LINES IN THE SAND Sheikha Al-Mayassa dis­cusses how Qatar is re­draw­ing the map of the art world

Harper's Bazaar (UK) - - Contents - By LAURA THOMP­SON Por­trait by HARRY CORY WRIGHT

Sheikha Al-Mayassa – a fe­male royal in a na­tion where women must walk a care­ful line in the cul­tural land­scape – has po­si­tioned her­self and Qatar at the epi­cen­tre of the global art world with as­ton­ish­ing dis­plays of un­ri­valled pur­chas­ing power. In an un­prece­dented in­ter­view, she re­veals her be­lief that, re­gard­less of lo­cal tra­di­tions or taboos, art can play a vi­tal role in bridg­ing so­ci­etal di­vi­sions

We have al­ways to be sen­si­tive to our cul­ture, be­cause the idea is not to pro­voke, in terms of go against our be­liefs – but to pro­voke a thought. To make peo­ple think of what is hap­pen­ing around the world,’ says Her Ex­cel­lency Sheikha Al­Mayassa, the daugh­ter of the for­mer Emir of Qatar, a mem­ber of the royal house of Al­Thani, and – as the chair­per­son of Qatar Mu­se­ums – at the age of just 36, ar­guably the most in­flu­en­tial per­son in the art world to­day.

It has taken a long time, in fact years, to set up this in­ter­view. The Sheikha – oc­ca­sion­ally seen but very rarely heard, a mother of four whose pho­to­graphs usu­ally show her with a cov­ered head – trav­els so ex­ten­sively that it has been al­most im­pos­si­ble to find even a free morn­ing in her di­ary. Even­tu­ally we meet in Venice, where she is vis­it­ing the ar­chi­tec­ture Bi­en­nale with her fam­ily.

I wait for her in an ex­quis­ite suite at the Ho­tel Cipri­ani (oc­cu­pied, I am told, by the Clooneys dur­ing their pro­longed wed­ding cel­e­bra­tions), from whose small shut­tered bal­cony one can see, across the soft la­goon, the match­less façades of San Marco. This seems a par­tic­u­larly ap­pro­pri­ate mise en scène. Venice, af­ter all, is his­tor­i­cally where Europe met Asia, and where the mer­can­tile met the ma­jes­ti­cally artis­tic. Money, pa­tron­age, cul­tural hunger: these are the el­e­ments that in­spired art in the past. It is hard to re­sist com­par­i­son be­tween those great pa­trons of the quat­tro­cento, gen­er­at­ing power but also beauty through their lim­it­less largesse, and the Al­Thani am­bi­tions for the glob­alised 21st cen­tury.

I have been ex­ten­sively briefed for this en­counter. Not just with in­for­ma­tion, but with how to ad­dress the Sheikha (as ‘Your

Ex­cel­lency’); to re­mem­ber that she is roy­alty, and that there­fore this is com­pa­ra­ble with in­ter­view­ing the Queen; not to make phys­i­cal con­tact. It is fair to say that what with the ad­vice, the two­strong ret­inue in at­ten­dance and the large amounts of ir­re­sistible Ital­ian cof­fee, I am some­what jit­tery.

So it is dis­arm­ing – to say the least – when into the suite strides a lovely young woman with an out­stretched hand. ‘Hi,’ she says, and curls her­self el­e­gantly into a chair. Her ap­pear­ance is a ca­su­ally lux­u­ri­ant blend of East and West. She wears a loose white tu­nic, a pair of de­lec­ta­ble Burberry train­ers and – most no­tably – her hair is long, lus­trous and free. Is this a sur­prise? Af­ter a mo­ment, not in the least. Sheikha Al­Mayassa, af­ter all, is the supreme cos­mopoli­tan: ed­u­cated in the US and Paris, flu­ent in English and French, her ac­cent a quick, en­er­gised blend of Ara­bic and Amer­i­can. For all this, one is very aware of who she is, per­haps be­cause she is so un­self­con­scious about it: she has the di­rect, fric­tion­less, ut­terly gra­cious man­ner of the truly re­gal, and the re­lax­ation of the truly pow­er­ful. She does not pull rank, be­cause she has no need to do so.

