Exhibitions in Qatar Celebrate Syria Before the War

DOHA, Qatar — A thousand miles southeast of what remains of Syria’s civil war, “Syria Matters,” a major exhibition at the Museum of Islamic Art here, is focused on the history and the soul of the country rather than the images of conflict that have been reflected in headlines and splashed across television screens for the past seven years.

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David Belcher
, New York Times

DOHA, Qatar — A thousand miles southeast of what remains of Syria’s civil war, “Syria Matters,” a major exhibition at the Museum of Islamic Art here, is focused on the history and the soul of the country rather than the images of conflict that have been reflected in headlines and splashed across television screens for the past seven years.

The nearby Arab Museum of Modern Art and the Qatar National Library are also focusing on Syria. For the curators of these shows, Doha is the ideal location to explore Syria’s ancient culture, which has influenced the Muslim world for centuries. In their view, what better place than this relatively new country, which is emerging as a major arts center, to assemble the pieces of a fractured nation for Muslims and tourists from around the world?

“Syria Matters” will be a centerpiece of the 10th anniversary of the Museum of Islamic Art, which was designed by I.M. Pei. Julia Gonnella, the director of the museum and the co-curator of the exhibition, which will be on view from Nov. 23 through April 30, said it would honor the museum’s original mission: to be a place not just for Qatar, but for the entire Islamic world.

“Islam is very much a shared culture, and the vision behind the museum is to show the peaceful side of Islam and its contribution to the world,” Gonnella said on a recent walk through the museum’s permanent collection, ahead of “Syria Matters.” “We want to emphasize the heritage rather than the destruction in Syria.”

That heritage is also what’s driving Syria-related exhibitions at the two other sites in this sprawling, sun-drenched city of skyscrapers and traffic jams: a series of four shows (through Feb. 16) at the modern art museum, tucked on a side street near the massive development project adjoining the 2022 World Cup stadium, and “Syria Under the French Mandate, 1918-1946” (Nov. 23 through March 19), at the gleaming national library, which anchors a new cultural district.

This triple-header comes as the rebels in Syria are in a stalemate with the forces of President Bashar Assad. Much of the news media since spring 2011 has focused on the devastation of the ancient cities of Aleppo and Palmyra, but these Doha shows are designed to celebrate what has always been Syria’s vast contribution to language, religion, art, music and history — and what has not been lost to years of warfare.

“These exhibitions want to go beyond the political issue of Syria,” Gonnella said. “It’s about heritage, identity and about the Syrians themselves.”

“Syria Matters” will be presented in five sections. The first will portray the art of Syria before Islam — a rare opportunity, Gonnella said, since many Muslim countries forbid the display of any pre-Islamic items.

Another section will focus on the rich history of Palmyra, including the evocative classic painting “The Great Caravan at Palmyra” (circa 1785), by Louis-François Cassas, on loan from the Orientalist Museum of Doha. Others will be devoted to medieval Syria, with manuscripts and objects like the well-known Cavour Vase, made of intricately painted blue and purple glass and dating from the late 13th century; and the Ottoman period and its enormous impact on the architecture and music of Syria, particularly in Aleppo. A final room will depict the legacy of destruction — and the healing — of a country at war.

The exhibition will feature more than 120 objects on loan from the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, the Louvre in Paris and the Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum in Istanbul, among others, as well as the museum’s permanent collection.

“Syria Matters” will also include immersive digital renderings of key sites by the French company Iconem, including the citadel in Aleppo and the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, which was originally a Roman temple to Jupiter. Gonnella explained that both speak to the layers of Syria’s history.

“Viewers will be able to see the citadel of Aleppo from above, in its current state, and then you go down, down, down into a temple that originates from the B.C. era,” she said. “And the beauty of this is that the temple appears to have been saved from the war.”

While “Syria Matters” skirts the political side of Syria, the four small exhibitions at the modern-art museum embrace it. A recent visit to that intimate space was an education in Middle Eastern contemporary art. Abdellah Karroum, the museum’s director, walked through the permanent collection, pointing out works by artists like Inji Efflatoun, who was imprisoned in Egypt in the 1950s, as inspiration for these shows, which coincide with “Syria Matters.” Two of them focus on Syrian artists, and all four are informed by how politics, religion and nationalism are intricately tied to modern art in this region.

Over Arabian coffee in his office, with the cranes of the World Cup stadium as a backdrop, Karroum spoke of “Revolution Generations,” one of the four exhibitions.

“There is this idea of the artist as a citizen — with responsibilities and obligations,” he said. “The artist reflects on what surrounds us: how we belong, how we treat other people. The artist isn’t isolated.”

The idea of social responsibility also runs through the other three shows, one of which, “Fateh al-Moudarres: Colour, Extensity and Sense,” focuses on a major Syrian artist (1922-99) whose post-independence work in the 1960s changed dramatically after the Six Day War in 1967. “There is the evolution of art in the post-colonial period in the 1950s and ‘60s, when artists were trying to formulate new interest in the arts,” Karroum said. “Then there is the ‘70s through the ‘90s, in which one witnesses an atmosphere of exclusion of artists because of repression, exile and war.”

And it is in the last 18 years or so that the focus turns political, he said. These small exhibitions will document that shift, including “Mounira Al Solh: I strongly believe in our right to be frivolous,” which concentrates on that Lebanese artist’s encounters with Syrian refugees since 2012. It uses more than 150 drawings and embroideries to tell their stories.

“With artists in the 2000s, in the 10 years preceding the Arab Spring, we start to see art on issues such as refugees and women’s rights in Saudi Arabia,” he explained. “Artists were contributing to a call for change — and change happened.”

The fourth show is “Jassim Zaini: Representation and Abstraction,” in which that Qatari artist documents the establishment of Qatar and the rapid social and cultural transformation since the oil boom.

A shifting cultural landscape is also part of what informs “Syria Under the French Mandate, 1918 to 1946,” at the library. This spaceshiplike building, which was designed by Rem Koolhaas, opened last year, housing the largest literary collection in the Middle East, with more than one million books and manuscripts.

On a recent tour of this sun-filled space, where bookshelves are stacked like boxes in a giant gilded hangar, Ada Romero Sanchez, the special collection and exhibitions coordinator, explained the need to show modern Syria so that visitors could understand how its rich and complicated history is tied to the tragedy of its civil war.

“I think it’s important to document the state of Syria as we know it now, and that the French influence in Syria was very strong, even if it was only for about 30 years,” Romero Sanchez said. “This is also when many of the current problems with Syria began.” The library will feature about 40 items, some drawn from its own collection and some on loan from the French Ministry and other institutions in France. With its vast collection of materials — some leaves of the famous Blue Quran, written in gold, for instance — the library is ideally suited to document Syria’s more recent chapter, Romero Sanchez noted.

“New generations hear about the war in Syria and think that it has been like that for hundreds of years,” she said. “But we are highlighting that wonderful period when photography became more common, ancient monuments were being documented, and Western writers were coming to witness the country.”

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