SALOUA RAOUDA CHOUCAIRDual, c. 1978–80, Bronze, 20.5 × 21 × 22.5 cm. Courtesy Mathaf, Doha. 

Focus: Works from Mathaf Collection

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Five solo exhibitions, for Farid Belkahia, Saloua Raouda Choucair, Faraj Daham, Inji Efflatoun and Abdelhalim Radwi, made up “Focus: Works from Mathaf Collection,” recently held at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha. The artworks in the exhibitions, each autonomous and independently organized, were culled from Mathaf’s 9,000-piece permanent collection of modern Arab art, assembled by Sheikh Hassan bin Mohammed bin Ali al-Thani since the 1980s.

Out of the five exhibitions, “Faraj Daham: Divergence” was the only one to feature a Qatari artist. Daham is known for his collaged drawings that delicately layer scenes from Doha, as in Street Language #22/23 (2011). Here, six figures in varying states of camouflage—ranging from young men in keffiyeh, baseball caps and sunglasses, to local construction workers in hard hats and goggles—stand shoulder to shoulder in an image that is overlaid with subtle, symmetrical target maps and grids. For Daham, Islamic patterns and tessellations represent Doha as much as the day laborers erecting the city’s dizzying expansion.

Another featured artist, Beirut-born Saloua Raouda Choucair combines the scientific, the organic and the mystical to create undulating arabesques. Her sculptural objects mirror various shapes in brass and concrete, as well as in two-dimensional form. Choucair studied in Paris in the late 1940s, using her artwork and writings to put forth the idea of modernism being rooted in Arab aesthetics. Her modular work takes form as interlocking shapes of paint on paper, jewelry, tabletop sculptures and public artworks. Influenced by the Sufi notion of transcendence, linear and circular patterns seen in mosques, DNA strands and the rhythm of qasā’id poetry, the plump curves seen in Choucair’s bronze globe Dual (c. 1978–80) radiate and grow to be as large as ocean waves in Bench (1969–71)—an outdoor sculpture of bleached stones in a loosely interlocking, half-moon formation. Choucair’s solo exhibition, “The Meaning of One, the Meaning of the Multiple,” brought overdue attention to this monumental artist.

Meanwhile, “Aube(s)” (aube is French for “dawn”) comprised works from the 1960s by Moroccan-born artist Farid Belkahia (1934–2014), in which he depicted the moment before sunrise as a metaphor for his then newly independent country. Having moved to Europe in 1954, Belkahia returned to Casablanca in 1962, where he enfolded African tradition into his artistic practice, trading oil paint on canvas for natural dye on animal skins. In a separate series made from copper, “L’Histoire de la Main” (“The History of the Hand”) (1977–78), he portrayed Morocco’s developing political independence through the physical manifestation of a growing hand.

Elsewhere, “The Quest for Authenticity in the Works of Radwi” showcased the work of Mecca-born Abdelhalim Radwi, who, having studied in Europe in the 1960s and ’70s, returned to Saudi Arabia in 1980 to lead Jeddah’s Saudi Fine Art Society. His exhibited works—a collection of rich portraits, ranging in style from geometric to abstract—included exuberant compositions that portray women covered in patchwork-patterned hijabs, in various scales and perspectives.

Inji Efflatoun, more politically confrontational in her approach, uses a saturated subjectivity in her artwork. Her exhibition, “Mother Tongue,” traced the artist’s practice, from her early surrealist period through to her later white-based canvas works. Painting working-class women in rural Egypt, Efflatoun used heavy, Expressionist-style strokes to portray mourning figures in Descendante de Hatshepsut (“Descendent of Hatshepsut”) (1953) and The Girl of Port Said (1957). After being arrested in 1959 for her involvement with the Egyptian communist group Iskra, Efflatoun painted scenes of prison life during her four-year incarceration, which eventually gave way to a light-filled palette and depictions of freedom—including sailboats and blossoming trees—by the end of her sentence.

Given that Mathaf just celebrated its fifth anniversary, the timing of this group of exhibitions—which displayed little overlap in concept, despite the artists being from the same region and generations—showed how sporadic and fragmented presentations of the region’s art history have been until now. Each show fleshed out a modern-art narrative centered in the local culture and dependent on its sociopolitical particularities.