Building on the Foundation of Mathaf

Dr Abdellah Karroum led Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art for eight successful years bringing to Doha works of modern and contemporary artists from the Arab world dipped in cultural and historical connections. As he passes on the baton of responsibility to the next director, Dr Karroum reflects on the inexhaustible works that were brought to the public eye with his active contribution.

Waiting is Forbidden 2006 – 2008 Enamel on steel 30 x 40 cm Photo def image Courtesy Galerie Max Hetzler, Berlin Installation from Mona Hatoum: Turbulence which wasshown at Mathaf in 2014 that brings to the forefront the diversity of Mona Hatoum’s work over the last 30 years.

Abdellah Karroum had eight fulfilling years at the helm of Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, which is celebrating its 10th year of existence putting the focus on works of art from that part of the region which has always been neglected due to its cultural politics. He brought to Mathaf, exhibitions of artists  who has put the focus on colonial regimes, identities, gender inequalities, politics of the region and so on. While he gave Doha-ites a glimpse into the regional artistic scene, Karroum also worked on Mathaf’s prolific permanent collection, adding to its wide acquisition of impressive and historic works of regional and local artists, all the while dipping into his academic background working as a curator for large biennales. Karroum helped create a research-based educational conference in Doha, to connect art and museum professionals from around the world to those working here.

As he now moves on to continue to work behind the scenes for Mathaf as the special curatorial advisor to Sheikha Amna Al Thani, director of the National Museum of Qatar and acting deputy CEO of museums, collections and heritage protection for Qatar Museums. He also plans to take on various independent curatorial projects. His role as the Director of Mathaf will be passed on to Zeina Arida, another prolific expert in Arab arts, culture, and heritage and specialising in photography, archives and modern and contemporary art, has since 2014 has led Beirut’s Sursock Museum as that institution’s director.

Looking back at his highly successful career graph at Mathaf, bringing the best from the region and then putting the focus on the Arab artists in a way that connected them with the public, Karroum reflects on the success of it all: “The success of Mathaf resides in its inclusive model, working between the local and the global, between the independent initiative – see Project Space and Mathaf Talks – and the national strategy – large scale exhibitions and acquisitions. While putting art at the centre, it always kept education programmes and tools as a measure that allows adjustment in defining the future,” he says.

Paravent from Mona Hatoum 2008 Black finished steel 302 x 211 x 5 cm Photo def image Courtesy Galerie Max Hetzler, Berlin.

He says that Museum Directors build on the vision of the museum and continues its legacy, with each new person bringing in their particular sensibilities without disrupting the original brief. He says, “Museums don’t like disruption, but they interact with history, and they need continuous innovation.”

“The process of making an exhibition is deeply rooted in a dialogue that is connecting the works of art, the world that inspired them and the potential audience without which art would remain an object of speculation. The work of art here means the perception of the artist and his interpretation of multiple and complex issues to create forms able to provoke thoughts. The ultimate experience of the work of art goes beyond the time and space of the visit at the museum, especially on works that are both discursive and poetical.”

SCALE sits down for an indepth talk with Dr Abdellah Karroum dipping in to his expertise to broaden our readers’ perspectives.

SCALE: How crucial was curating this last exhibition of Kader Attia, the very political, humanist work? Will this be your last curatorial work for Mathaf? In the 10 years of Mathaf and your 8 years as Mathaf Director, which was your personal fav work for the messages they conveyed.
Dr Karroum: On Silence is a major exhibition for both Kader Attia, Mathaf Museum, and me, as we are all very much invested in the decolonial discourse. Attia is dedicating works of art that are constantly interrogating the paradox of history, and the current crises. Mathaf is a museum that deals with the notion of modernity and investing in giving value and justice to artistic productions and movement from a large region that was often unfairly disregarded in cultural politics, including by the post-colonial regimes.

From Kader Attia: On Silence, on going exhibition at Mathaf.

I think each exhibition I curate is unique, and On Silence concentrates on the combination of ideas that I think art institutions should invest in. The secret of such work resides in the hard work, the process of accompanying artist to the limit of their dreams and in challenging the institutional possibilities and making educational exhibitions.

It has been a privilege to lead Mathaf as Director for the last 8 years. As we celebrate the 10th anniversary of Mathaf, I am proud of the museum’s achievements and progress made with the team during my tenure across the collection, exhibitions, publications and engagement, in Qatar and internationally. I am confident that the museum will continue to flourish under the new Director Zeina Arida, as a museum director is a contributor to a much longer history.

Just like I was building on the foundation of Mathaf — the collection that was already well structured and geography defined — the next leader will build on my legacy, and the following director will build on the next.

The current Covid-19 pandemic made us take decisions to adapt to the new normal, at personal and professional levels. At a personal level, I understood that I needed to move closer to my family between Spain and Morocco. This allows me to easily travel within the Mediterranean geography while I stay strongly connected to Doha and the exciting projects that I am working on with Qatar Museums. I don’t believe in aleatory chance, but I believe in ambition and destiny. The next exhibition that I am curating for Mathaf is with Palestinian artist Taysir Batniji and it is titled No Condition Is Permanent. This said, I’ll continue contributing to Qatar Museums and Mathaf’s development, while working in other part of my art world in Africa, Europe and other continents.

