Art, From Conception to Birth in Qatar
For weeks, 14 giant balloons had been mysteriously parked in front of the Sidra Medical and Research Center, a hulking steel, glass and white ceramic building devoted to women’s and children’s health that is to open on the outskirts of this city in 2015.
The unveiling of “The Miraculous Journey,” by Damien Hirst, a series of sculptures that culminates in one of a 46-foot baby, on Monday in Doha, Qatar. More Photos »
At 7 on Monday evening, to the amplified sound of a beating heart, members of Qatar’s royal family, government officials and local artists watched as each balloon, bathed in purple light, opened like a giant flower to reveal an unusually provocative public artwork. Called “The Miraculous Journey,” it consists of 14 monumental bronze sculptures, by the British artist Damien Hirst, chronicling the gestation of a fetus inside a uterus, from conception to birth, ending with a statue of a 46-foot-tall anatomically correct baby boy.
Even for a Persian Gulf country that is aggressively buying its way into modernity, this installation takes official acceptance of Western art to a new level. Local women still adhere to centuries-old Islamic traditions, wearing the abaya, a long cloak, and niqab, or face covering; images of women are routinely censored in books and magazines. Even the representation of the human form is unusual.
To commission such an audacious work of art is considered a particularly bold move for Sheikha al Mayassa Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, 30, chairwoman of the Qatar Museums Authority and a sister to the new emir of this oil- and gas-rich state. The sculptures are reported to have cost $20 million.
“To have something like this is less daring than having a lot of nudity,” said the sheikha, interviewed on Monday morning in her office at the Museum of Islamic Art, a modern, sun-filled space with sweeping views of the gulf. “There is a verse in the Koran about the miracle of birth,” she said. “It is not against our culture or our religion.”
Rather, she sees the sculptures as an extension of her mission to create a platform for contemporary artists from around the world, transforming this city of gleaming skyscrapers and sandy beaches into a center for arts and culture. Whether the public likes it or not, she believes, “it’s important to have an ongoing conversation.”
The museums authority has also organized a giant retrospective of Mr. Hirst’s work, “Relics,” which opens on Thursday.
Known as one of the most powerful forces in the international art world today, with exceptional buying power and forward thinking, Sheikha al Mayassa is a vocal advocate of contemporary art and arts education. She has been criticized by some as brazen or for embracing only celebrated artists, yet is praised by others for her commitment to the art of the new.
“She’s brave to introduce new visuals and new thoughts, especially in Doha, which is more conservative than other Middle Eastern cities,” said Nada Shabout, a professor of art history at the University of North Texas who works with the Arab Museum of Modern Art here. “Most of the Arab world has not seen public nudity. Sex is not taboo here, it’s just a very private affair. I have no idea how the public will react to these sculptures.”
Generally, the public does not take to the streets to voice disapproval and is considered unlikely to deface any public artwork. Instead, residents seize on social media platforms, like Twitter or blogs. After a 16-foot-tall bronze sculpture depicting one soccer player head-butting another was installed last week on the Corniche, a popular waterfront promenade here, some residents called online for its removal on the grounds that the sculpture, by the Algerian artist Adel Abdessemed, offended religious sensibilities. The sheikha shrugs off the criticism, saying that contemporary art is vital to the city’s landscape.
Purposely provocative, Mr. Hirst, 48, was long controversial in his own country, known for startling works that have included rotting cows positioned to simulate copulation; sharks and sheep preserved in formaldehyde; maggots attacking a cow’s head; and medicine cabinets full of hundreds of different kinds of drugs. Yet, in recent years, exposure to his work has been oversaturated in the United States and Europe.
He is fascinating to many, nonetheless, in a city like Doha. Sheikha al Mayassa recalled visiting Mr. Hirst’s studio in Gloucestershire, England, around 2009 and asking him to consider creating an outdoor sculpture.
Mr. Hirst showed her some drawings of prenatal and natal development he had made in 2005, from sperm to fetus to newborn. “I had always envisioned them to be monumental sculptures, and the sheikha had the idea of putting them in front of a woman’s hospital,” he said. (The installation’s full title is “The Miraculous Journey (2005 to 2013).”
It was a commission fraught with secrecy. “The first meeting I had with the architects, I was not allowed to tell them what the sculptures were because they wanted it to be a surprise,” he recalled. Most of the work, which took three years, was carried out in his studio in England.
There is nothing secret about them now: he positioned the sculptures so they can be seen both from the motorway and the desert. Together they weigh a total of 216 tons.
Wearing scruffy blue jeans and a white T-shirt, Mr. Hirst was watching workers put the finishing touches on his retrospective at Al Riwaq, a nondescript building — now covered in his signature dots — that is next to the Museum of Islamic Art, which was designed by I. M. Pei and opened in 2008.
Mr. Hirst said he became fascinated with childbirth after having children of his own. “Everyone talks about our life’s journey, but we have a whole journey before you’re born,” he explained.
Both Ms. Shabout and Zainab Bahrani, a professor of Near Eastern art and archaeology at Columbia University, pointed out that depictions of naked women bathing have been common throughout the history of Islamic art — for example, in ancient illuminated manuscripts. Such images are not, however, readily available to the population here.
“People are not aware here that it has a long tradition,” Ms. Shabout said.
Ms. Bahrani said: “I am sympathetic to the fact that art makes us feel uncomfortable, can challenge. On the other hand, you don’t want to shock. So it’s a fine line.”
But to Sheikha al Mayassa, it is one more step in the process of introducing art to Doha. Already she is planning two more museums here: the National Museum of Qatar, designed by Jean Nouvel, and the Orientalist Museum, designed by the Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron.
Although the sheikha declined to confirm or deny the reported cost of Mr. Hirst’s sculptures, she said the outlay was “not a crazy number.”
“For us, it’s about the bigger picture,” she said. With an impish grin, she added: “Although he denies it, I think the baby is really Damien. It looks like him.”
When winds kicked up the other day, the balloon shrouding the baby boy accidentally blew off. Mr. Hirst, who was in London at the time, received an e-mail from Sheikha al Mayassa that read:
“Your baby appears to want to come early.”