A nighttime view of the Museum of Islamic Art with the Doha skyline (photo by Still ePsiLoN/Flickr)

DOHA ­— The international reputation of Qatar is based on the country’s extreme degrees of wealth and security, underwritten by vast reserves of natural gas which will last beyond the 21st century. The country’s creative culture is a less obvious resource.

The ruling Al-Thani family has collected modern Arab art for decades, and the Duke University–educated Sheikha Al-Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, an irrefutable queen of the world’s major art sales rooms, has brought a succession of blockbuster exhibitions of Western art to Doha. However, a shift in emphasis is beginning to reveal itself. The big shows continue to be shipped in, but there are signs that the Qatar Museums (QM) organization is increasingly intent on fostering local artists who are grappling with current subject matter.

The relationship between Qataris and contemporary art has not always been a comfortable one. Qatari culture is dominated by conservatively minded Sunni Muslims, not a few of whom were appalled by “Printemps,” a video installation by the artist Adel Abdessemed — displayed in 2013–14 at the Mathaf Arab Museum of Modern Art — which appears to show burning, shrieking chickens hanging from a wall. They were also shocked by Damien Hirst’s “Coup de tête” sculpture and elements of his Relics exhibition in Doha around the same time. But there seems to be a measured provocative intent in this strategy. Referring to the reactions created by Damien Hirst’s work, Khalifa Al Obaidly, director of the QM-funded Doha art space and residency Fire Station, said that sometimes it was sometimes good for art to be disturbing: “And the next time, you might say, ‘Oh yes, I’ve seen this before.’”

There are three current headline art shows in Doha: a clever arrangement of works by Picasso and Giacometti at the Fire Station’s Garage Gallery, which is also an outpost of Qatar Museums (QM); large-scale images and artworks by the ebullient French socio-urban agitator JR at the QM Gallery Katara; and a 400-piece retrospective showcasing the London-based Iraqi artist Dia Al-Azzawi at the Mathaf and QM Gallery Al Riwaq. They have thus far caused no offense; Picasso’s nudes might have, but they were ruled out by the curators.

Pablo Picasso, “Child with Doves” (1943), Musée national Picasso-Paris

Depending on your metric, the import strategy is proving successful in Doha. The Picasso–Giacometti show attracted 400 people on its opening day and 3,000 in the first three weeks — an exceptional turnout. Works by Takashi Murakami and Louise Bourgeois produced the city’s first blockbuster exhibitions of foreign art in 2012. At the time, the local blogosphere was filled with complaints that the money should have been spent on a Formula 1 circuit instead, but these would not have registered with Sheikha Al-Mayassa, who paid $300 million for Gauguin’s “When Will You Marry?” and whose central cultural project is to turn Doha into a dynamic, international arts incubator. She made this aim quite evident as far back as 2010, in a TED talk titled, “Globalizing the Local, Localizing the Global.”

It is rather strange, then, that art was removed from Qatar’s statewide curriculum seven years ago, only to be reinstated four years later; when questioned recently, senior figures at Qatar Museums, part of whose remit is to guide school educational programs, were unable to explain these on-off mandates.

The Fire Station (photo courtesy Qatar Museums)

The Fire Station is a new phenomenon in Doha: a combined gallery and studios for young artists. The gallery segment sits at the base of an ornately clad 1980s building regarded as one of Doha’s three earliest modern architectural icons; the other two are the Baroque Brutalist main post office and the Sheraton Hotel, both ziggurat-like. The Fire Station’s extension contains 20 studios (and a rather luxe communal kitchen) for young Qatari, and some international, artists in residence, who, since 2015, have been mentored and ultimately introduced by Qatar Museums to buyers and gallerists. Most of them have studied at the Doha campus of Virginia Commonwealth University and at art schools such as London’s Central Saint Martins.

The latest cohort includes Ahmed Al-Jufairi, who recently told the Reconnecting Arts website: “Qatari men and women should not be judged or ostracised if their interests do not complement the norms of society . . . I am trying to terminate the fear of expressing one’s self.”

The norms that Al-Jufairi and other young Qatari artists face are encapsulated by the view a mile northeast of the Fire Station, across the jade-green waters of West Bay. There, the excruciatingly vivid architecture of the thickets of corporate and hotel towers expresses Doha’s most obvious 21st-century characteristic: extreme economic wealth. It’s reflected in shimmering surfaces and a vibe that recalls a tranquilized version of the gated Eden-Olympia in JG Ballard’s novel Super-Cannes.

Doha in 2015, near the West Bay area (photo by Shahid Siddiqi/Wikimedia)

Not entirely tranquilized, however: a spate of recent international criticism of the working conditions of the armies of indentured laborers who are building paradise caught the Qatari government off guard. It has now responded by making it a legal requirement for workers to be paid electronically and allowed to move to other employers.

One of Doha’s four new Msheireb Museums portrays the history of international and Gulf slavery — subject matter championed by the Emir’s wife, Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned. The material is blunt and detailed. One photo display caption, headed “Contractual Enslavement,” reads: “Workers having lunch in Doha. Throughout the Gulf States, the abuse of the kafala (sponsorship) system directly affects large numbers of foreign migrant workers.”