In­stead she talks like any­body with an ‘aren’t I lucky’ job, ea­gerly dis­cussing the artists with whom she has worked – re­call­ing the thrill of meet­ing Louise Bour­geois just be­fore her death (‘We were ne­go­ti­at­ing the ac­qui­si­tion of Ma­man, and it was the last piece the artist had of that scale, I think’), or the amaz­ing work that Mona Ha­toum does with lo­cal ar­ti­sans (‘So there’s al­ways some­thing unique to the lo­ca­tion she is in’). At the same time, as be­fits her po­si­tion, the Sheikha refers to this job as a ‘re­spon­si­bil­ity, work­ing for my gov­ern­ment’. She has also de­scribed her­self as a civil ser­vant.

Yet the truth is that she stands at the heart of an art world that has, through­out the past decade, had its el­e­gant cage rat­tled by the rest­less Mid­dle East, which is seek­ing to diver­sify its econ­omy while oil and gas can still pay for any project it chooses.

Abu Dhabi, for­ti­fied by the re­as­sur­ance of fa­mil­iar cul­tural ‘brands’, has cre­ated its own do­mes­tic off­shoots of the Lou­vre, the Guggen­heim and the Bri­tish Mu­seum, rather as one might set up con­ces­sions within Har­rods. Qatar (which in­ci­den­tally owns Har­rods) is do­ing things its own way. And, as di­rected by the Sheikha, the Qatar Mu­se­ums’ strat­egy is for­mi­da­ble: an in­tri­cate blend of ac­qui­si­tion and de­vel­op­ment, in which tra­di­tion is hon­oured and the fu­ture fear­lessly grasped. It was es­ti­mated by Bloomberg that Qatar Mu­se­ums has an an­nual ac­qui­si­tions bud­get of around $1 bil­lion. Ac­cord­ing to Art + Auc­tion mag­a­zine: ‘Sheikha Al­Mayassa has the re­sources of an en­tire coun­try at her dis­posal.’

And what a coun­try. Qatar’s oil and gas re­serves are so abun­dant as to make it the rich­est state in the world in terms of GDP per capita. Its stag­ger­ing spend­ing power has spread so deep and wide (Har­rods was prob­a­bly bought with loose change) that it was easy to give cre­dence to the ru­mour that Sheikha Al­Mayassa had, in 2015, paid $300 mil­lion for Gau­guin’s When Will You Marry? – thus mak­ing it at the time the most ex­pen­sive paint­ing in the world. The New York Times has since re­ported that the ac­tual price was $210 mil­lion. Nev­er­the­less, the pur­chase was hugely sig­nif­i­cant; as was the na­ture of the ru­mour. So too was the $250 mil­lion said to have been paid for a paint­ing in the Cézanne series The Card Play­ers; the $20 mil­lion for a Damien Hirst pill cabi­net; and more be­sides. These spend­ing flur­ries have ap­par­ently abated, to the point where one al­most won­ders if they were done as a state­ment of in­tent (the works them­selves are not at present on pub­lic dis­play). Yet there is no doubt that this elu­sive Arab princess, whose name be­gan to fea­ture on power lists some four or five years ago, has shaken up the in­ter­na­tional art world.

The Al­Thani fam­ily are no­table col­lec­tors, to the point where they have been com­pared with the Medi­cis. Yet the em­pha­sis, in con­ver­sa­tion with the Sheikha, is al­ways upon the pub­lic di­men­sion: on the vi­tal im­por­tance of de­vel­op­ing the cul­ture of her coun­try, with its pro­found Be­douin past and gilded yet un­easy re­cent his­tory; and of us­ing art as a means to look out­wards. ‘At least art al­lows for a di­a­logue,’ she says. The rep­u­ta­tion of Qatar is so con­flicted – the shad­owy links with the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood, the stealthy man­ner in which it won its bid for the 2022 World Cup – but the de­sire, as ex­pressed by the Sheikha, to cre­ate a cli­mate of en­light­en­ment is benev­o­lent, im­pres­sive and surely very im­por­tant.

