Qatar (+) or (-) ?

What is currently happening in Qatar is really confusing me!

From excitement to resentment, celebration to incarceration, the day-to-day reporting of Qatari news seems to be bouncing back and forth between its negative and positive poles.

Positive. Carol Vogel’s recent article in the New York Times The Gang’s All There, Talking Art in Qatar. In it, the author discusses what is considered to be Damien Hirst’s largest ever retrospective, entitled Relics, currently on display at the exhibition space Al Riwaq. The Who’s Who of the art world all gathered in this emerging city from top gallery owners (such as David Zwirner), world-known artists (including Jeff Koons) to museums directors (Nicholas Serota from London’s Tate). And of course collectors!

Damien Hirst's sculpture "Hymn" (1999-2005) greets visitors to “Relics” (picture from The Economist)

Damien Hirst’s sculpture “Hymn” (1999-2005) greets visitors to “Relics” (picture from The Economist)

Exhibition View (picture from The Economist)

Exhibition View (picture from The Economist)

Following the footsteps of Eastern Europe and China, the art world’s focus is now on the Middle East. Specifically, Qatar which is perceived as the new place to be in the art world with all the newest contemporary acquisitions. The cultural developments in the arts are shaping a new image and reputation for the city. And the changes are happening at breaking record pace. Yet, the shaping of this “new” identity is constantly oscillating…

Negative. The case of Mohamed Al Ajami.

And there is a question that rings obsessively in the minds of those who wonder
But shall never be answered by the official sources:

If we import all kinds of things from the West

Why can’t we import freedom and the rule of law?

Those are the final verses of the Arab Spring inspired poem Tunisian Jasmine by Qatari Poet Mohamed Al-Ajami. The poem for which he is highly paying the price for … Initially declared a life-sentence in prison by Qatari officials. Charges claimed that he was insulting the ruler Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani and attempting to “overthrow the ruling system.” A couple of days ago, the final verdict condemned him to a reduced sentence of 15 years in prison. Non-negotiable. The decision cannot be appealed and only a pardon from the Emir himself might save the poet from these harsh charges.

Are art and freedom necessarily correlated? In other words, if Qatar eventually becomes one of the major international art hubs, how far will the demand for freedom and expression stretch?

I believe that yes, it will probably be the case for all the artists in the Middle East in general. However, in countries such a Qatar, all art will be acceptable as long as it conforms to the rules of Islam and to the Emir’s regime. The fate of Al-Ajami represents a living warning to all Qatari artists, writers and poets. Will such censorship last in a society widely opening its doors to international culture? Only the future will tell.

For now, the phenomenon of the “fig leaf” has return. Over the history of art, some of the major nudes statues have been subject to this phenomenon. Michelangelo’s David is one of the many examples that received negative feedback when it was first displayed in Florence completely uncovered. The genital area of the statue had to be covered with actual fig leaves to please the audience.

A recent article by Nick Clark in The Independent UK discusses how even Damien Hirst is conforming to the rules when it comes to a Qatari or a Chinese audience. The piece “Saint Bartholomew, Exquisite Pain” (see image below) included in the show at Al Riwaq has been subject to a slight modification from the artist. Indeed, Hirst added the fig leaf to protect the genital parts of the sculpture. The original piece was completely denuded. While Francesco Bonami, curator of the show refuses to admit that this addition was intentional he however acknowledges that some of the most controversial pieces of Hirst were excluded from the show.


The very nature of contemporary art and the function of the artist are both being questioned here. Should the artist change his vision and his art depending on the taste and norms of his audience?

P.S: Take Action and help free Mohammad al-Ajami


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