While the auction rooms might be focused on the stratospheric rise of contemporary art from the Arab world, particularly works by Iranian artists, modern art in the region has until now been somewhat overlooked. But with the opening on December 30 of Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha, Qatar, the work of long-established Arab artists and their younger contemporaries is finally recognized in a world-class space.

Temporarily housed in a 5,500-square meter former school that has been overhauled by French architect Jean-Francois Bodin in association with Bruns and McDonnell, Mathaf is yet to announce its plans for a permanent home for its collection of some 6,000 artworks that date from the 1840s to the present. Its inaugural exhibitions comprise Sajjil: A Century of Modern Art, a survey of its permanent collection; Interventions, a retrospective of five major figures in Arab modernism; and Told/Untold/Retold, a critically acclaimed showcase of 23 specially commissioned artworks that tell “stories” through painting, sculpture, photography and video.

At a glittering opening reception last week, Mathaf showed for the first time its impressive collection, which includes stars from the Arab art market as well as lesser-known names. One of the highlights of the Sajjil exhibition is, ironically, a Chinese artist. The portraits of Qatari ruler Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani and his wife Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned were secretly commissioned by their daughter, who called upon by Yan Pei-Ming to paint them from official photographs. The inclusion of Pei-Ming’s signature energetic brush strokes and grey palette was a surprise even to Sheikh Hamad.

Located in Doha’s Education City, Mathaf is intended to be much more than simply an exhibition space. The museum also includes a café, shop, research library and an area dedicated to academic work - features which are common at museums in the West but are radical additions here in Qatar. It is hoped that in adopting an unusually open and inclusive atmosphere the museum will educate nearby students that art and artists are nothing new in the Arab world but rather are part of a long tradition.

Part of Qatar’s effort to position itself as a leading cultural destination (Qatar was the 2010 Arab Capital of Culture), the museum follows the 2009 opening of the I.M. Pei-designed Musuem of Islamic Art and precedes a series of new art spaces. As the Qatar Museums Authority (QMA) Chairperson Her Excellency Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, comments, “With the opening of Mathaf, we make Qatar the place to see, explore and discuss the creations of Arab artists of the modern era and our own time.”

Mathaf is the brainchild of is Excellency Sheikh Hassan bin Mohammed bin Ali Al Thani, Vice-Chairperson of the QMA, whose personal collection is at the core of the museum’s holdings and who is also an artist in his own right. “Collectors and curators are increasingly drawn toward the work of contemporary Arab artists, which is a very welcome development,” notes H.E. Sheikh Hassan. “But today’s artistic activities can truly flourish only if they are connected meaningfully to the important history that lies behind these achievements. Mathaf deepens the conversation about Arab art and helps advance the creativity of the Arab world.”

Indeed, it is important to note that Mathaf does not focus only on Qatari artists but embraces modern art from all parts of the Arab world, which is also the curatorial policy at the Museum of Islamic Arts. The Qatari authorities have cited the fact that Arabic art is a common language in an often unstable part of the world as the reason behind its cultural focus. Similar sentiments were the motivation behind its bid for the 2022 World Cup, which it successfully won. Awarded the title of Arab Capital of Culture in 2010, Mathaf is the next step in ensuring that this becomes Qatar’s permanent role in not just the region but on the world stage.