Damien Hirst sparks controversy in Qatar
Contemporary artist Damien Hirst has created a 14 piece super-sculpture to greet patients entering the women’s healthcare centre at Sidra, Qatar’s state of the art new hospital. Weighing an enormous 216 metric tonnes, The Miraculous Journey shows a foetus developing in the womb from egg to 46ft newborn. The sculpture has been met with much controversy and debate since its original debut in 2013, and second unveiling this November. However, for Layla Ibrahim Bacha, art specialist for the Qatar Foundation, this is no bad thing. ‘They are not meant to be decorative, they are meant to be more creating debates, helping with the patient to keep calm’.
The piece was commissioned in 2009 by art enthusiast and chairwoman of the Qatar Museums Authority, Sheikha al Mayassa Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani. They are a central element of a new set of cultural initiatives that are intended to challenge “traditional boundaries” between western and eastern art in the Middle East. More generally, oil-rich Qatar is diligently expanding its contemporary art collection in a bid to makeover its capital before the 2022 World Cup. The hospital alone houses an extraordinary collection of over 65 works from all over the world, including a neon installation entitled I Listen To The Ocean And All I Hear Is You by Tracey Emin! Indeed, the rulers of Qatar are determined to turn Qatar into a global cultural destination, in pursuit of a reputation of one of the most progressive states in the region. This is particularly important at the moment in the context of an aggressive stand-off between Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
However, when the sculpture was first unveiled in 2013 it was greeted by a public outcry on social media. It was swiftly covered, officially to protect it during construction of the hospital. Hirst told Doha news “it’s the first naked sculpture in the Middle East… It’s very brave”. Yet, this is in fact in line with its intention: to spark thought, debate and discussion. Layla Bacha, representing the institution that owns the work reported “We are not expecting everyone to like them. We are not expecting everyone to understand them. This is why they are there to actually create this element of debate, this element of thinking…”. She is delighted by the interest and discussion already generated, and believes the piece to be “ becoming iconic.”
Hirst claims that he wished to create “something monumental, whilst essentially human” and simultaneously to contribute to the education of women in Qatar, “this is real and this is how it works” he explains. ”Ultimately, the journey a baby goes through before birth is bigger than anything it will experience in its human life," he said. "I hope the sculpture will instil in the viewer a sense of awe and wonder at this extraordinary human process.” Therefore, for him, Sidra was a “dream setting for the piece”, being so close to the miracle of birth. It is, above all a stunning ode to the beauty and wonder of new life, and the brave and strong women entering the hospital every day.