"Crises are opportunities to rethink what we take for granted"

21 March 2024

ZA portrait

Interview with Zeina Arida, Director of the Mathaf (Arab Museum of Modern Art) in Doha, Qatar, and Member of the Board of CIMAM, for the Yearbook Coleccionar Arte Contemporáneo, 2024.

What were your first memorable experiences with Museums?

I discovered museums as a visitor when I moved to Paris in my teenage years during the Lebanese civil war in the mid-1980s. The Centre Pompidou and its permanent collection were essential in my awakening to art, and I spent a lot of time in their collection galleries.

But there is an exhibition that played an important role in my life: an exhibition of a photographic mission in Beirut presented at the Palais de Tokyo in 1991. Involving seven photographers sent to Beirut to document a ghost town center before reconstruction work began, this exhibition gave me the desire to reconnect with Lebanon, which I had completely rejected, and made me realize the power of art. Back in Lebanon, two years later, my reconciliation with the country was achieved through my involvement in contemporary art and photography.

As a museum professional, my most memorable experience was being appointed Director of the Beirut-based Sursock Museum in 2014. I took over the Museum after a ten-year expansion and renovation campaign of the historic building, during which time the Museum was closed. I was lucky enough to spend a few months in a quasi-empty building following the handover of the building. This allowed me to embrace the Museum and its collections and history before embarking on putting together the team and preparing for the reopening of the Museum less than two years later.

You have been involved in cultural management and direction for 25 years in Lebanon and the Middle East. In this politically unstable region or country, how do you see the role of art and museums?

Of course, it's tempting to say, and I sincerely believe it, that contemporary art and the museums at large, play a crucial role in contexts of conflict and social division.

Building institutions that aim at preserving objects and stories is essential, especially in regions that lack political stability, and somehow, museums have the power to create a link between the past and the present and enable us to project ourselves into a future that we can imagine being more positive. Fighting for the preservation and continuation of cultural platforms and museums as safe places for artistic production is an act of resistance, and building and preserving art spaces and museums as places of artistic production and expression have been my engine for the past 25 years.

That being said, I find it difficult today, in the current circumstances of the ongoing genocide in Gaza, and the current state of the Arab world, to think and talk about museums in an abstract way, as they are intrinsically linked to our contemporary time and to the issues the society we are embedded in is going through. We all have a role to play in times of conflict, and we should always remember it. Our role is to make sure artists can express their opinions freely, even if we disagree. What we are currently witnessing, i.e the censorship and cancellation of Palestinian artists or artists who express their solidarity with the Palestinian people on their personal platforms (often on social media) and not even in the works they were supposed to exhibit (not saying that this is ok) is unacceptable. The space is getting narrower and narrower and we need to fight against what it means, i.e. the loss of human freedom.

Your involvement in Qatar as the director of Mathaf, Arab Museum for Modern Art, happens at a crucial time for the country when its cultural industry is expanding. Can Art and Culture be an engine of economic and social progress?

I have been increasingly interested in the way mission-driven organizations such as museums can accompany and challenge societal change and economic and political shifts, be it with the Arab Image Foundation in the Lebanese postwar period and reconstruction of Beirut or later with the Sursock Museum and the financial and political collapse of the country, resulting later in the destruction of the city (and of the Sursock Museum) caused by the 4th of August 2020 blast, which pushed me to take the decision of leaving Lebanon.

My more recent involvement in Qatar and commitment to Mathaf is in continuity with my work in Lebanon. Mathaf was the second Museum to open in Qatar in 2010, two years after the Islamic Art Museum had opened its doors, and its collection and mission have and are contributing since, in a meaningful way, to the way the society embraces the art and culture and makes it more and more part of their daily life. Contemporary art museums face the important challenge of staying relevant to the times we live in while preserving their very essence, which, in a way, is very similar to healthy, organic, and sustainable social and economic progress. I believe that one of the roles of museums and contemporary art platforms is to help us ask ourselves questions, be aware of who we are locally and globally, and remind us what issues our society faces and where we want to go.

I believe that art and culture accompany and support economic and social progress and may have a multiplier effect, and I also believe that real and sustainable societal change and development takes time.

What kinds of trends and ideas have dominated your practice as a curator?

I have always been interested and almost obsessed with the importance of the archives and historical documents and the possibility and freedom they offer us. I am lucky to be working in a region where alternative art history narratives have been in the making for the past decades when we have new models to build as we are building our institutions, and this gave colleagues of my generation and me strength and freedom that are unique. I am interested in building sustainable solid institutions, accessible and open, faithful to their mission and history but flexible and adaptable. My practice in cultural management and direction in a politically unstable country such as Lebanon has helped me master the aptitude to adapt to rapidly changing situations. I like to think the same about the institutions I am committed to and believe that even museums should be able to either change their program if not relevant anymore, or leave room for projects that become priorities.

As Director of Mathaf, what are the debates you would like to shed light on?

Addressing, for example, what is the role of museums today, what is the true meaning of accessibility and how to be an accessible museum, the role of archives and historical documents for a liberated future, how to change narratives and truly be a museum open to different perspectives; what is the museum's responsibility to its communities and what are the communities' responsibilities to the museum and its collections; and also can the museum distance itself from its time and still be relevant to its audience?

You have worked to raise awareness about the importance of preserving the region's photographic heritage... Could you speak about this?

Initiated by the Arab Image Foundation, The Metropolitan Museum, Delaware University and the Getty Conservation Institute in 2009, Meppi (Middle East Photograph Preservation Initiative) was a strategic multi-year program designed to raise awareness about the importance of preserving the region's photographic heritage.

MEPPI activities focused on the sustainability of photograph preservation within the region over the long term, with, surveys, a series of courses and workshops, and a symposium on the photographic legacy of the Middle East and North Africa.

MEPPI has trained over 60 professionals representing institutional and private col­lections in over 16 countries. These include national archives and libraries, museums, press agencies, universities, and private collections. It was a great way not only to shed light on the importance of preserving and making accessible photographic material and archives, but also to nurture a photographic culture in a region and develop an active network of like-minded individuals and institutions.

May the economic and social crisis also be an opportunity to rethink our ways of doing and acting?

Crisis is always an opportunity to question our practices and reconsider what we thought was a given. When we face challenging situations, we need to find solutions and develop alternative ways of working. This was the case during the Covid-19 pandemic when all the museums had to shut their doors and find alternative ways to stay active and in touch with their audiences. Facing important crisis, Museums have the chance to reinvent themselves and find ways to remain relevant as engines of civil society.