronze sculptures chronicling the gestation of a fetus inside a uterus from conception to birth, by the controversial British artist Damien Hirst, created a public uproar. The pieces, first installed at Sidra Medicine healthcare facility in 2013, remained covered for five years. In the same year, Qatar hosted Hirst’s first solo retrospective exhibition in the Middle East, titled Relics, featuring pieces like decomposing cows and sharks preserved in formaldehyde.
L’age d’or, an exhibition by Adel Abdessemed, opened around the same time at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art. It included a video featuring a line of chickens against a wall of fire, which attracted a lot of criticism.
A five-meter bronze statue of the French footballer Zinedine Zidane head-butting the Italian player Marco Matezarri in the 2006 World Cup final by the same artist was taken down from the Corniche in Doha two weeks after its installation because of the strong reactions it caused on social media.
‘A Learning Path for Everyone’
Bacha, who oversees Qatar Foundation’s public art strategies, collection management, and commissions of major artworks, says that you can’t dictate what the public thinks of an artwork or how they interpret it, but you can give them context. (See a related article, “Young Art Executive Has a Key Role in Qatar’s Public Art Scene.”)
“It’s a learning path for everyone. It’s all about us learning, the public learning and telling the public why those artworks are here and what are the stories behind them,” she said. “Now we can see that the public is more open to view new designs and themes because of all these experiences.”