Qatar's public art program is turning the country into an open air museum

Sarah Foryame Lawler, the Head of Curatorial Planning in the Public Art department at Qatar Museums, speaks to STIR on public art, and connecting people and places.

by Daria KravchukPublished on : Nov 29, 2022

The concept behind the Public Art program at Qatar Museums (QM) was developed under the leadership of Sheikha Al Mayassabint Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani and in line with QM vision of being a cultural instigator. Qatar’s Public Art program is one of the most extensive and ambitious in the world, turning Qatar into an open-air museum with over 100 artworks in and outside of the city. QM’s extensive programme of Public Art demonstrates its commitment to bringing art directly to the people and expanding everyone’s creative horizons.

My Soul Blooms Forever, Ascension of Polka Dots on the Trees, 2002/2022, Yayoi Kusama | STIRworld
My Soul Blooms Forever, Ascension of Polka Dots on the Trees, 2002/2022, Yayoi Kusama Image: Iwan Baan; Artwork © Yayoi Kusama; Courtesy of David Zwirner, Ota Fine Arts, and Victoria Miro

Public art is known to activate spaces in meaningful and accessible ways and to enrich the cultural landscape. Public Art program in Qatar has accelerated due to 2022 FIFA World Cup, but it has always been a key focus within QM working with various stakeholders in order to bring art to the public. The present-day collection speaks to various communities and demographics and resonates with every individual in a unique way. The first monumental international commission took place with Richard Serra’s '7' sculpture in the Museum of Islamic Art’s park and was unveiled in 2011. IM Pei, the architect of the museum, had initially recommended Serra, and in 2014 East-West/West-East was unveiled in Zikreet Brouq Nature Reserve. With the aim of taking art beyond four walls, this became the catalyst to strategically acquiring and commissioning works from Subodh Gupta and Sarah Lucas in 2012 to Tony Smith in 2015, to a massive public art activation at Hamad International Airport with over 15 works situated in and around the airport.

Two Orchids, 2015. Stainless steel, aluminum; Tall Orchid, Isa Genzken | STIRworld
Two Orchids, 2015. Stainless steel, aluminium; Tall Orchid, Isa Genzken Image: © Iwan Baan; Courtesy of Qatar Museums

In addition to the newly opened site-specific art installations by Olafur Eliasson, Fattal and Neto, the nation’s public spaces in Qatar were being transformed into a vast outdoor art museum experience with artworks by Jeff Koons, Ugo Rondinone, KAWS, Yayoi Kusama, Katharina Fritsch, Peter Fischli & David Weiss, Suki Seokyeong Kang, Shilpa Gupta, Shezad Dawood, Shua’a Ali, Faraj Daham, Shouq Al Mana, Monira Al Qadiri and Salman Al Malek, among other international, regional and Qatari visual artists. All of these works were installed before the start of the FIFA World Cup. Making art a part of the everyday life, Qatar became one of the first countries in the Gulf to create a comprehensive contemporary public art programme.

Her Excellency Sheikha Al Mayassa Al Thani has been steering and shaping the Public Art program since its beginning. Through advisory panels, partnerships with entities and open calls, with the help of permanent and guest curators - artworks and artists were selected and discovered. There are various ways through which the works were chosen depending on the context of the project or program. Curatorial Planning Section within the department launches open calls every year, inviting local artists to submit their proposals and encouraging students and early career artists to take part. Recently, Shouq Al Mana and Shua’a Ali were Qatari artists selected through the 5/6 Initiative Open Call.

Tawazun, 2022, Granite, sandstone, limestones, pebbles, Shua’a Ali | STIRworld
Tawazun, 2022, Granite, sandstone, limestones, pebbles, Shua’a Ali Image: © Iwan Baan; Courtesy of Qatar Museums

STIR spoke with Sarah Foryame Lawler, the Head of Curatorial Planning in the Public Art department at QM, where she oversees the local programs, open calls and commissions across the country to enhance community engagement and dialogue. Foryame Lawler commented that “within QM, success can come in different ways: from a dialogue sparked, activating a neighbourhood district, to the local community embracing the work, to a student fabricating locally, to the work being used as intended like a playground or seating, to creating a destination or landmark to even a partnership with an institution.”

Foryame Lawler’s key interest is public art and soft power, particularly on how institution decision making can have short and long-term effects on the local community’s engagement and public value of museums. Replying on a question whether she believes that the public itself should be consulted or have a voice in the selection or in the development of the works of art, she said, "We are witnessing worldwide public art programs shifting more focus on public involvement through collaborations and even public voting, especially programs that use public funding. Public Art is being placed in 'prominent' public locations but also local neighbourhoods, so it is important we keep that in mind when working with artists, stakeholders, and the community. At QM, Public Art is for the public first and foremost and we work with stakeholders who also have further focus such as beautifying spaces, or we work with sculpture artists who aim to create a landmark or celebrate a moment in history. Public art can have various functions and aims so as an institution we can simultaneously instigate dialogue and introduce alternative means of accessing art, while also listening and consulting with the public. We want the art to connect people and places and not to be disconnected.”

