Algerian conceptual artist Adel Abdessemed’s “challenging” solo show in Doha has outraged conservatives, leading to accusations of anti-Islamic idolatry and the removal of a work.
From 6 October 2013 to 5 January 2014, Qatar’s Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art is presenting “L’âge d’or”, a solo exhibition by the Algerian artist Adel Abdessemed. Mathaf Director Abdellah Karroum acknowledged the ‘challenging’ nature of the show, with some of the works attracting derision from the Qatari public.
Curated by Pier Luigi Tazzi, Adel Abdessemed’s “L’âge d’or” is on view at Mathaf from 6 October 2013 to 5 January 2014 and is the first exhibition to open under the direction of Abdellah Karroum. Karroum, appointed the director of Mathaf in June 2013, has previously worked with Abdessemed through the independent, collaborative project L’appartement 22, based in Rabat, Morocco. Highlighting the conceptual and often esoteric nature of Abdessemed’s work in the “L’âge d’or” press release, Karroum said:
L’âge d’or is undoubtedly a very challenging show in many ways, one that I hope will resonate with visitors from Qatar and around the world. Adel is an artist with whom I have worked extensively in the past. His work contributes substantially to the debate of ideas and leads the way in the movement towards new concepts in the art scene and the world at large.
Born in Constantine, Algeria, Abdessemed fled from political unrest to France where he studied at the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts in Lyon. Since his departure from Algeria in the 1990s, he has tackled the theme of exile in his art, as well as addressing the far-reaching implications of globalisation at an individual level. Abdessemed’s oeuvre consists of works that imbue everyday objects with symbolic significance; his artistic practice, which sees him make use of a wide range of materials (from camel bones, brass and gum to terracotta) explores the relation between conventions and dislocation.
Abdessemed’s work has been the subject of major exhibitions at institutions such as Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris (2012); Parasol Unit Foundation for Contemporary Art, London (2010); Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Turin (2009); and the Musée d’art Moderne et Contemporain, Geneva (2004).
“L’âge d’or” brings together recent works as well as works specifically created for this exhibition. The exhibition’s titular piece, a low-relief, gold-plated brass panel depicting the artist’s four daughters, and Julie, a life-size, salt-stone sculpture of his wife, both explore the theme of familial connection. In two other new video works, Ayaï and Histoire de la folie (history of madness), a human foot rhythmically crushes objects replete with symbolism: a white rose – a symbol of purity and reverence, and a skull respectively.
Abdessemed revisits violent atrocities of the past in order to rekindle connections with the political present. Another work on display, Mémoire (2012) or memory, alludes to the Rwandan genocide of 1994, where the Hutu ethnic group massacred the Tutsi minority; Soldaten (2013) makes reference to the ubiquitousness of war and violence in society.
During “L’age d’or”, Mathaf’s main atrium is given over to Le Vase abominable (2013), an imposing sculpture that is comprised of a massive brass pot resting atop a replica of a bomb. In Little Pot (2013), Abdessemed explores the materiality of different mediums by creating eleven vessels made of different substances such as gold, gum and salt.
Abdessemed’s use of visual symbolism can be subversive, a trait not appreciated by sectors of the Qatari public. In one of his video works, Printemps, he tackles the theme of violence by depicting a wall lined with chickens that appear to be on fire. The contentious nature of this video attracted controversy, but the museum clarified that the video was shot using hi-tech equipment without hurting any of the chickens.
More controversial was Abdessemed’s acclaimed work Coup de tête (2011-2012), a bronze sculpture that was to have been situated outside the museum walls. Standing at an imposing five metres, the sculpture depicts the moment when the French footballer Zinedine Zidane head-butted Italian Marco Materazzi in the 2006 World Cup final in Germany. The sculpture was removed from view after a public outcry, with Muslim conservatives denouncing the work as “anti-Islamic” as reported on Al Jazeera. Twitter users speculated about the statue’s relevance for the Gulf nation, asking questions such as “‘Who is this Zidane, to be honoured with this statue? And what did he do for Qatar? Is it right that anyone who deserves to be honoured should be honoured against our religion and our creed?”
Despite the capitulation of cultural authorities to conservatism, Abdessemed’s exhibition still provides an insight into the definite trend for internationalism in Qatar’s exhibitions policies. The Qatar art market has already seen an increase in fiscal and political support, making the nation the world’s biggest spender on contemporary art. Furthermore, Qatar Museum Authority has sponsored international exhibitions such as Takashi Murakami’s exhibition in Versailles in 2010 and Damien Hirst’s 2012 retrospective at the Tate Modern. Qatar’s expanding artistic reach has created an international platform for transcultural artistic liaisons between institutions and artists.
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