Museum of Islamic Art, Doha

I love getting on a plane with no luggage. It has happened only a couple of times in my life. I feel ridonkulously jet-set. This time, I packed just a tote bag to fly from Dubai to Doha overnight. I was going to meet some excellent smart people, and to see the Museum of Islamic Art. Doha was so great that I went back again for a few more days at the end of my trip.

I went straight from the plane to the museum, in one of Doha’s adorable Tiffany’s-blue taxis, where the West African cabbie was playing American R&B.

Looks a tiny bit like Boba Fett, right?

The museum is beautiful. Seriously, drop dead. The building is lovely.

The collection is amazing, and gorgeously arranged, all carefully spotlit in black rooms.

Screens from clay water jars
Astrolabes. Like I said, they're everywhere.

They even solved the astrolabe problem (ie, what to do with 800 of them). Nice presentation, right?

Even the food is fantastic. Alain Ducasse is on the case.

Lentil salad, egg, some kind of savory biscotti-bit, tangy sauce.

And, y’know, just to be extra-classy, they have free wi-fi.

But…I wish it said more. All the things I learned about Islamic art on this trip, I learned at the dowdier Museum of Islamic Civilization in Sharjah the day before. At that museum, many of the objects were somewhat crude replicas. But the signage told me all about calligraphy styles, the embroidery on the kiswa at the Kaaba and that elephant clock I’d seen at the Ibn Battuta Mall.

I think this is a bit of a trend in museum-ing, to just let objects speak for themselves, no interpretation. And perhaps that’s more extreme in this case, where the aim may have been to separate the objects from all this messy Islam business and the complicated past and just look at things as incredibly gorgeous works of art. Which they are.

The contrast was even more dramatic when I came back on my next visit and went to the Takashi Murakami exhibit and the Cai Gui-Qiang show at Mathaf. Both of these shows were amazing, in part because they were presented in a distinctly didactic way. “Hello, meet Takashi Murakami. He’s famous for X, Y and Z, and to appreciate him, you should know 1, 2 and 3.”

Inflatable Murakami

I admit I hadn’t appreciated Murakami before. At this show (where you can’t take pics inside), I could get up close and see the layers of acrylic paint. I saw the change in his style. And the enormous Arhat installation, huge panels in part a reaction to the Japan tsunami (here’s a detail), got me in the gut the way his glossier stuff never has.

Over at Mathaf, I learned all about this Chinese guy (who, der, is quite famous and has been doing things in NYC for ages and I’ve totally missed). The space showed work he’d created specifically for Mathaf–smart stuff showing the connection between where he’s from in China and the Gulf–along with footage of his previous pyrotechnic works and some of his wonderful early oil paintings of explosions.

Stones from Quanzhou, carved with inscriptions from the Muslim cemetery there

I even learned a ton of weird stuff about Arabian horse breeding, from a video he produced. Again, a very educational, meet-the-artist approach.

I love that Qatar is investing so heavily in art. I just want to see the next step in the Museum of Islamic Art. The absence of interpretation there seems like a waste. “Explaining” art–giving more historical background, translating some of the calligraphy–shouldn’t hurt at all. The museum could use some of the same exuberant let-us-tell-you-about-this-amazing-stuff! spirit in the other two exhibits.

For now, the most exuberant thing is the food.