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Qatari Artist Mubarak Al-Malik Brings His Culture to Miami


The Qatari artist Mubarak al-Malik is known for dozens of murals across his homeland, particularly in his hometown, Doha, where he brings strong portraits and vibrant colors to buildings that often stand alongside gleaming new skyscrapers in the booming city.

Many of those works include a common element that Mr. al-Malik sees as the perfect symbol of his country and its culture: women’s faces adorned with batoolas, the covering worn for centuries by Bedouin women — not to mention the fashion-conscious — on and near the Arabian Peninsula.

Now Mr. al-Malik is bringing that cultural symbol to Miami — and, serendipitously, it is happening when the art world’s attention is drawn to the region for Art Basel Miami Beach.

“With my murals, I want to show Qatari culture and why the batoola for me means the mother, the home and traditional culture,” Mr. al-Malik, 34, said in a recent phone interview from his home in Doha. “Qatar is very much on the world’s radar now. This is a good time to show the world our culture.”

That culture, and the almost warp-speed with which Qatar has embraced art and modernity in the last few decades, is evident in not only Mr. al-Malik’s journey to Miami but also in the works of several other prominent Qatari artists. Like him, they have had the opportunity to bring their art to the United States as part of Jedariart, a public art initiative. The visiting artist program is part of the Qatar-USA 2021 Year of Culture.

Jedariart had hoped to be connected to the Art Basel event in Miami Beach, given its prominence and high attendance. The other Jedariart artists in this year’s program were: Fatima al-Sharshani, who painted in Portland, Ore.; Mubarak al-Thani, in San Francisco; Nada Khozestani, in Jersey City, N.J.; and Muna al-Bader, in Houston.

But Mr. al-Malik will have his work in the spotlight, right in Wynwood, a former warehouse district that is now a hub of art and culture. And his work will stay there for a full year alongside other wall paintings in the neighborhood known as a magnet for muralists.

Mr. al-Malik said he intended to paint in the same style — and with the same subject matter. Most of his murals (he’s done about 40) were created on crumbling ruins in Qatar’s desert, as well as on low-slung, and often abandoned, buildings in Doha and other cities.

Many of them depict the batoola in colorful and almost cartoonish ways. It’s a whimsical way for Mr. al-Malik to portray the rich history of the Bedouin women on this peninsula on the Persian Gulf — a history that many outside the region may know little about.

Much of Mr. al-Malik’s affection for the head covering stems from his relationships with family members — particularly with his grandmother, who has worn batoolas for decades. Now in her 80s, she has been the inspiration for much of his artwork, he said.

He acknowledges that the coverings are often misunderstood outside of the Muslim world. But for him, the batoola is the perfect vehicle to celebrate Qatari life at home and abroad, and show its complexity, from the rustic to the contemporary. Traditional and a bit mysterious, it is now a fashion accessory for many modern women in this almost dizzyingly wealthy country.

“In my artwork, I try to show my culture, and if someone asks about something they don’t understand, I will explain,” he said. “I show them why I love my culture and my country.”

Abdulrahman al-Ishaq, director of public art at Qatar Museums, a consortium of museums across the small country, said Mr. al-Malik has chosen an apt symbol.

“To the people of the Gulf, the batoola is a symbol of maternal compassion, care-taking and generosity,” he said. “Non-Muslims or those unfamiliar to our regional traditions see it through the frame of political agendas, which is unfortunate. Mubarak is probing viewers’ curiosity, asking them to question the face covering and then to understand it beyond its superficial stereotype.”

The batoola’s origin is unclear, but it has been worn for several centuries to express modesty and sometimes marital status in Islam, as well as to protect from the wind and deflect the harsh desert sun. Usually made from goat leather or heavy fabric, it is painted in gold or silver, giving it a shiny texture that is often mistaken for metal.

The batoolas’ shape and design vary widely among countries, including a mostly full-face covering with a cage-like design and one that covers the eyebrows and runs down the center of the nose, resembling a falcon’s beak.

For Mr. al-Malik, the many shapes and sizes provide him with a versatile image to work into his art, as well as a variety of faces that he often portrays up close and large on his murals.

“In my travels over the years, I saw graffiti art and how it can express a culture, and I asked myself, ‘Why don’t we have this in Qatar,’” he said. “Street art was not big in Doha until about 15 years ago, but now it’s everywhere. It’s not just in galleries and museums anymore.”

Mr. al-Malik also works in painting and sculpture and studied art at Doha’s Youth Art Center. He has represented Qatar in several international exhibitions, and he has also painted murals in Rio de Janeiro, Moscow, London and Bahrain.

His mural during Art Basel Miami Beach, which is still untitled, will be approximately 20 feet high by 40 feet wide, he said. He plans to complete it in about eight days starting Wednesday, although some of his similarly sized murals have taken just four to five days.

“I want to not rush this one,” he said. “I want to enjoy.”


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