SCALE: Can you take us through your history of working with Mathaf and the numerous exhibitions worked on.
Dr Karroum: When I joined Qatar Museums in 2013, Mathaf was already very active with a fresh team and strong investment in developing exhibitions. I came from academia and curating large-scale biennials, from one side, and from field research and creating spaces from the other side – Le Bout Du Monde Expeditions and L’appartement 22, for example. The first encounters with H.E. Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad Al Thani and H.E. Sheikh Hassan Al Thani were instrumental in deciding on the development of Mathaf. I realised that we were already working with the same artists, at different scales of course, with great awareness of the role of art in society. My contribution was naturally to connect the advanced artistic research with the people’s museum experience. The very first exhibition I managed was Adel Abdessemed’s L’age d’Or (2013), which was curated by Pier Luigi Tazi. Since then I worked with many artists and curators on ambitious programmes-see Mathaf’s past exhibitions– always supported by Qatar Museums and Qatar Foundation, including the Annual Conference that I proposed as the backbone of research, in collaboration with Doha Institute For Graduate Studies, and the Project Space that allowed many young artists and curators to experiment in Education City and Doha’s context. One aspect I could work on for another decade is the expansion of Mathaf Collection by adding finding historical and influential works, and by completing acquisitions with emerging artists form a large region of shared interest, at times where humanity if facing important challenges that need to be addressed with collective intelligence and building bridges.

SCALE: Has Mathaf in its role as the modern museum of the region, kept to its promise of bringing the most prolific artists to Doha? How satisfied do you feel looking back at the 10 years of Mathaf?

Work of M F Hussain which was shown at Mathaf a few years ago, before the pandemic.

Dr Karroum: Very satisfied, hugely so. I feel proud when I see that the museum equally looked at artists beyond gender. We organised solo shows for Adel Abdessemed, Etel Adnan, Farid Belkahia, El Anatsui, Dia Azzawi, Huguette Caland, Saloua Raouda Choucair, Inji Efflatoun, Mona Hatoum, MF Husain, Shirin Neshat, Mounira Al Solh, Yto Barrada, Raqs Media Collective, Wael Shawky, and made projects with Manal AlDowayan, Bouthayna Al Muftah, Asli Cavasoglu, Ghada Al Kandari, Hana Al Saadi, and many others.

If you look at the art scene in Africa, Asia and the Gulf region, you’ll easily realise the rise of many initiatives that changed the parameter of art production, surpassing the official states’ galleries. In addition, the independent art structures and artists’ run spaces rapidly took over the most important and interesting art world networks, including periodical exhibitions and the market. Finally, the appearance of new vocabularies that made sense for local and international institutions.

The success of Mathaf resides in its inclusive model, working between the local and the global, between the independent initiative — see Project Space and Mathaf Talks — and the national strategy — large scale exhibitions and acquisitions. While putting art at the centre, it always kept education programs and tools as a measure that allows adjustment in defining the future. The best way to look back at the 10 years of Mathaf is to read the numerous publications and artists’ book that we always wanted to be the institutional memory for future generations and the best tool for sharing knowledge at a transnational level.

SCALE: Can you pick the most engaging and popular 10 exhibitions by Mathaf in the last 10 years. 

In March 2014, Mathaf presented an exhibition of the work of Lebanese-American visual artist, poet, playwright and essayist Etel Adnan in All Her Dimensions, that is curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist.

Dr Karroum: I think each exhibition at Mathaf was popular on a specific aspect, not necessarily with the number of visitors, but with their capacity to engage the people of Doha. While solo shows look at artists’ life and work within art histories, group exhibitions include more interpretation and connections with the political and the social. Shirin Neshat’s show Afterwads (2015) was very popular within young women who found the works inspiring on issues of identity and freedom that they are already addressing in their society. Wael Shawky’s show Cabaret Crusades and Other Stories (2016) was a discovery for many people interested in rethinking historical narratives.

Suspended 2011 High pressure laminate, metal chains dimensions variable 35 swings each 45 x 65 x 0.32 cm Photo Hugo Glendinning Courtesy White Cube From Mona Hatoum’s exhibition at Mathaf.

Dia Azzawi’s exhibition was simply a monumental demonstration of what art can do with history and reflecting on politics. Saloua Raouda Choucair’s exhibition was a lesson on sculpture and a women’s strength in leading the field of her art at both aesthetic and conceptual level. Revolution Generations (2018) investigated important moments of change in the history of modern and contemporary art, specifically from the 1950s post-independences era to the pre-revolutions 2000s, revealing artistic movements developed in the region in response to the absence of freedom of expression. Lived Forward (2020) exhibition dedicated to Qatari art scene from 1960 to 2020 was a fantastic project and entry point to writing art history at a national level. Jassim Zaini, Faraj Daham, and Ismail Azzam, where all exhibitions that focused on artists with huge contribution to the local art scene. I would like to end this list by mentioning the great artist and poet Etel Adnan In All Her Dimensions (2014) exhibition that was a survey of her work and life.

All Images Courtesy: Qatar Museums