Doha’s first modern buildings, as well as piped water and electricity, arrived in the 1950s, as its oil and gas industries accelerated. The extraordinary explosion of urban redevelopment and expansion began in the 1990s and can be summed up by the scales of three current projects: the 76-acre planned city of Msheireb Downtown Doha, with a four-level car park beneath the whole of it; the 14-square-mile Lusail City and Pearl-Qatar developments, which will house 500,000 people; and the construction of a $36 billion Doha Metro system. These don’t even include the dozens of hotels being constructed to absorb the Gadarene masses who will fly in to attend the 2022 World Cup soccer tournament.

One wonders if the commercial gravities of such huge projects are a stimulant or a narcotic to Qatari artists. At least one, the 33-year-old Qatari-American Sophia Al-Maria, has taken an anti-consumerist position. Her video installation “Black Friday” was shown at the Whitney Museum last year — a hallucinatory, drone-videoed fugue about shopping malls, the 21st-century equivalent of Coleridge’s “caverns measureless to man,” where we are all spendthrift Kubla Khans.

“The project of 20th century futurism is turning out to be fata morgana, boomers taking us down the wrong path to drown where the tide came in,” Al-Maria told the Miracle Marathon at London’s Serpentine Gallery last year. “The future I was promised was erased and washed away in a flood of human folly.” Her on-trend subject matter and aesthetics overlie a longing for past Qatari cultural certainties; she has spoken of the need to learn lessons from older people and from more traditional settings.

Dia Al-Azzawi, “Untitled IX” (1975), Halaat Insaniyya series, gouache on paper, 43 x 33 cm, private collection, Dubai

There are certainly no fata morganas in Dia Al-Azzawi’s work, no layers of metaphor. The most potent of the 77-year-old’s 500-plus pieces at Mathaf and the QM Gallery concern loss. His gouache-on-paper series Human States contains images suggesting burial or coffins, and was prompted by the Iraqi purges of the Kurds in the early 1970s. “They were our brothers,” he told me, adding that the raw fatality of the images had proved unexpectedly magnetic to parties of schoolchildren.

Of Al-Azzawi’s large-scale works, the huge, four-panel “Sabra and Shatila” (1983, in Tate Modern’s collection) is a “Guernica” portraying the destruction of Palestinian camps in Beirut in 1982. Having absorbed the emotional intensity radiated by the contorted figures and objects on these canvases, it’s startling to encounter Al-Azzawi’s workbooks — lusciously sensual and densely colored, with freely expressed and highly engaging figuration.

Installation view, Dia al-Azzawi: A Retrospective (from 1963 until tomorrow), Qatar Museums Gallery Al Riwaq, Doha (photo courtesy Qatar Museums)

The conundrum-figure of the three current Qatar Museums shows is JR, the French photograffeur who is routinely, and mistakenly, described as a street artist. The word “artist” can be applied only in a secondary sense: the combination of JR, in person, and photographs of his work at the gallery in Katara reveals him to be a sociopolitical activist — a bright-eyed, Elmer Gantry–like performer, plainly irresistible to himself and to Doha’s cosmopolitan set at the opening.

He does, however, possess the admirable, everyday-people sensibility of Henri Cartier-Bresson, marbled with traces of Peter Pan and the Beat generation’s canonically hyperactive Neal Cassady. His work is essentially the application of giant photographs, on paper or other materials, to various types of urban surfaces — roads, decaying buildings in Beirut, the West Bank Wall, corrugated rooftops in a Kenyan shantytown. The interventions are meant to highlight ordinary people who are perceived by the dominant society as being in some way other — really agitprop devices rather than art or hip matériel.

The images of the West Bank Wall are particularly effective: paired photographs of Israelis and Palestinians who do the same jobs. In Pakistan, huge photographs of civilian drone-strike victims were affixed to flat ground so that drone operators could see them. There is a coincidental link to the ethos of Al-Azzawi’s art, and to Diego Rivera’s.

JR, “The Wrinkles of the City, Kadir an, Turkey” (2015), color photograph, mat plexiglas, aluminum, wood, 180 x 270 cm(© JR-ART.NET, courtesy Galerie Perrotin)

Among the headline acts, Al-Azzawi is the most hopeful omen of things to come. As he takes his place on Qatar’s cultural stage, and as Sheikh Mohammed Rashid Al-Thani’s Institute of Arab and Islamic Art moves forward in New York, one wonders about the Al-Thanis’ major collections of Arab art — how long will it will be before they’re presented as blockbuster shows in Doha, with the same degree of hoopla as, say, Hirst’s Relics?

Notwithstanding the superb contents of the city’s Museum of Islamic Art, it seems particularly important to show and make available as much of the Arab modern art resource as possible. It is living proof of the region’s 20th-century cultural heritage — a hearth which produced the Fire Station and the creative flames now being fanned within it.

Dia al-Azzawi: A Retrospective (from 1963 until tomorrow) continues at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art and QM Gallery Al Riwaq through April 16. Picasso–Giacometti continues at the Fire Station through May 21. JR Répetoire continues at QM Gallery Katara through May 31.

Editor’s note: The author’s travel expenses and lodgings were paid for by Qatar Museums.

Jay Merrick writes on architecture and art for the Independent, London magazine, The Architects' Journal, The Architectural Review, and Icon. He has also written central texts for several monographs on...