A re­mark­able num­ber of ini­tia­tives have been launched, among them Mathaf: Arab Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art, which show­cases

‘I do be­lieve, that cul­ture gives you the op­por­tu­nity to talk about things you may find dif­fi­cult’

many pieces owned by the Al-Tha­nis, and an artist-in-res­i­dence pro­gramme housed within the for­mer Civil De­fence build­ing, which has 24 stu­dios avail­able. ‘We thought to our­selves, “How are we go­ing to fill these?”’ says the Sheikha. ‘The first year we had, I think it was 120 ap­pli­cants… So we knew there was hunger and de­mand.’ Mean­while, a space such as the Mu­seum of Is­lamic Art – a su­perb sand-colour build­ing by the Chi­nese-Amer­i­can ar­chi­tect IM Pei, a com­plex­ity of light and shade in the fierce Doha sun, con­tain­ing items of ex­quis­ite his­tor­i­cal rich­ness – is reimag­in­ing the tem­plate of what a mu­seum can be.

The Na­tional Mu­seum that opens next year prom­ises to be equally im­pres­sive, with its as­tound­ing de­sign by Jean Nou­vel: a series of over­lay­ing stone plates, or ‘petals’, based upon the con­cept of the desert rose. So great is the engi­neer­ing feat that ‘we have stu­dents from Har­vard-MIT come to study the build­ing’, says the Sheikha. The build­ing is a procla­ma­tion of pride – ‘The mu­seum fo­cuses on Qatar. Its past, its present and its fu­ture’ – and also cre­ates a very spe­cial in­volve­ment with lo­cal col­lec­tors, Qatari cit­i­zens, by en­cour­ag­ing them to lend pieces for dis­play.

A plaque be­neath an ex­hibit with one’s name upon it? Such a thing would cer­tainly help en­sure one’s loy­alty to the grand con­cept of cul­tural de­vel­op­ment, even among the more con­ser­va­tive sec­tions of so­ci­ety, even when art takes the in­tensely con­tem­po­rary form of

Richard Serra’s four stand­ing steel plates, en­ti­tled East-West/West-East and in­stalled in the mid­dle of the Qatari desert. The set­ting was Sheikha Al-Mayassa’s idea. ‘Some peo­ple loved it, some peo­ple didn’t like it – but now it’s re­ally pop­u­lar. If you go it’s al­ways busy – there are al­ways peo­ple there, tak­ing pho­tos, hav­ing pic­nics….’ A Stone­henge for the mod­ern age: en­abling such a thing is, I would sug­gest, a small legacy all of its own.

Still, one is bound to ask cer­tain ques­tions, the kind that can­not re­ally be put. For in­stance: will the fath­om­less riches that the Sheikha can com­mand dis­tort the art mar­kets and – rather as Arab money did within horse-rac­ing – turn the merely very rich into im­po­tent by­standers, clutch­ing their auc­tion cat­a­logues and watch­ing yet an­other trea­sure go to the Mid­dle East? Is the art world shift­ing ir­re­vo­ca­bly to­ward coun­tries where the money flows like just an­other nat­u­ral re­source and the pop­u­la­tions are over­whelm­ingly young (around 60 per cent of Qataris are un­der 30)? If so, what will that mean for art it­self? Will new styles be forged and grow, or will es­sen­tial free­doms be lost? To put it bluntly, can a sump­tu­ous naked Rubens be ex­hib­ited in a Mus­lim coun­try?

Al­most by def­i­ni­tion, art equates to open­ness in the West. Sheikha Al-Mayassa her­self would prob­a­bly sub­scribe to this idea, but she works within a so­ci­ety that may not al­ways agree. With re­gard to this – what one might call the ‘Rubens prob­lem’ – she says: ‘I do be­lieve, yes, that cul­ture gives you an op­por­tu­nity – or an ex­cuse even – to talk about things that you may find dif­fi­cult.’ In 2012, for in­stance, the Sheikha staged an ex­hi­bi­tion of pho­to­graphs by Brigitte Lacombe, en­ti­tled ‘Arab Women in Sport’. Some of these are shock­ing to Western eyes – the net­ball play­ers swad­dled from crown to an­kle – yet oth­ers show girls in nor­mal Ly­cra ath­let­ics kit; and one is struck by the dar­ing, the mea­sured po­lit­i­cal skill, that fa­cil­i­tated the dis­play of such calmly con­tro­ver­sial im­ages. Es­pe­cially when one sets this against the work of Hana Al-Saadi, the young sculp­tor who cre­ated a dancer fig­ure dressed in bal­let shoes and a body-con­ceal­ing abaya. ‘I think she was ex­plain­ing her story. She used to do bal­let, and at a cer­tain age what you have to wear as a bal­le­rina con­tra­dicts our lo­cal tra­di­tion.’

