Doha, Qatar -  At the age of 60, Hu Zhijun never expected to become an artist.

"I'm just a peasant,'' said the now 64-year-old sculptor with greying hair and gentle eyes, while standing in front of his creation entitled Sculpting Contemporary Chinese Art History. The work, consisting of 600-odd clay sculptures displayed on sand-covered terraced mounds, towered more than two metres behind him.

Arranged in long rows, Hu's miniature clay people, animals and structures depict everyday scenes of mining, cooking, farming, singing and playing.

Hu began sculpting out of grief. His wife's death left him with "hands full of angst". Sculpting - working with the earth as he had done for so many years as a farmer - gave him a sense of purpose and peace, he told Al Jazeera.

Hu makes his international debut in Doha's Al Riwaq Art Space as one of the artists participating in the exhibition What About the Art? Contemporary Art from China, where his artwork greets visitors at the entry hall.

The exhibition, which opened on March 14, is curated by Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang, who devoted three years putting this large-scale show together.

Born in Hunan, China, Cai has received international acclaim over the past several decades, with exhibitions and installations using a variety of materials such as gunpowder and fireworks, as well as massive theatrical displays with animal replicas. In 2008, he served as the director of visual and special effects for the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics.

Artist Hu Zhijun has molded about 600 clay sculptures for the What About the Art? Contemporary Art from China exhibition [Anna Nigmatulina/Al Jazeera]

Sponsored by Qatar Museums, and chaired by Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani as part of a year-long cultural partnership between Qatar and China, the exhibition boasts the largest contemporary Chinese art collection to be presented in the Middle East, according to the organisers.

Hu's figurines, each roughly the size of an adult hand, are inspired by a wide selection of artworks. In the words of the curator, they "reinterpret the individual works of various artists, and narrate the history of contemporary Chinese art".

Cai asked Hu to review different forms of contemporary Chinese art, including videos, paintings, installation and more, and to reinterpret these as clay sculptures for the exhibition. It took Hu about two years to make the figurines. 

"[Hu's] amateur style carries the raw energy of art," which is what the exhibition strives to capture, Cai said. It's also why he selected Hu as one of the artists to be featured in the exhibition. 

Creativity first

Cai commissioned a total of 15 Chinese-born artists to focus on creative exploration for the exhibition.

"Lots of attention is given to the sociopolitical context of [contemporary Chinese art] and the skyrocketing market price of the artworks," Cai told Al Jazeera.  "Less attention is given to the [artists'] unique individual creativity and their unique individual artistic method and methodology."

The goal of this exhibition, Cai said, "is to open up this free platform … for the exhibit artists to fully express their unique artistic vision".

Cai pointed to the work Freedom, an installation by artistic duo Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, which takes up the space of a two-storey house.

It is an enormous aquarium wherein a large fire hose heaves and undulates freely with the pressure of a powerful stream of water being pumped through it. 

Visitors watch the fire hose pumping with water inside a tank entitled 'Freedom' at Al Riwaq gallery [Anna Nigmatulina/Al Jazeera]

"Freedom is quite a sought-after subject for many artists," Cai said. "But most important is how you use your artistic language to effectively express this notion of freedom and to present it in such an overwhelmingly powerful way."

The exhibition's works offer a multi-sensory experience; each one invites the audience to engage with it in a different way.

One highlight in the collection is the award-winning video game Journey, which visitors can play along with a few other games on consoles while seated on comfy chairs.

In the game, the player sets off on a journey toward a distant mountain in a fantastical three-dimensional world.

The game allows the participant to explore the surroundings in a "spiritual pilgrimage … that is a metaphor of life", according its creator, 34-year-old Jenova Chen. "Players are never at risk of failure and the accompanying immersion-breaking anxiety," Chen writes in the exhibition book.

 Visitors to the museum can play the game of Jenova Chen at games consoles [Anna Nigmatulina/Al Jazeera]

Qatari artist Hana Al-Saadi, who is a fan of Journey, said she was surprised but pleased to find video games at an art exhibition.

"When you experience playing Journey, it changes your mindset. In fact, the game makes you forget all about your problems and concerns from everyday life, leaving you relaxed for the next two hours of gameplay," Al-Saadi said. 

Another installation is Jennifer Wen Ma's The Furthest Distance in Paradise Interrupted. Situated inside a small dark room, it immerses the audience into "a mental and psychological space", said Ma.

Ma, who was the chief designer for visual and special effects at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, invites the visitor to be the "traveler" through an experience of lost love with the sounds of her melancholic operetta and a display of moving shadows inside a room framed by metallic mirrors. Reflected in these mirrors, the visitors become the actors who journey through the Eastern landscape painted upon this background, which is also "a shimmery mirage of paradise in the distance, a utopia one is searching for," the artist explained.

Two glass pendulums - one black, the other white, representing the male and the female - strive to reach each other as they swing back and forth, but never cross paths - a yin and yang in perpetual dance. Their actual union would mean their mutual destruction, explained the artist, as their glass vessels would simply be crushed at high speed.

