Doha museum stakes cultural claim

Doha, Qatar - A few years ago, prices in London auction houses went through the roof - not for the classic modern or contemporary art, but for works from the Islamic world.

Fabulous jewels, manuscripts and ceramics were fetching 10 times their estimate and more, and it soon emerged this was thanks to the al-Thani family, rulers of Qatar, the tiny gas-rich Gulf state.

They had tempted the veteran architect I M Pei - the man behind the glass pyramid at the Louvre - to design one last statement building, a spectacular museum on a purpose-built island in Doha, which would house only the best Islamic art.

Then they went shopping for their collection.

And this weekend the museum opens, a dramatic pile of white limestone shapes inspired by Islamic architecture and full of 800 of the finest examples of Islamic art.

Not long ago, the idea of culture being a reason to visit the Gulf would have made other Arabs laugh. No longer.

The Syrian cultural historian Rana Kabbani sees a political element to the museum, putting Doha on the cultural map.

"I think all the rulers in the Gulf see what they really lack is culture on a grand scale, as a kind of imperial identity. It's a political-cultural lack. They have the means, and they're going for it."

The hope is that - like hosting a Grand Prix or buying a football club - a fabulous collection of art will bring prestige, attract tourists and create a brand.

That's why along the coast, two museums are planned for Abu Dhabi - branches of the Louvre and Guggenheim.

New conversation

But what exactly is the Islamic art in the collection? What can ceramics from southern Spain have in common with metalwork from the Silk Route city of Samarkand?

One thing which links them is the misconceptions about Islamic art held by both east and west.

Designer and writer Navid Akhtar explains: "The conversation tends to go: 'How come you don't paint people? Because its forbidden.'

"There's little understanding of the scriptures or commentaries, or the concept of art, so we're left with a limited conversation.

"There's a lot of figurative Islamic art. And the geometric patterns aren't just pattern."

The Koran has no comment on the visual arts.

The prophet was firmly against idols, but then so were Jews, orthodox Christians and puritan Anglicans at various times.

Many religions mistrust images but their cultures still end up using them - Islam however has had less use for them.

"The Koran is not a narrative like the old or new testament, it doesn't tell a story, a narration you can illustrate," says professor Doris Abouseif, author of Beauty in Arabic Culture.

"The Koran is precepts, it guides but doesn't narrate."

Any museum will show Persian and Indian miniatures, or Arab pottery with figures of animals or people.

They won't be from a mosque, but the figure isn't banned from wider Islamic culture.

'Whole language'

One element Islamic objects have in common is intricate geometric patterns.

Some scholars think this is a craft habit, pure and simple, but to many younger Muslim artists the geometry holds something else.

"Pattern is a whole language of colour, form and shape," says Reem al-Faisal, a Saudi artist-photographer.

"Each colour symbolises a state of the soul or being. It's poetry translated into material elements."

Mr Akhtar agrees: "Many of these things, as well as being objects of beauty, have functional usage, but then hidden beyond that is the sense of transcendence that they create."

The chief curator of the new museum, Oliver Watson, is British, as are many of the staff.

The study of Islamic art is a western creation, which Ms Faisal says is not a problem so long as more Muslims now take up the study.

"I don't care if it's Muslims or Westerners - the problem is that there's not enough research and that's a mistake of the Muslims.

"They should have studied their own civilisation far more, they've been in hibernation for 500 years. There has to be a reawakening - they have to start studying their own history."

Qatar's museum will be just a glittering collection of greatest hits unless it manages to become, as promised, a centre of education and research into the history of this beautiful art.