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Mathaf: Cai Guo-Qiang’s Saraab

On this blog, Marhaba has previously posted about volunteering at the Mathaf to aid Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang in creating his gunpowder art pieces. And now we are very happy to announce that the exhibition is open!

Marhaba was invited along to take a sneak peak on Monday. Curator Wassan Al-Khudairi said that she was excited “Mathaf is contributing to international dialogue” – which is very impressive considering the art gallery is only a year old. The first exhibition was an overview of modern Arab art; looking at the journey of Arab artist and seeing how their cultural identity is intertwined. After that, Mathaf turned its eyes east and looked at a cultural exchange with Asia, with a particular emphasis on the maritime trading routes of the Silk Road. Mathaf wants to inspire its audience to think about the context and process of making art on this scale and has involved the community in creating Cai Guo-Qiang’s gunpowder pieces. The exhibition is called Saraab, which means “mirage” in English.

This is Mathaf’s first commissioned exhibition and also Cai’s first solo exhibition in the Middle East. There are fifty works of art and 16 newly commissioned pieces on display.

Guo-Qiang is an important presence internationally, having created his gunpowder explosion events in places as diverse as the Gobi desert and a German military base and also in his own country, where he was in charge of the special effects at the Bejing Olympics last year.

Guo-Qiang said that the 50 day installation period was his longest ever. He tried to get a better understanding of the sociopolitical ties between China and Qatar, drawing inspiration from China joining the World Trade Organisation in Qatar. As he pointed out, however, transforming that into artwork isn’t easy! Guo-Qiang said that the charms of the Arabic world are mysterious and he is not sure if in his sojourn here he has learned more or less. What he wanted to do was to find a key to open the porthole to the Arab world and his artwork is Qatar seen through a Chinese lens.

Guo-Qiang’s interest lies in the Islamic heritage of his hometown of Guangzhou. The Silk Road was very important in the development of Arabia and also left it’s mark on China. As a child, he used to cycle to the Muslim cemetary and the epitaphs on the gravestones stuck with him; “The present life is just the joys of delusion.” And in a way, his art is partially transient, the Black Ceremony (in a post coming soon!) featured explosions that will live forever on in the documentation of a hundred blackberry and iPhone videos on facebook/twitter, but on the actual site the explosions took place? Nothing will remain except dust.

Guo-Qiang said that “hometown is in my heart” and he hopes to return to his place of origin, but he pointed out that its impossible to go back to the hometown of your memory. The Arabs ancients cannot return to their hometown, and he empathises, as an artist he’s “always in his homeland and always remains a foreigner”. He transcribed fragments of the epitaphs in their Chinicised Arabic script onto boulder from Guangzhou and shipped them to Qatar, for a spiritual homecoming. They stand, carefully positioned according to feng shui, outside the Mathaf building, leading you in. They are the first exhibit, called “Homecoming.”

The most unexpected exhibit is called “Endless”. On walking into the misty room, you can make out a couple of dhows floating in a large pool. Dhows are part of Qatar’s cultural heritage and were working boats up until the end of the pearling industry in the 1930s, they can now be seen on the corniche. Dhows are originally from India, even the teak wood they are made from is Indian; further tying the Middle East with the East. They were originally introduced and used in the Gulf due to the silk trade on the Silk Route.

This piece is called “Route”. Laid out on the floor, gunpowder has been carefully laid out to create a map of the world, with particular attention paid to points of interest. Then Guo-Qiang has painted in Mandarin and English places names, making it multilingual as well as international. It’s a beautiful map, laid out on a bed of rocks sourced locally from around Mathaf.

The most ambiguous piece is called “Flying Together”. Models of several falcons and a camel are suspended from the ceiling, to an extremely dramatic effect (but don’t worry, there’s no taxidermy at work here!). The artist wants to make it unclear whether or not the falcons are attacking the camel or helping to make it fly.

It really is an incredible and slightly shocking sight to see. Camels and falcons are two of the symbols that automatically bring the Middle East to mind, and to see them embroiled together, hoisted above your head, is slightly disturbing and really stays with you.

img_0153And now onto some art made with gunpowder! Below we have a tribute to Arabic calligraphy; the word ‘fragile’ in Arabic has been burnt onto porcelain.

Creating art with gunpowder seems contradictory; creating art with something used to destroy, but the juxtaposition only highlights the beauty of what is left behind in the explosion’s wake. The porcelain tiles which were made in China and shipped over, are beautiful and intricate, sharp but brittle (we were advised not to touch as it might cut us) and the gunpowder has created something delicate and destructive that is both Chinese and Arabic.

img_0161The piece below called “Memories” was inspired by a trip Guo-Qiang took to Souq Waqif. He had never used material before in any of his gunpowder pieces and so this one was a bit of an experiment, but it turned out very well. Clothing is a very distinctive part of any culture, and in Qatari culture the women wear black and the men where white, making it an ideal subject for an artist who specialises in working with gunpowder. Guo-Qiang bought aabiyas and folded them on the paper and scattered gunpowder around them and then carefully ignited it. The figures seem ghostly and it’s difficult to tell whether they’re male or female; they look like characters from the past.

img_0140

This work is called “99 horses” which has significance in both the Middle East, as there are 99 names for God in Islam and in Asia, too. Little golden horses are suspended from the air, casting a hazy shadow over the paper, making the horses look like ghosts running through the desert.

img_0165These are just a few of the art installations and pieces that are in Saraab; enough to get your interest! Marhaba recommends that you head over to Education City and visit the Mathaf. The exhibition costs 25QR to see. Visit Mathaf website.

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