Dr Abdellah Karroum
Director of Mathaf: Arab
Museum of Modern Art
What should a museum like Mathaf have as its main objective today?
As a leading modern art museum in the region and internationally, and in response to the digital imperative and current global changes, Mathaf is contributing to the debate around the role of museums in a rapidly changing world. The main objective within Qatar is to make the museum part of daily life, from anywhere, and a place where people would want to go and return to, to see art or simply for a social experience. Museums around the world started rethinking their mission years before the Covid-19 pandemic and started becoming incredibly important in the cultural discourse and education systems. The museum economy is not as large as that of media and cinema, and additionally museums are in a more difficult position due to the huge responsibility related to the accumulation of heritage that needs to be conserved for future generations. Media and the film industry are leading in digital transformation, while many museums need to translate their content to make it accessible beyond the conventional spaces of display and contexts of production. I am referring here to the heritage part, the historical collections, and physical acquisitions, because the learning programmes, interpretation and publications of museums are already being conceived within the digital experience with relative success and curatorial control over the outcome.
Can you tell us about your personal involvement in the museum?
I was invited to lead Mathaf in 2013, as the artistic director, and since then the museum delivered some of the most important exhibitions, commissioned major works, and we published well documented books. I am especially proud to have launched the Mathaf Encyclopedia online, produced in collaboration with a continuously growing community of scholars and art curators from Africa, Asia and the Diasporas. You can imagine that such a project is the result of many years of research and development, and it was initiated by H.E. Sheikh Hassan bin Mohammed, in collaboration with Qatar Foundation.
The role of a museum director in the context of Doha is exciting and challenging at the same time, for exactly the same reason: the museum is only ten years’ old and still in the construction phase in terms of its teams and collections, plus we are thinking about expanding the building to host more collections and make them accessible to schools and all audiences.
Mathaf is housed in a former school building. Can you tell us if and how the location and the history of the building have influenced the museum’s content?
This is a good question. This heritage is front of mind and foremost in our narrative when welcoming first-time visitors. Mathaf is organising an annual student art competition involving all schools in Doha. This programme is contributing to the museum’s continuation of the educational function of the building.
Does Mathaf continue to acquire works?
Mathaf is a collecting museum. I can’t elaborate on the details of the acquisition strategy, but I can say that there is importance given to the art histories of North Africa, West Asia and the regions that we are looking at for curatorial research. Building the historical collection is an action that follows the curatorial research. The museum also commissions new works when organising exhibitions. For example, we commissioned seven new works for “Our World Is Burning” that took place at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris in 2020. We also commissioned works by Wael Shawky, Bouthayna Al Muftaf, Yto Barrada, Adel Abidin, to mention only a few.
Can you tell us about some of your recent international collaborations and how important it is to develop such connections around the world?
The fact that Mathaf is dedicated to a large region with a strong historical collection makes it a reference and key partner for any institution that wants to make a serious exhibition with artists from this part of the world. Qatar Museums’ strategy is to expand on its public service, and Mathaf represents artists and art histories from this expanded region because the museum is made with contributions from artists, scholars and curators from this region.
Currently, Mathaf works are included in many shows in the world: Farid Belkahia at Gwangju Biennale in Gwangju, and at Centre Pompidou in Paris; Inji Efflatoun at Tate Modern in London and the MET in New York; Fouad Bellamine at the National Museum in Rabat.
International and transnational solidarity is key for museums today, as we want to have an effective use of resources and give access to larger audiences. We just opened a major historical exhibition, “Moroccan Trilogy 1950-2020”, in Madrid, which is a collaboration between MNCARS (Queen Sofia National Museum Art Centre) and Mathaf. The scale and the depth of this project was made possible after many years of research and cooperation between the two museums concerning the importance of looking at multiple modernities from a decolonial perspective.
Mathaf is also contributing to the Qatar Museums Years of Culture programme, taking place each year in a different country, and this is an opportunity to display historical works from Qatar Foundation, part of the Mathaf collection, as well as commissioning works by emerging artists. We have such plans until at least 2024.
Do you loan any works?
One of Mathaf’s goals is to give value and access to historical collections. Not everyone can travel, especially now, and the museum is open to loan works to art institutions around the world. The outgoing policy is similar to many public museums: it requires guarantees for safety, and it encourages access to the works for educational purposes.
Do you commission any site-specific works for the museum?
This is an essential part of Mathaf. I am smiling because I am thinking about the iconic work “Safina” (2010) by Adam Henein, which was installed when the building was renovated and transformed into a museum. We commission sitespecific works within temporary exhibitions, but outdoors works are part of the Public Art section of Qatar Museums.
Can you tell us more about the museum experience and how temporary shows fit into that?
The collection is the basis of the museum experience. Because of the vast geography and cultural diversity of the region, we created collection galleries in a transversal way, where multiple expressions and styles share the same spaces, and at the same time the overall display offers a non-linear historical narrative. The success of the museum experience for us is when the viewer gets a sense of this diversity and of the complexities in which many works of the collection are produced. Art and history are intertwined, and it is crucial for the museum to always keep in mind this educational goal. The current galleries are titled Women In Society and Portraits of Society In Time Of Change, to name only two.
