Since the beginning of time, Arab women have unified families, grounding them with the pillars of faith and community. Now, marking the historic reunification of the GCC countries, royals from Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE come together for the first time in four years, in our February issue, to show their people – and the world – that they are one. Below, meet Qatar’s Sheikha Reem Al-Thani, who is bringing Arab art and museums into the future.
When the Qatar National Museum closed in 1996, Sheikha Reem Al-Thani was among the last group of students to visit. For more than a decade after, there were no museums in the country – until the spectacular IM Pei-designed Museum of Islamic Art opened in 2008, heralding Doha’s arrival on the international art scene. Doha has since grown at a dizzying pace from sleepy pearl-fishing village to oil-rich metropolis, to a cultural capital with a proliferation of museums, galleries, and public installations.
Sheikha Reem has not only witnessed this transformation, but also grown up alongside it, from starting her career as an intern to her current role as director of exhibitions at Qatar Museums. She represents a new generation of Qataris that will see art as an integral and everyday part of their lives, thanks to Qatar Museums’ use of technology and arts engagement. After completing her undergraduate studies in Doha, Sheikha Reem was the first Qatari to be accepted to the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design in the US for a master’s in interior architecture. Upon graduating in 2015, the question arose as to whether she would work in New York, or go back home. Her answer was definitive. “I knew that there was so much more opportunity in my country; there was potential for development and growth,” she says. “I didn’t want to be creating work outside and not do it for my own country.”
In 2010, Sheikha Reem interned at Mathaf, the Arab Museum of Modern Art, prior to its launch. At the time, the project was still a secret. She began researching youth culture and digital experience and then went on to become the first museum exhibition designer in Qatar. “Working at Mathaf was like finding the missing piece for me. It was powerful. Mathaf will always be home for me, and the place where I fell in love with Arab art,” she recalls fondly. Mathaf played a crucial role in advancing the discourse on Arab contemporary art, shifting the focus from Eurocentrism. Globally, Western art is more championed and promoted, perhaps for commercial reasons, to the detriment of art from other cultures. “It struck me that we don’t learn about Arab modern art at all. There’s only one artist mentioned in the books, one chapter about Islamic art, but nothing that even scratches the surface of the wealth of history that exists,” Sheikha Reem shares emphatically. “I wanted to bring it out; I wanted to show people what was happening and that there’s so much more that we do not see from an Arab perspective; we only see through a Western lens.”
For a generation of young Arabs, this was revelatory. On the tails of the Gulf reunification, Sheikha Reem sees potential for wider collaboration with neighboring countries and their growing arts communities. “What we share in common with other cities is the commitment to nurture a cultural landscape that will preserve our rich heritage and promote a deeper understanding of and appreciation for Arab art,” she says. “Unity to me is a celebration of shared culture and traditions that is preserved for future generations.” And what feels cutting-edge about the trio of landmark Qatar museums, in addition to their embrace of previously forbidden pre-Islamic art and global contemporary art, is the way they are conceived and curated with the use of technological advances. The National Museum of Qatar, designed by French architect Jean Nouvel and opened in 2019, was built on the same ground at the national museum of Sheikha Reem’s childhood. Far from being a totem of big-name acquisitions, the museum documents the country’s history not through paintings and sculptures, but with 21st century lights, sounds, and visuals.
As a relatively young institution, Qatar Museums was readily able to adapt during the pandemic. In the last year, its teams presented several exhibitions both physically and virtually in partnership with Google Arts & Culture. It also has a distinctive public art scene that includes work from both local and international artists. These include Desert Horse at Hamad International Airport by Qatari artist Ali Hassan, Richard Serra’s striking East-West/West-East installation in Zekreet, and Damien Hirst’s The Miraculous Journey.
“Last year saw digital becoming more widely accepted in areas that may have been a bit more conservative and behind the curve,” says Sheikha Reem, who considers it a chance to further museums’ function as cultural community centers that provoke conversations about art and society. “As I see it, going digital offers two opportunities for cultural institutions: growing our audience beyond the confines of our physical museum space and enhancing our mission to preserve and share the stories of the content we curate and preserve for future generations.”
Originally published in the February 2021 issue of Vogue Arabia
Assistant photographers: Nidal Aboukhadra, Ahmed Moustafa
Style: Fahad Alobaidly
Location: Qatar National Museum
Production: Laura Prior