Have you ever read a class note in the magazine and wondered about the rest of the story? That sensation came over me when I saw that Michelle Dezember ’06, a past Fulbright recipient, was part of the team behind Mathaf, the first modern art museum in Qatar, as well as the Gulf region. Mathaf opened its doors in December.
Dezember’s work in art museums has taken her from the de Saisset at Santa Clara to Brooklyn, Barcelona, and now the Middle East. She took some time to respond by email about the role of art in a part of the world that's rapidly changing. She also discussed her transformation from “a clueless freshman” to working on a project at the frontiers of modern art.
Q: How would you describe Qatar to someone who has never been there?
Qatar is very uniquely positioned. They are at a sort of crossroads of the MENASA region (Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia) so it is an extremely diverse society. And in addition to their wealth drawn from their oil and gas reserves, they have used this diversity to build up a knowledge based economy with projects dedicated to arts, culture, and sports—as we can see with their win of the 2022 world cup bid.
Q: How did you find yourself at Mathaf? What do you do there?
After I graduated, I moved to New York to work at the Brooklyn Museum, where the current director of Mathaf was also working at the time. We stayed in touch and she called me when she was looking for someone to put together an education department for the museum. Moving here and working at Mathaf has been the most amazing opportunity I have received, and I still can't believe the types of projects I'm able to develop. When I first arrived, it was before we opened so I was involved in a lot of different areas to get the strategy and logistics in place for our opening. Now I've settled into my role as the Head of Education, in which I'm responsible for leading a team of educators who design and deliver the museum's programs and resources to the public.
Q: Is Mathaf the first modern art museum in Qatar, or the Middle East in general? Could you describe the museum’s goals?
(Mathaf is the first modern art museum in the Gulf, and has probably the strongest collection of modern Arab art in the world, which is a rather untold story in the field of art history. The museum's vision is to tell that story through being a preeminent platform for thought, discussion, and exchange of art on a local and transnational level. We aim to serve our diverse communities by providing innovative programs and exhibitions that will hopefully encourage our visitors to use the artworks that we feature as a springboard to learn more about art, themselves, and the world we live in.
Q: What are some of your impressions of modern art and art education in the Middle East? Can you recommend any artists that SCM blog readers should Google?
We definitely face some challenges here with regards to art education, especially when it comes to modern and contemporary art. The value of art isn't really something that is widely known or accepted, which is something I grew up with in the US as a problem also, but was surprised to see that it is even more challenging here. So we're trying to work on finding young people who don't know about or haven't had a chance to explore the transformative powers of art. With this really exciting time in the Arab world of change and a new sense of agency, it has been really interesting to see how art is a vehicle to create conversations that perhaps won't always happen in the media or elsewhere.
There are a lot of really interesting artists to check out, but I couldn't play favorites! I'd recommend looking at some of the images featured on the Mathaf website or looking at a great website called Nafas for more information on artists and initiatives working in non-Western contexts.
Q: After teaching in the U.S. and Spain as well, are there common threads that tie art students across cultures together? What are some of the most interesting differences?
There are definitely some basic experiences that I see people make regardless of where or how they were raised, and that's mainly a need to make sense out of what we see, and somehow find a place in all of it. Art has this amazing quality of being able to offer multiple interpretations and possibilities, which other areas of our lives don't. For kids, this is a natural thing to be comfortable with. But as we grow up, life puts more and more weights of responsibilities, anxieties, and distractions so that we become afraid of exploring this unknown space. So I can't say that this is any different in any of the places I have worked. Teaching in a museum setting in Doha has definitely given me a new challenge, though, of being sensitive to some major cultural differences that are coexisting in this rapidly changing place while at the same time pushing people to even have a basic sense of what modern art is and how it can help make sense of these differences.
Q: When you look back on your time at SCU, what experiences most impacted your life and career?
(I definitely wouldn't be here if it wasn't for the mentorship I found in my art history professor, Dr. Bridget Cooks. I didn't even know what jobs existed in museums, or that I even liked art until I took a class called "African Americans in Photography," which I took on a whim as a clueless freshman fulfilling core credits. I was surprised to fall completely in love with thinking and talking about images, realizing that they offered a sort of mirror onto myself and the people around me that I was never able to articulate. I ended up working as her research assistant, and she encouraged me to seek a job at the de Saisset. There, I held a couple of different jobs that were really fun, but ended up picking up the coordination of the "Explore with Me" student docent program, which was really my first time feeling confident and overwhelmingly energized by something. I also loved the way that the Sociology Department let me explore my sociology degree for what it would mean to me and these interests.
In retrospect, I don't think I was aware of how open and personalizing the faculty and staff were to me. You might have to make an effort and take some risks, but I found through the reinforcement of these mentors that any challenge—when embraced—is the key to growth.