Rethinking the Arab capital through art

Cliche East vs West paradigms need to yield to the notion of art beyond borders.

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Picasso-Giacometti exhibition in the Fire Station in Doha, Qatar can be visited until May 21, 2017 [Al Jazeera]

What is an exhibition of Picasso and Giacometti doing in a fine arts museum in Doha, Qatar – an Arab capital – at a time when Syrian children are gassed to death and millions of Arabs are forced into mass exodus from their homelands?  

The exquisite exhibition capably curated by Catherine Grenier and her colleagues at the Fire Station in Doha is a rare gem to behold and yet, when you are done with the exhibition and walk out into the nondescript Doha neighbourhood where the venue is located, you might be tempted to wonder in what way is this exhibition different here, in these trying times for the Arab and Muslim world, then if it were in Paris, London, or New York. 

There are a number of reasons one might consider as to why such an exhibition is perfectly legitimate to hold in a peaceful and prosperous Arab capital.  

The curatorial insights into the relationship – both personal and artistic – between the two European artists is, in and of itself, a legitimate artistic occasion for this exhibition anywhere in the world, including Doha. Such exhibitions could be both educational and inspirational for local and regional artists and communities.  

The exhibition also dovetails with the “artist in residence” programme at the Fire Station, and its associated project of Studio of Qatar in Paris that can indeed offer trans-regional space for cultivating a new generation of aesthetic sensibilities.  

Although many of the more than 120 items exhibited at the Fire Station come from Musee national Picasso-Paris and Fondation Giacometti, there are also items from other private collections. There is no questioning the artistic merit of such an exhibition anywhere in the world, including in Doha. 

What and where is an Arab capital? 

The first time I visited Doha was for the opening of the prominent Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang’s exhibition titled Saraab (Mirage) at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art on December 4, 2011. On that occasion, the artist staged his colourful gunpowder shows as the Arab world from one end to another was revolting against tyranny. It was quite a jarring spectacle.  

The question today, more than half a decade later, still remains what exactly is the defining character of an Arab capital, as evident in the kinds of art exhibitions in which it invests its resources.  

Two easy and facile answers must be immediately dismissed: “In an Arab capital, you should only exhibit Arab arts”, or equally absurd, “in an Arab capital, you must continue to be beholden to European or European-approved global artists (ranging from Picasso and Giacometti to Cai Guo-Qiang and Shirin Neshat, etc.)”.  

The more difficult and judicious answer is in the balance between the two: respect and admiration for European and European-approved art and at least an equally principled commitment to Arab and regional artists – from Turkey to Iran, India, Pakistan, and well into the extraordinary modern and contemporary African art beyond the aesthetic reach of Europe and European approval.  

Rethinking “influence” 

As it happens, alongside with the Fire Station exhibition of Picasso and Giacometti, there is a monumental retrospective of the eminent Iraqi artist Dia Azzawi in two locations in Doha, of which I have already written admiringly.  

It is a known fact that Azzawi was deeply influenced by Picasso – so much so that I would venture to say the link between Picasso and Azzawi (both aesthetically and politically) is in fact far more organic and immediate than the link between Picasso and Giacometti.  

To detect that extraordinary link, you need not spend two years studying the two, as the distinguished curator of the exhibition at the Fire Station reports to have done, in order to make the case for the link between Picasso and Giacometti. 

To see the link between Picasso and Azzawi all you have to do is to spend two minutes looking at Azzawi’s masterpiece “Sabra and Shatila Massacre” (1982-1983), which was so clearly inspired by Picasso’s “Guernica” (1937).  

OPINION: When nations fall their artists rise

The link between “Guernica” and “Sabra and Shatila Massacre” and therefore, the organic link between Picasso and Azzawi (that extends the site of Spanish Civil War to the US-led invasion and destruction of Iraq) would have also opened up the connection between the subjects of their respective iconic works and brought Europe and the Arab world together through deeply traumatic moments in history.

Prosperous and peaceful Arab capitals like Doha, Dubai, Kuwait City, or Muscat have a unique historical opportunity to redefine the Arab capital in a manner that is neither Eurocentric nor Europhobic.


Prosperous and peaceful Arab capitals like Doha, Dubai, Kuwait City, or Muscat have a unique historical opportunity to redefine the Arab capital in a manner that is neither Eurocentric nor Europhobic; neither retrograde nativist nor rootless cosmopolitan. 

Exposure to masterpieces of European art can be made, with erudite and responsible curatorial thinking, integral to a renewed critical organicity in any Arab capital.  

Cliche-ridden and totalising narratives, such as “West versus East”, or “Tradition versus Modernity”, or “Nativist versus Global”, must judiciously yield to far more critical thinking focusing on the manner in which art and culture, just like people and their dreams, cross borders with the force of destiny. 

Those brave Syrian, Iraqi, Afghan, African, and other refugees who have packed their meagre belongings and precious children and dared the dreadful seas and treacherous terrains to march from war-torn neighbourhoods towards an uncertain future in Europe have already radically re-territorialised the dubious metaphors of “East and West.” 

To reimagine the artistic heritage of nations worthy of the nobility and courage of those refugees, and the gushing wounds of brutalised countries like Syria, museums and art exhibitions are lagging far behind the traumatic border crossings of Arab and Muslim migrants and refugees redrawing the global map.

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.