Temporary exhibitions are not far from this preoccupation and goal. If you look at the Mathaf exhibitions of the last few years – Mona Hatoum, Wael Shawky, Shirin Neshat, Mounira Al Solh, Raqs Media Collective, Yto Barrada, Adel Abdessemed, Huguette Caland – you will always find a strong connection with social, ecological and sometimes political topics. Art is not a world apart. Artists are citizens who have views and are inviting us to look at the world around us while also offering an experience of beauty.
Do you have any content restrictions or form of censorship as to what you can showcase at the museum?
Mathaf is a family-friendly museum. The programmes are conceived to welcome a diverse audience to engage with the collection and take part in the discussion. Artistic learning programmes are created by the Mathaf team and our guest curators and scholars, who are always experts and familiar with our audiences. We don’t have a censorship apparatus.
Can you tell us more about the art scene in Qatar from your perspective?
This is such a wide topic that I could talk about for hours. I have lived in Doha for more than seven years, and in this time I have learned so much about art histories and made so many friends here, among artists, collectors, trustees and families. The art scene in the country is fresh, diverse and rapidly expanding. As you know Qatar is organising the 2022 FIFA World Cup, and it is putting museums at the centre of its development programmes.
To narrow down the topic, I can look at the Qatari art scene as we interact with it from within. Some of the most iconic works in the Mathaf collection are by Jassim Zaisi, Abdelwahed Al Mawlawi and Wafiqa Sultan. I invite you to look at the project “Lived Forward”, curated by Lina Ramadan at Mathaf in 2020, and also at the series of Focus exhibitions with Faraj Daham, Ismail Azzam, etc.
It is important to keep in mind that the most important decade for the art scene in Qatar was the 1990s. Mathaf acted as a kind of template with a residency programme organised by H.E. Sheikh Hassan bin Mohammed in the Madinat Khalifa neighbourhood. Many artists from Iraq, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, and Morocco were invited to Doha and gave workshops, along with local artists, during this foundational period, such as Shakir Hassan Al Said, Ismail Fattaf, Yousef Ahmed, Dia Azzawi and more.
Can you choose an artwork at the museum that personally means a lot to you?
This is a difficult question. I have looked at and worked with so many meaningful works in recent years. If I had to mention only one, it would be “Silent Multitude” created by Amal Kenawy in 2009 and produced for Mathaf when the museum inaugurated its new building in 2010. This prophetic work is emblematic of the generation of artists who emerged in the first decade of the millennia. I call this “Generation 00”, as they created work before the Arab Spring.
Are you collecting from the digital world?
Mathaf’s main mission is more historical, and the collection focuses more on art histories. The current expansion is more geographical than technical. While the digital world is available to all, we also want to make the histories of Africa and Asia available to all in the digital world.
Has the role of a curator changed? Is there any part of your job that still surprises you?
There are no surprises after 30 years working in the field of art curating.
L’appartement 22 is a project you founded in Rabat, Morocco in 2002. Can you tell us how different or similar it is in terms of work and dedication compared to Mathaf?
They are very similar places in a way. If you look at the contemporary artistic programme of Mathaf, you will find a lot of complicity among the artists and curators who are making both the museum and the independent art space. I always recall my first meeting with H.E. Sheikha al-Mayassa, when she asked me to lead Mathaf’s development. I remember expressing my interest in Mathaf, but I wanted to also continue working on L’appartement 22’s programme. Her response was a yes because we are working with the same artists anyway. From that first moment I understood her commitment to art and culture from the point of view of a responsible global citizen. Vision is more important than power, or vision makes power even stronger. Of course, Mathaf is a large public institution with a huge responsibility toward diverse audiences, physical viewers, online visitors, and the people of Doha, but the fundamentals are the same, looking at artists who are looking at life. The educational work that we have been doing at Mathaf is transformational of the art scene and it also contributes to the larger debate about art and its role in society.
Abdellah Karroum has been the Director of Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha since 2013.
Karroum is the founder and artistic director of a number of art initiatives, including L’appartement 22 in Rabat, Morocco. He has also curated numerous exhibitions, such as, most recently, Moroccan Trilogy 1950-2020 at MNCARS (Reina Sofia) in Madrid (2021), Our World Is Burning (2020) at Palais de Tokyo, Paris; Revolution Generations (2018), Shakir Hassan Al Said: The Wall (2017), Wael Shawky: Crusades and Other Stories (2015), Farid Belkahia: Aube(s) (2015), and Shirin Neshat: Afterwards (2014). He was artistic director of Inventing the World: The Artist as Citizen for the Biennale Benin (2012); curator of Sous nos yeux [Before Our Eyes] at La Kunsthalle de Mulhouse, France (2013) and at the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (2014); and associate curator of Intense Proximity for La Triennale, Paris (2012). Other curatorial and research projects Karroum has led include the Sentences on the Banks and other activities at Darat Al-Funun, Amman (2010); A Proposal for Articulating Works and Places for the 3rd Biennale of Marrakech (2009); the R22 art experimental web radio station established in 2007; Le Bout Du Monde art expeditions (ongoing since 2000); and the Editions hors’champs series of art publications established in 1999. He received his PhD in Communication, Art and Performance from the Michel de Montaigne University, Bordeaux in 2001 with a dissertation titled “Nomadic Works: Towards a Post- Contemporary Art”. He is a regular contributor to specialised art publications.