“This is my first solo exhibition in an Arab country,” says Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang of Saraab, an exhibition at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha, Qatar that is also the museum’s first solo show. “The works…are all tailored for this exhibition. They attempt to link the history and culture of Quanzhou, my hometown, with that of Doha.”

That link is more established than might first appear. As Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, Chairperson of Qatar Museums Authority, writes in the foreword to the exhibition’s catalogue: “Cai’s exploration of Arabian Gulf iconography alongside Islamic history in his hometown of Quanzhou, China reminds us of the routes travelled over centuries between the “East” of Doha in the Gulf region and the “East” of Quanzhou in southeast coastal China.” Long fascinated by Cai’s work, Sheikha Al Mayassa invited him to Mathaf as part of the institution’s commitment to presenting an Arab perspective on modern and contemporary art.

As ever, the response of Cai – considered to be one of the most important contemporary artists who was the subject of a retrospective in 2088 at the Guggenheim New York, the city where he is now based – defies categorisation and spans drawing, installation and performance art. Highlights of the more than 50 works on display at Saraab include the sixteen pieces specially commissioned for the show. Black Ceremony, one of Cai’s signature daytime firework displays (he is perhaps most famous for organising the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics which are remembered for extraordinary pyrotechnics) was executed at the opening of the exhibition and explores the themes of death and homecoming; Endless, an installation of traditional boats floating in water, alludes to the historic maritime Silk Road that originated in Quanzhou; and Homecoming, a grouping of large granite rocks from Quanzhou inscribed with Arabic calligraphy, offers a personal interpretation of the centuries-old Muslim community in China.

Integral to Saraab has been the participation of the wider Doha community in helping to create Cai’s artworks. After being advertised heavily, the local public helped to execute his signature gunpowder drawings and were out in force to watch the spectacular multi-coloured fireworks. The exhibition was “created with the assistance of local volunteers as part of the museum’s philosophy of strengthening community engagement with art,” comments Sheikha Al Mayassa.

With such extraordinary stories behind Cai’s art, the ability to appreciate his work lies in knowledge of his artistic process – something not lost on Mathaf. “Process is key to understanding how Cai Guo-Qiang works,” notes Wassan Al-Khudairi, the curator of the exhibition. “Saraab displays working sketches for the new commissions, video documentation of how Mathaf’s gunpowder drawings were made, and other information.” Indeed, we believe the same – discover the making of Saraab and Cai Guo-Qiang’s own explanations of his work in our showcase of images and videos from the show.

A Millennial Journey From My Homeland

This is my first solo exhibition in an Arab country. The works inside the eight galleries on the ground floor, along with the explosion event outside on the open area next to the Mathaf, are all specifically tailored for the exhibition. They attempt to link the history and culture of Quanzhou, my hometown, with that of Doha.

Quanzhou was once the starting point of the maritime Silk Road, and under the Yuan Dynasty (1271- 1368 CE), it was one of the largest seaports in the world. Since the time of the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE), many Arabs have come to live here, and left behind a multitude of tombs. This exhibition is a reminder that I ought to try and understand what is written on these tombstones in ancient Arabic. The idea for Homecoming and Black Ceremony originated from here. This is an offering I can give as an artist to my fellow Quanzhounese who passed away in a foreign land (China): a millennial journey that consoles them by bringing them home. At the same time, this is an exploration of the history and culture of my hometown, and a journey that brings me back to my native land.

In the other new works from the exhibition, many materials and forms were also inspired by Arab culture. I collaborated, too, with local volunteers in making gunpowder drawings, and this creative process was open to the wider public. In the five galleries on the first floor, the past works form a mini-retrospective. By looking back, my work is put into the broader context of the world: what have I done in other places, in different cultures? It offers a comparison to the works realized in Doha. With works included in retrospectives, one can also see how an artist changes over time, and how themes and materials develop from early works to more recent ones. I am also hoping that young Arab artists will take the opportunity to see how traditional materials and symbols can be transformed into contemporary art. As Saraab is my largest exhibition of new works since my retrospective exhibition at the Guggenheim in 2008, it is an accumulation of my thoughts from the past few years.

China is complicated enough as it is, and including the Arab world in the mix only adds to the confusion. These two places often make the world feel perplexed, if not threatened. In this day and age of complex issues, although one sometimes has to tread lightly to trace back human history and to continue the story in the present day, I am tingling with an unspeakable excitement.

-Cai Guo Qiang

“Homecoming is an installation which leads visitors into the museum and refers in stone and incised calligraphy to the historic Muslim community in Quanzhou, Cai Guo-Qiang’s home town and the starting point of the maritime Silk Road. The artist has described how the inscriptions on Muslim tombstones in a Quanzhou cemetery led him to the idea of brining back home those who had passed away abroad. The journey taken by the rocks of Homecoming reverses the route taken by Arabs into China during the early Islamic period, while duplicating Cai’s present-day trajectory as an artist exhibitiong for the first time in the Arab world, and mirroring his own return journey into Quanzhou to investigate its history more deeply.”

- Wassan Al-Khudairi, Curator & Director, Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art

“The explosive event Black Ceremony that marked the opening of Saraab is conceived as an offering to those who had passed away in foreign lands, and a rite intended to lay their spirits to rest. The concept of creating a tombstone of black smoke for historic travellers between cultures brings into play again ideas of journey’s end, transformation, and transient form.

The theme of motion and travel re-emerges in the installation Endless, in which three boats gently bob up and down. The wood they are made from recalls boat-building traditions of the past in both China and the Arabian Gulf region. This artwork creates a physical experience for the viewer of vessels on water, misted vision, and an ambiguous movement that is neither travel nor statis.”

- Wassan Al-Khudairi, Curator & Director, Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art

“Fragile explodes gunpowder not on paper but onto panels or ornately sculpted white porcelain of the kind historically exported from Quanzhou, burning upon it the word “fragile” in Arabic calligraphy. The process of marrying these incongruous materials and cultural symbols into one artwork through a risky controlled explosion suggests a commentary on the delicacy of life, culture and the relationships between nations.”

- Wassan Al-Khudairi, Curator & Director, Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art

“In Flying Together, the falcons and camel crowded in mid-air can signify the Arab world, but viewers will go further in interpreting a story from their ambiguous relation to each other. The viewer may decide that the falcons are harming the camel, or helping it, or are disrelated and indifferent; either animal might represent something more again, creating a new possible story. “

- Wassan Al-Khudairi, Curator & Director, Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art

More info:

Until May 26, 2012 at Mathaf, Doha, Qatar