Jennifer Wen Ma's The Furthest Distance in Paradise Interrupted [Anna Nigmatulina/Al Jazeera]
Jennifer Wen Ma said she invites the visitors to be travellers in 'a shimmery mirage of paradise in the distance, a utopia one is searching for' [Anna Nigmatulina/Al Jazeera]

'Unique artistic language'

Cai explained that although the exhibition eschewed sociopolitical issues, it does not mean that they do not matter to the artists.

"Issues come and go. There are always new issues emerging, but what is more important, and what is eventually left in history, is how you effectively use your individual unique artistic language to respond to these issues," he said.

In selecting the artists, Cai said he focused on individuals who "consistently concentrated on pursuing their own unique artistic language".

One artist, Huang Yong Ping, chose to tackle a prevailing current issue in his work titled Wu Zei. A huge, seven metre-tall octopus frames the ceiling like an oversized chandelier and winds its tentacles around the columns in the room. Yet, although intimidating in its own right, the giant is trapped in pollution - rubbish sticks to its tentacles.

Lesley Gray, a PhD student of museum studies at Qatar University College London campus, who attended the exhibition on its opening night, said she was "impressed by the range of issues explored in the pieces - especially environmentalism and sustainability, which are some of the most pressing issues of our day. I like that contemporary artists make us face somewhat uncomfortable realities."

 Huang  Yong Ping's Wu Zei tackles the issue of environmental pollution [Courtesy of Qatar Museums]

Chinese-Arab connection

Cai is no stranger to Qatar museums and said he was glad to be back in the country. His first solo exhibition as an artist in the Arab world, titled Saraab, debuted in the country in 2011 at Qatar's Mathaf Arab Museum of Modern Art.

Each of the exhibition artists has acknowledged Qatar, or the wider Arab world, in their works in some way.

One truly unique installation titled Moon Garden explores, among multiple themes, the coexistence of the fragile and delicate with the harsh and hard-edged.

Artist Liang Shaoji utilised 30,000 silkworms over three years to create his work.

The worms spun their silk directly on to broken shards of mirror and glass spread carefully on sand-covered ground representing the Silk Road, as well as onto plexiglass panels that frame the jagged glass pieces.

The juxtaposition of the soft white silk strands lining the panels also "creates a dialogue" with the installation lights to give the illusion of delicate moonlight shining through over a harsh desert-like environment, Liang explained. 

The artist said people always react with awe and appreciation to his work, especially in China, where silk production is an age-old tradition.

"People are fascinated by this new interpretation of silkwork," Liang told Al Jazeera.

Artist Liang  Shaoji  utilised 30,000 silkworms over three years to create his work [Anna Nigmatulina/Al Jazeera]

Qatar and the patronage of arts

As the chairperson of the Qatar Museums Authority (QMA), Sheikha Al-Mayassa, the sister of Qatar's Emir, was named the art world's most influential personality in a 2013  Artreview article, which said "the head of Qatar Museums still wields influence in the country’s drive to reinvent itself as a cultured, outward-looking knowledge economy". Bloomberg reported that her spending budget topped $1bn in 2013. 

Yet, the recent decline in oil prices has led to lower spending in the country, including in the arts sector, and Qatar Museums has also reportedly cut back on spending.

"Qatar Museums continues to promote global cultural dialogue and provide a wide range of activities and opportunities for visitors to engage more deeply with modern and contemporary art, while offering Arab perspectives on the worldwide art scene," said Sheikha Al-Mayassa in an official statement on the exhibition.

Qatar has been promoting various cultural exchange initiatives for a number of years. The bilateral exchanges started in 2012 with a collaboration with Japan, when  Qatar Museums featured the work of Japanese artist Takashi Murakami.

Artist Hana Al-Saadi, who has recently graduated from art school and hopes to have her own exhibition in Qatar one day, said she has little opportunity to visit galleries abroad as her family are not interested in the arts, and will not allow her to visit a gallery without a family member.

She said she is grateful to Qatar Museums and Sheikha Al-Mayassa for their efforts to make international art accessible in Doha.

Lucy Cheung, a journalist from Centon province in China who visited the exhibition, said she felt honoured to see the collection of Chinese contemporary art in an Arab country. 

"I can see this quite strong connection between the Arabic civilisation and culture and the Chinese civilisation. They are both ancient ones.

"It is quite exciting to see and to know to have the opportunity to showcase the current artists of China who are the true voice, and not interfered with by any state voices, but independent voices, and see how they progress and have this heritage and burden of the ancient civilisation to find their path. It's interesting to see how this will impact on the artists in Qatar," Cheung said.

Hu's figurines were inspired by both Chinese and Qatari artists [Anna Nigmatulina/Al Jazeera] 

At the bottom right-hand corner of Hu's work, a small clay father and two children stand in front of a mosque with an earthen crescent moon on its roof. The little girl grins as she holds the sides of her skirt.

"I made this in Doha," Hu said proudly. "And this one over here is the mother," he said pointing to a miniature stately woman sitting in a clay chair.

Although Hu was excited to be in Doha to present his work, he said he was new to the art world and was in awe of the other artists. 

"For me, creating artwork is a source of joy and I will continue to pursue it for the rest of my life. If I live until 100 years old, I will not stop making art."  

Source: Al Jazeera