There is something about Qatar and elderly masters. When the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, commissioned the Museum of Islamic Art (MIA), he chose I.M. Pei, then 91, as the architect. Now, the al-Thanis are planning a Museum of Modern Art (MMA), and they have got another nonagenarian master—M.F. Husain, 94.
Husain’s choice, perhaps, was influenced by Qatar’s track record in promoting art and sport. Does the name Pei ring a bell? Well, he is the one who designed the glass pyramid in the Louvre’s courtyard. After Pei agreed to design the MIA, he placed a request before Sheikh Hamad—he wanted a site that would not be affected by future building projects. The Sheikh’s answer was to create a 64-cre artificial island jutting into Doha Bay. It is 195ft off Doha’s Corniche, right next easy to the dhow port.
Though it looks a shade too geometrical at first sight, the building comes to life under the desert sun. Built with cream-coloured Magny Dore and Chamesson limestone from France and Jet Mist granite from the US, the 3,76,740sq.ft museum comprises a five-storey main building and a two-storey education wing.
Before submitting his final design, Pei travelled to many Islamic monuments for inspiration. In India, his stop was Fatehpur Sikri, Uttar Pradesh. In the end, he combined designs from the mosque of Ahmad Ibn Tulun, Cairo, and a fort in Monastir, Tunisia. The resultant design is spectacular.
The MIA was a project of the Qatar Museums Authority, which oversees the upcoming MMA. Sheikh Hamad’s daughter, Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, chairs QMA's board of trustees. Progressive and dynamic, Sheikha Al Mayassa is regarded as the driving force behind Qatar’s race for artistic supremacy in the Middle East. She also started the Doha Tribeca Film Festival in 2009.
The board of trustees, too, is no lightweight body. One of them is Lord Jacob Rothschild, honorary fellow of the British Academy, the Royal College of Art and the Royal College of Music. Other trustees include Labour MP Mark Fisher, former art minister of the UK, and Marie-Josee Kravis, president, The Museum of Modern Art, New York. So, why wouldn’t Husain trust his 99 paintings with them?
To add to all this, Husain’s inviter is one of the more powerful women in Qatar—Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al-Missned. Second of the Emir’s three wives, she is the mother of both Sheikha Al Mayassa and the heir apparent, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani. In 2007, Forbes magazine listed Sheikha Mozah among the 100 most powerful women in the world. The Sheikha is also UNESCO’s special envoy for basic and higher education. In sport, Qatar hosted the Asian Games in 2006, the only Arabian country to do so. In tennis, there is the Qatar ExxonMobil Open with a purse of $1,024,000. Doha is also bidding for the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
Are you still wondering why Husain went?