As Qatar intensifies efforts to diversify its economy, its focus on creating a knowledge-based economy involves substantial drives to promote and invest in the art and design market. The recently held biennial international art and design conference Tasmeem Doha 2015: 3ajeeb is testament to Qatar’s plans being on the right track.
The ninth edition of the joint initiative by Qatar Foundation and Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar (VCUQatar) explored innovative ways of thinking, creating, seeing and learning and helped foster the vital process of engagement between students and participants with industry experts as well as their local communities.
“The Tasmeem conference invited around 50 artists and designers from various disciplines, and from around the world, to give workshops and lectures on contemporary art and design practices. This gave conference attendees an opportunity to connect with specific creative opportunities that resonated with their interests,” says Simone Muscolino, one of the four co-chairs of Tasmeem and assistant professor of Foundation at VCUQatar.
From making light paintings with Arabic script in collaboration with a French designer, and real-time 3D printing in collaboration with a studio in Tokyo, to building a giant floating sculpture in collaboration with an Italian architect, the 5-day event holistically covered the theme ‘3ajeeb!’ (ahh-jhee-b) – a common expression indicating ‘strange in a strange way, cool in a cool way, and slightly weird in a slightly weird way.’
“The theme emerged from our students currently enrolled in the university. The projects they are currently exploring are often very playful and performance-oriented and entice the viewer to interact with the work,” Muscolino tells bq in an interview.
The art and design industry in Qatar has been growing rapidly, although still in its infancy. Several exhibitions have showcased well-established and famous artists, but there is a local community of designers and artists that are emerging with unique talents and voices that are specific to the region.
“The art and design community is relatively new and not very established. This means there is no defined space that artists and designers must adhere to, but they can be very inventive and entrepreneurial. Also, styles and trends often align with Western or Eastern creative endeavours, but now is the perfect opportunity for the Middle East creative community to look at its cultural past for reference, but reinvent a new future,” explains Muscolino.
Several members of the local youth community have ventured into the design industry with innovative entrepreneurial ventures. Opening speakers at Tasmeem, Pors and Rao (Bangalore-based Indo-Danish art duo) tell bq: “Living in Qatar, it is important to be aware of what is happening on the global scene so you don’t re-invent the wheel, but build on the developments that are on-going, and find areas where you can contribute and find your own voice.”
Qatar investing in art
Qatar has recently been a major investor in art, as citizens are also beginning to see this as an additional asset class. While students are being exposed to all the big names in art and design, there is a dearth of lesser known artists and designers, according to Muscolino. “Students can definitely benefit by being exposed to contemporary artists.
It is wonderful that Qatar has been very active in investing in the commodity of art. Although it is great to expose students to popular and mainstream artists and designers that Qatar has brought to Doha, there is a lack of lesser known and perhaps even more contemporary artists and designers. Tasmeem has helped fill this need, and hopefully as Qatar continues to invest in the arts it will consider looking at more local and less seasoned and known artists,” he says.
Students here are generally exposed to mainstream art and design and do not have as many opportunities to view creative work that is contemporary, on the cutting edge, and maybe even a bit underground. “The Tasmeem conference invited artists that are not mainstream, but who are equally relevant with their experimental and avant-garde approach to designing,” adds Muscolino.
Mainstream or more exposure?
Often there is an expectation of what art and design is supposed to be and look like. There is a perception that it should be polished, professional, made for a company, or placed in a frame. The need to expose local students to international artists and designers is evident. Although the creative community in Doha is growing, students still lack access to a wide variety of creative thinkers and makers.
“Tasmeem gives us the opportunity to invite people from the international community to come spend time at VCUQatar and collaborate with our students. This gives our students the opportunities to work first hand with professional artists and designers to learn a broad range of processes,” explains Muscolino.
“Also, through collaborative interactions, our students learn about cultures from around the world, and have the unique opportunity to get to know the international artists personally. In some instances, students have even been offered internship and employment opportunities based on what transpired during the conference,” he comments while stressing on the importance of the conference and the positive effects it has had.
There is a very well-established institutionalised high-end art scene in Qatar. “Qatar Museums (QM) did an amazing job bringing excellent superstars to Doha and creating a solid infrastructure. We think it is important and relevant in order to develop an audience,” Muscolino comments.
In order to grow the local creative industry, two approaches are needed according to Muscolino. “There needs to be a ‘grassroots’ approach where young artists and designers make work and put it out into the community, start their own initiatives, engage in interventionist projects and become entrepreneurs,” he explains.
Accompanying that is support from the government and local community. “Artists and designers need studio spaces, exhibition spaces, places where the creative community can produce, exhibit and sell work,” says Muscolino.
Yang Soon Ju (Elizabeth), a participant at the conference and a VCUQatar alumna, also recognises the need for a larger community in art and design and the inadequate opportunities to exhibit new and innovative designs and experiences. She explains how the Western and South Korean markets are far more developed design-wise.
“There are ideas here, but we lack opportunities,” she says. Elizabeth created a unique design that mixes elements of traditional South Korean wear with local Abayas, sported by several fashionable women. “It took me a while to come up with something unique, that’s suitable for this market.”
“We believe that it is now time to invest in small galleries, in young artists both local and international, to take bigger risks, to expose the city to artistic interventions, to work in the neighbourhoods and to give young designers the opportunity to experiment and innovate,” Muscolino concludes and the Tasmeem conference is certainly one step in that direction.