Posted by on January 14, 2011 in Blog

The 21st century has seen something of a reputation flip for a few of the small emirates in the Arabian Peninsula, particularly Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Qatar. Once sandy flyovers that barely registered on the radars of the jetsetter crowd, these tiny states had become something of an ultra-luxury must-see in the early 2000s, especially the former two; opulent Meccas of materialism, as it were, of baroque proportions, offering fantastic (and fantastically expensive) choices of seven-star hotels, European couture, and decadent, leisurely activities (indoor skiing, anyone?) all amidst the heady exoticism of the Arabian gulf. Soon enough, the Gulf became highly a popular and conspicuous travel destination – for those who could afford it.

But if you think of the Gulf and imagine Paris Hilton and Victoria Beckham drinking $1,000 Krug out of the Holy Grail, at least a few of these countries, through various ventures, want you to broaden your image of opulent Arabia, namely in the realm of fine art. At the end of last year, Qatar opened Mathaf: The Arab Museum of Modern Art and it has created quite a bit of buzz. The museum was designed by French architect Jean-Francois Bodin and will be home to thousands of pieces of contemporary works by artists from all over the Arab world and the Middle East. According to an article by the Los Angeles Times, “the Middle East…has emerged as a hot spot for the international art scene.”  In addition to the opening of Mathaf, Abu Dhabi will open a branch of the Louvre, the iconic French museum of fine art, as well as a Guggenheim gallery. These last two have garnered controversy from those who perceive the branches as a commoditization of high culture.

It is difficult to know for sure, but Mathaf’s raison d’etre appears to be more earnest than those accusations suggest. Not just an attempt to lure more western tourists with the tony things westerners enjoy, Mathaf has charged itself with accumulating a most comprehensive collection of challenging and important Arab contemporary art. Whether or not it will be a success in monetary terms is yet to be seen. Despite that, these Gulf nations deserve kudos for their artistic efforts.

Photos courtesy of Mathaf Arab Museum of Modern Art

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