I must say, I did not know what to expect when I planned to see art in the Middle East. Yet, I had this feeling that it would be different and somehow help me understand what is happening in today’s socio-political world. On my journey, I first attended the Dubai Art Fair. I have visited many art fairs in different cities, yet was surprised to realize that this is the ultimate boutique art fair. Set in the Jumeriah hotel, a beautiful venue, with the booths set up not in the typical rectangular hallways, but on a diagonal, almost in a diamond shape, the shape that one would associate with the Middle East. The fair stretches onto an outdoor balcony where one is able to easily leave the fair for some fresh air and lounging outside. Along with great food, the whole affair is upscale and well done. And the art – the best Middle Eastern galleries, sprinkled with top notch Western Galleries, all with a bend towards the Middle East. This was great way to see what is happening in the region and realizing that there are many other niches than what one typically sees in the West.

From there, I spent a day in Doha. It amazes me that I had a 5-star art day in the desert of Doha.  Yet it should not be surprising as the Sheika Al-Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, daughter of the Emir of Qatar, has been listed as the most influential person in the art world, as said by Art & Auction’s Top 10 list in their ninth annual Power 100 issue.  Sheika Al-Mayassa is the chairwoman of the Qatar Museums Authority, an organization overseeing the country’s ambitious cultural initiatives. And seeing what I saw in one day in the capital city, ambitious she is…

We began our day with an exquisite, elegant exhibition by Louise Bourgeois, which included sculptures, works on paper and a huge spider sculpture inviting you into the space. Within the same complex, we were able to see highlights of the upcoming Christie’s Dubai auction. Then we went to the two major museums, first the Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, where they had a major Cai-Gui Gong show. On display were some of his major paintings, some new works made out of porcelain, major sculpture installations, as well as a room full of videos that illustrate the gunpowder performances. It was a fantastic show. What must have been a major budget, was all funded by the Mathaf Museum.

We ended the day at the Islamic Museum of Art, which was designed by IM Pei. It is one of the most gorgeous museums that I have visited. I was told that Pei, now at 91, was wooed out of retirement and spent five years researching Islamic Art, before he began building the museum, creating what he felt was the “essence of Islamic architecture”.  The museum is noted to be the one of the world’s most encyclopedic collections of Islamic art as it houses manuscripts, textiles, ceramics and other Islamic art works assembled over the last 20 years. Within this framework, Murakami was invited to install a solo exhibition, yet found the Pei space not large enough. Instead, they built a ‘temporary’ space, which looks like an airplane hangar, for his museum exhibition. If anyone had seen Murakami’s LA MOCA show, you would say this show made that exhibition look small. There were rooms after room of his paintings, then a warehouse space of his sculptures with a tent like structure where one could sit on beanbags and view his videos. It was a massive space. Around the interior wall of the building, Murakami created an 80-foot long painting that covered the entire circumference of the wall. Coming out of the Earthquake disaster, this was Murakami’s depiction of Japanese history. It took 2 years to paint, and I was told over the last 3 months, they had staff working around the clock to finish it. A tour de force!

There is more to this story as one learns more about the Sheika Al-Mayassa and her cultural initiatives. I watched her lecture on TED talks. She comes across as elegant, smart and in touch with her role. She discussed how she wanted to make the global regional. How she wanted to be sure to keep what makes her country unique present – ie traditional clothing – while also becoming a part of the international conversation. After seeing the art she was able to bring to her country, her ambitions are impressive and she has become involved with the international cultural conversation in a major way.  And I feel that tradition is a glue that keeps families and generations together. Yet, in saying that, as an American woman, I found it difficult to be seeing this forward thinking, progressive art, art that is commenting on issues of today, standing next to a woman who is wearing the traditional dress of a burqa and hijab, the head covering. Her eyes were not even showing, only barely seen through a veil.  I understand that it is traditional and I am bringing to this view a personal interpretation.  Still, it was difficult to witness and felt in opposition with the Sheika’s interest in being a part of the present.