The Sheikha has show­cased work by a large num­ber of women, in­clud­ing Mona Ha­toum, Etel Ad­nan and Louise Bour­geois. Nat­u­rally I ask about her own in­ter­est in these artists, and whether their work has any spe­cial sig­nif­i­cance to her as a woman in a Mus­lim coun­try. Her re­ply is given with a charm­ing know­ing­ness. ‘You’re right, we have done a lot of ex­hi­bi­tions with fe­male artists!’ She smiles. ‘But to be hon­est, when we look at the ex­hi­bi­tions, we think about the con­tent and the story. Less about the gen­der – sup­port­ing male artists is just as im­por­tant to us as sup­port­ing fe­male artists.

‘Women have made tremen­dous leaps into dif­fer­ent sec­tors, and hold many im­por­tant roles in Qatari so­ci­ety. Ac­tu­ally, at Qatar Mu­se­ums we try to at­tract more men to this field, be­cause I be­lieve the per­cent­age of women work­ing here is con­sid­er­ably higher.’ While the Sheikha is re­fer­ring to the peo­ple who work in the mu­se­ums, her re­marks have a wider ap­pli­ca­tion, in that his­tor­i­cally art has not been seen as a male pro­fes­sion here. Ar­ti­san skills such as tent-mak­ing (show­cased in the Na­tional Mu­seum) were gen­er­ally prac­tised by women, and now the fast-de­vel­op­ing Qatari art scene is – and this may come as a de­light­ful sur­prise – very much fe­male-led. The Sheikha cites Al-Saadi, who won a com­pe­ti­tion to spend time in Damien Hirst’s stu­dio af­ter he ex­hib­ited in Qatar; and Aisha Nasser Al-Sowaidi, who fash­ions odd, touch­ing takes on do­mes­tic ob­jects, such as teddy bears, and is fea­tured at this year’s Lon­don De­sign Bi­en­nale.

‘I’m very proud of what they’ve achieved. Like Aisha, she’s a sin­gle mum, and she’s very ded­i­cated. She’s young, she works hard, she works long hours. And she’s a good role model for other women in the re­gion.’

Given that the world is cur­rently some­what hooked on de­spair, a woman like Sheikha Al-Mayassa – a phi­lan­thropist who seeks to bridge cul­tural di­vi­sions, and uses power in the pur­suit of progress – does en­cour­age a sense of hope. ‘I think one has to be op­ti­mistic’, she says. There could be no bet­ter sym­bol of this than the ex­hi­bi­tion, open­ing in No­vem­ber, with which the Mu­seum of Is­lamic Art marks its 10th an­niver­sary: ‘Syria Mat­ters’, a cel­e­bra­tion of the beau­ti­ful, sub­tle, in­tri­cate her­itage of a coun­try whose cul­ture has been so bru­tally and crassly at­tacked. Civil­i­sa­tion, says such an ex­hi­bi­tion, is frail. Nev­er­the­less it is stronger than ig­no­rance.

As to the longer-term fu­ture: ‘When cen­tres of economies and pow­ers change, then the artis­tic direc­tions also change. So – I don’t know what the sit­u­a­tion is go­ing to be in 100 years from now, but I think things are con­tin­u­ously evolv­ing.’ A state­ment open to in­ter­pre­ta­tion, for sure. But if the art keeps com­ing, so will the hope.

For more in­for­ma­tion on Qatar Mu­se­ums, visit

‘Women have made tremen­dous leaps into dif­fer­ent sec­tors in Qatari so­ci­ety’

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