A gallery view of three large paintings.
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Collection Highlight: Yousef Ahmad and the Evolution of a Visual Language

30 January 2024

By Noora Abdulmajeed

Qatari artist, educator and cultural advisor Yousef Ahmad integrates local traditions into his abstract interpretations of the Arabic script.

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Renowned Qatari artist Yousef Ahmad was born in 1955 in Al Jasarah, a key district in Doha's urban history and culture. He was influenced by his upbringing there, particularly following the immense transformation of the area with post-independent urbanisation from the early 1970s onward. Thus, tradition and memory are recurring themes in Yousef Ahmad’s work, as he witnessed the transition to modernity.

The artist notably re-imagined traditional craftsmanship techniques in the Gulf that utilise sustainable materials from the natural environment. His work conveys the closeness to his roots, within the wider experimentations on the abstract abilities of the Arabic script.

The second-generation of Qatari artists, including Yousef Ahmad, pursued formal education in art abroad, with Egypt being a common destination. In 1972, he joined Helwan University in Cairo to earn a degree in Art Education. While studying there, he was mentored by distinguished faculty members and artists, most notably, Gazbia Sirry.

Upon completing his bachelor’s degree in 1976, he played a vital role in advancing the cultural scene in Qatar through institutional appointments and independent efforts. His early career accomplishments included documenting local art practices by authoring the first publication on Contemporary Art in Qatar in 1986. This was achieved through his association with the Arab League of Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organisation (ALESCO).

From 1979 to 1982, he was based in the United States to undertake a Master of Fine Arts degree from Mills College in California. This period exposed him further to the methodologies and scales in which abstraction can take form.

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Yousef Ahmad with Gazbia Sirry at Al-Wasiti Art Festival in Baghdad, Iraq, 1986. Courtesy of the Artist.

Following the establishment of the Art Education Department at Qatar University in 1983, Yousef Ahmad was appointed faculty member, where he taught until 2004. One of the students who was introduced to art history through his lectures was Sheikh Hassan bin Mohamed bin Ali Al Thani, who was inspired to learn more about Arab modernism and the politics of representation. Subsequently, Sheikh Hassan became a patron focused on documenting this field of research, joined by Yousef Ahmad as an advisor, with whom he developed a close friendship.

In 2010, Sheikh Hassan’s acquired collection became the foundation of Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, the first museum model to bring together the multiple histories of the region and position them in a global context.

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Yousef Ahmad, The Birth of Innovation, 2011, mixed media on handmade palm leaf paper sourced from Qatar, 200 x 200 cm (each panel). Collection of Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art.

This triptych, The Birth of Innovation, showcases the distinctive multi-layered methodologies of Yousef Ahmad. The rhythmic repetition of abstracted calligraphy in this work is influenced by the architectural styles of Mashrabiya, with elements reminiscent of latticed screens projecting through oriel windows as seen in Islamic and Arab architecture. Components from the artist’s local heritage are intertwined into his technique to formulate the background of the composition. The artwork represents the development of his visual language through continual experimentation with the Arabic script. Evident across the triptych are the black vertical lines that project the evolution of the spectator within the artist's realm. A lifelong interest in papermaking led Yousef Ahmad to travel across Asia, exploring natural handmade processes rooted and prized in this part of the world.

In 2008, he was inspired to incorporate palm fronds into his artistic practices, a historical feature in the artisanal traditions of the Gulf. The warm hues in this work reflect the artist’s intent to embody elements from his cultural identity into the modernised approaches to calligraphy.

Noora Abdulmajeed is an Associate Curator at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art.


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