Learn from Qatar / Swalif: Qatari Art between Memory and Modernity

This article itself is an introduction to my own attempt to "learn from Qatar." Learning in this sense is not a "looking back" or "looking down," so much as it is a looking across, an opening to a conversation. The hope is to turn away from the hierarchical discourse of tradition and modernity, and towards the humility of dialogue. One of the main themes of this attempt will be conversation itself with a look at the exhibit, "Swalif: Qatari Art between Memory and Modernity." (Swalif itself is an Arabic word that "suggests friendly, informal conversations and stories.") I will also be exploring modern and contemporary art from the region more generally, as well as those architects whose visions have been one of learning from Qatar, such as I.M. Pei and Jean Nouvel. (Given that Pei was one of the architects originally criticized by Venturi, Brown and Izenour, it is worth seeing how his modernist vision has changed over time!) As I approach these works, I will do so with the humble, conversational engagement that allows for learning as a reciprocal adventure.

 

Over the past decade, a remarkably complex discussion of modernity and the Arab world has occurred side by side with the various diatribes about a "clash of civilizations" or the "backwards Arab mind." While authors of the latter camp have insisted that a victory must be achieved by either the Arab world or the modern West, more nuanced discussions have focused on how cross-cultural learning can call into question the assumptions and life choices of all peoples. For example, Pakistani-born, U.S.-based anthropologist Saba Mahmood has written that her work with women in Islamist movements in Egypt led her to question the secular leftist values she had so long championed and lived by: "In short, it has compelled me to leave open the possibility that my analysis may come to complicate the vision of human flourishing [secular-left politics] that I hold most dear, and which has provided the bedrock of my personal existence." Mahmood stands by her commitments to various forms of equality, but she no longer insists that the politics and religious views of the modern West form the necessary grounding of those politics. Mahmood stands in a tradition of thinkers including al-Biruni, Montaigne and Rousseau who found in other ways of life not simply oddities to be studied, but truthful modes of being that called into question one's own settled attitudes. Such is the route taken by many modern artists, regardless of their geographic origin. Modernism as an injunction to, in Ezra Pound's phrase, always "make it new," requires an imagination that is restless with inherited forms and habits. Indeed it is well documented that much of so-called Western modernism drew its influences from global cultures – from the African and Cambodian masks that influenced Picasso and Modigliani to the abstract and geometric patterns from Islamic art that influenced the work of Klee and Matisse. This documentation itself – and the controversial meaning of it – has not been merely done in European or American universities. As Nada M. Shabout points out in Modern Arab Art, there is a long-standing discussion in Arabic scholarship in the writings of Afif Bahnassi, As ̔ ad Orabi and others about such issues. But as Talal Asad reminds us in his important work Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity, the volatility of the category "modern" does not remove its political significance: "The important question, therefore, is not to determine why the idea of 'modernity' (or 'the West') is a misdescription, but why it has become hegemonic as a political goal, what practical consequences follow from that hegemony and what social conditions maintain it." This, too, is equally true of modern art. The fact that "modernism" is not an entirely Western phenomenon, does not erase the fact that non-Western artists are often placed in one of two strictures: either to capitalize on their ethnic status and present 'traditional' works for tourist consumption, or modernize their work to appeal to an international audience. Like a Procrustean bed, modern art forces people either to stretch to conform to certain standards, or to cut off the excess of their actual condition in order to remain "pure." This problem is to a large extent generated by how we conceive of the relation between tradition and modernity.

 

photos by Jan De Cock

 

Contrary to standard accounts, tradition and modernity do not confront each other. Tradition exists, and modernity exists. They interact as does a grandfather and his grandson: the older is changed by the younger, as the younger is changed by the older. Each rebels, in his own way. Each is entrenched, in his own way. The path out of the bind is not accusations, and, as Asad argues, it is not mere redescriptions. The path out rather is conversation, in its etymological sense of con and verso: turning with. Tradition and modernity turn with each other, to face the past, the present, and the future. And since the past cannot be fully cognized, the future never fully known, and the present never fixed and stabilized, each turns with humility, and with recognition of the other's point of view. Such was the project, from the start, of that great break with the doxas of modernism, Venturi, Brown and Izenour's Learning from Las Vegas. In their respect for the "vernacular," these authors and their students had a conversation with the architectural layout of a city. They accepted it on its own terms while at the same time bringing classical and contemporary methods of analysis to bear on it. Rather than an imposition of form, or a gleeful celebration of complexity, they simply asked what, without judgment, it might mean to understand Las Vegas on its own terms: "There is a perversity in the learning process: We look backward at history and tradition to go forward; we can also look downward to go upward. And with-holding judgment may be used as a tool to make later judgment more sensitive. This is a way of learning from everything." This article itself is an introduction to my own attempt to "learn from Qatar." Learning in this sense is not a "looking back" or "looking down," so much as it is a looking across, an opening to a conversation. The hope is to turn away from the hierarchical discourse of tradition and modernity, and towards the humility of dialogue. One of the main themes of this attempt will be conversation itself with a look at the exhibit, "Swalif: Qatari Art between Memory and Modernity." (Swalif itself is an Arabic word that "suggests friendly, informal conversations and stories.") I will also be exploring modern and contemporary art from the region more generally, as well as those architects whose visions have been one of learning from Qatar, such as I.M. Pei and Jean Nouvel. (Given that Pei was one of the architects originally criticized by Venturi, Brown and Izenour, it is worth seeing how his modernist vision has changed over time!) As I approach these works, I will do so with the humble, conversational engagement that allows for learning as a reciprocal adventure.

 

Artificial dune and the Zigzag Towers photo by Jan De Cock