Martin Creed, 2019, Neon | STIRworld
Martin Creed, 2019, Neon Image: © Iwan Baan; Courtesy of Qatar Museums

On asking how public art projects affect changes in the fabric of a city or neighbourhood, for instance, the recently unveiled The Modern Playground by Shezad Dawood. “The playground depicts various buildings from Doha such as the Sheraton or Post office set in a new park next to the National Theatre. What we see is that this new park is a new destination for families with children. Another example is through our Jedari art mural program. Most recently we worked with Phool Patti from Pakistan and All India Permit from India to celebrate and revive the truck art form in a local neighbourhood district with a large community from South Asia. Residents could watch and engage with the artists for two weeks witnessing the artists change the fabric of their residential building. The artists spent time getting to know the locals in the community and even incorporating new elements into the mural such as symbols and language to reflect the very people who lived there,” Foryame Lawler explains.

East-West/West-East, 2014. Weathering Steel, Richard Serra | STIRworld
East-West/West-East, 2014. Weathering Steel, Richard Serra Image: ©Iwan Baan; Courtesy of Qatar Museums

One of the newly commissioned public art installations, which has shaken up the press and the art community, was the work of Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson, Shadows Travelling on the Sea of the Day. It explores the role that our perception of the world plays in how we co-produce reality. The 20 circular shelters, three single rings, and two double rings that make up this site-specific artwork appear at first glance to be scattered about the landscape at random. They are, however, positioned according to the axes of a fivefold symmetrical pattern, with the 10 shelters at the centre forming a pentagram, or five-pointed star. The principles behind such patterns were recently discovered by mathematicians in the West although they may have informed some of the sophisticated designs found in Islamic cultures since medieval times. The underside of the circular roofs is clad with mirror panels, so that the curved segment of pipe that supports the roof is doubled into a full ring that links the actual surroundings with the reflected space. Visitors standing in the shade of the roofs may experience a moment of disorientation in glimpsing themselves and their surroundings reflected upside down in the roofs above. 

Turquoise City, 2021, Aluminium, Stainless Steel Mark Handforth | STIRworld
Turquoise City, 2021, Aluminium, Stainless Steel Mark Handforth Image: Iwan Baan; Courtesy of Qatar Museums

Regarding his artwork, Eliasson said, “I hope you will become sensitised to the surroundings as you meander beneath the shady mirrors. Walking slowly – without the protection of a fast-moving, air-conditioned vehicle – you may be able to take in a landscape that is not barren and empty but comprises desert animals, plants, and human beings; stories, traditions, and cultural artefacts; wind, glaring sunlight, thick air, and shimmering heat; semicircles and rings; traces and tracks; and curiosity, fatigue, and wonder. Shadows Traveling on The Sea of the Day is a celebration of all that is here; of everything moving through the space at the time of your visit, of your presence within this natural cultural landscape. It is an invitation to resync with the planet.”

Installation view: Shadows travelling on the sea of the day, 2022, Steel, fibreglass, glass mirrors, Olafur Eliasson | STIRworld
Installation view: Shadows Travelling On The Sea Of The Day, 2022, Steel, fibreglass, glass mirrors, Olafur Eliasson Image: © Iwan Baan; Courtesy of Olafur Eliasson and Qatar Museums; neugerriemschneider, Berlin; Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York / Los Angeles

STIR had a special interest in the behind-the-scenes process of creation of the new installation Shadows Travelling on the Sea of the Day. Foryame Lawler explained that “…it was highly collaborative due to the technical complexity of the project and the location – from technical details to the installation process to even the conservation of the work. Olafur Eliasson and our Chairpersons Her Excellency Sheikha Al Mayassa Al Thani expressed at a recent talk how they had been in discussion for many years to create a public artwork for Qatar going back and forth on ideas and concepts initially starting it all when H.E had seen Olafur’s waterfall installation. The project was in the pipeline for many years from the initial proposal stage. Once a location was decided, testing and technical studies commenced to ensure the art could withstand the harsh climate of the desert especially being made from steel, fibreglass and chromium silvered glass mirrors. The location itself is interesting. Discovered in 1957, Al Jassasiya is Qatar’s most important petroglyph site, with the highest concentration of rock art in the country. Although created hundreds of years apart, the rock art and Olafur Eliasson's artwork are connected in unexpected ways: The rosettes and stars are circular arrangements comprising between five and 13 cups. This composition and the artwork’s plan view arrangement share common geometric principles of multi-axial symmetry and radial patterns.”

  • Her Excellency Sheikha Al Mayassa Al Thani visiting the “Shadows travelling on the sea of the day” by Olafur Eliasson, 2022. Installation view: Northern Heritage sites, Doha, Qatar, 2022 | STIRworld
    Her Excellency Sheikha Al Mayassa Al Thani visiting the Shadows Travelling On The Sea Of The Dayby Olafur Eliasson, 2022. Installation view: Northern Heritage sites, Doha, Qatar, 202 Image: Courtesy of Qatar Museums
  • Portrait of Sarah Foryame Lawler, Courtesy of Qatar Museums | STIRworld
    Sarah Foryame Lawler Image: Courtesy of Qatar Museums

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