A shark suspended in a tank, a human skull covered in 8,601 flawless pavé-set diamonds, a decapitated cow feasted on by flies. The art of Damien Hirst, Europe’s most famous artist, is widely considered provocative. One would hardly imagine that such work would have much appeal in Wahhabi influenced Qatar.
Sharks and butterflies are universal
Yet it is in Doha, the Qatari capital, where “Relics”, Damien Hirst’s latest exhibition, has opened and indeed might have something to teach Qatar.
While one might not enjoy his work, Hirst noted correctly at the exhibition’s opening that themes like death, sharks and butterflies are universal. In art, shocking gets you noticed, as it does in foreign policy and this is where the strategies of Hirst and Qatar strangely align.
In recent years Qatar has become synonymous with a boldness in international affairs that is very much like a Damien Hirst artwork: shocking and striving to have universal appeal. No other place hosts a Cuban hospital, a U.S military base and a Taliban embassy at the same time – although Guantanamo comes close. Qatar hosting the World Cup shocked the sports world while the Qatari-funded Al-Jazeera stoke the flames of what was once called the Arab Spring. Qatari peace-making efforts have extended from Gaza to Darfur to the even more recent negotiated release of hostages in Syria.
Thus, it is no coincidence that the rise of Qatar in international politics has been accompanied by a similar rise in Qatar’s standing as an art market. The first sign of an emerging art market is often a frenzied interest in French impressionists and the Qatari royal family was no exception, purchasing Paul Cézanne’s The Card Players in 2012 for over $250 million. Nor has contemporary art been neglected. The hall which now hosts the Damien Hirst exhibition has been used to host Takashi Murakami EGO and is only a stone’s throw away from the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha. The iconic structure designed by nonagenarian I.M Pei who was beseeched out of near retirement by the Al-Thani family to design a structure as eye-pleasing as I.M Pei’s refurbishment of the Louvre.
But the shock factor will only get you so far in art and foreign policy. Hirst has not been afraid to seek out new partnerships and markets. The results have included forays into London restaurants and the world of music videos. More recently he has signed partnerships with Prada and even found time to mentor American hip-hop artist Swizz Beats artistic interests.
A hyperactive foreign policy
Qatar under Sheikh Hamad also signed a number of big-time partnerships on its own, bringing Georgetown and even the F.C Barcelona on board to help build the Qatar brand. Critics of Qatar are as numerous as those of Damien Hirst. Qatari foreign policy is described as hyperactive and many of the clichés developed by the Western media to describe the UAE’s rise to prominence have been quickly grafted onto Qatar. Yet, before Arab leaders and the West express confusion or disapproval of the rise of Qatari soft power they might want to visit the Damien Hirst exhibition in Doha for some context.