One Big @#% Ankaboot
Last month Qatar Museums Authority unveiled the newest public art work to be obtained for Doha – one big #@% spider! It is one of Louise Bourgeois’ famous “Maman”s. When QMA requested I write the catalogue essay, I was hesitant. After all, everyone and their er-maman has something to write about it.
Still, I agreed to go view her. At the time construction was still going on and the workers were using the MASSIVE speaker system to play radio during the work day. When I came up into that huge atrium (I do not jest) it was to Freddie Mercury’s perfect yodel.
“Mama! oOoO!” echoed all around Maman.
Bohemian Rhapsody was drowning out the sound of saws and hammers.
And she was so big, I mean huge.
I couldn’t say no.
Sadly, I did not include anything about the musical serendipity of my experience in the catalogue essay (that be what this blog is for). And I warn you it is written in my pardon-me-for-sounding-like-a-jerk-but-this-is-official-business-voice. H8 if you need to.
Meanwhile, for your visual aid – MAMAN, IN DOHA & FOR SOME REASON, IN BLUE:
Also! Before you get tangled up in all that – if you are in Doha, I recommend taking a drive on the road outside Qatar Foundation at dusk. If you look to your right driving away from the city, you’ll be able to catch a glimpse of her through the window. She is a rather arresting sight.
“And We have instructed humans to be good to their parents.” Qur’an, Surat Al-Ankaboot (Chapter of the Spider), verse 8
Standing sheltered in the arch of MAMAN’s eight sinewy legs is a primal experience. Her laden body hangs ten meters overhead, twenty polished marble eggs just visible through the bronze mesh of her belly. If it is possible to feel the contradictory sensations of fear and comfort at once, she evokes them. The presence of this massive, matronly arachnid is singular no matter the context. The arrival in Doha of the late Louise Bourgeois’s iconic sculpture of a spider is an exceptionally potent event not only in the history of Qatar’s public art collection but in the placement of MAMAN in different cultural contexts throughout the world.
The French–American sculptor and grande dame of confessional art Louise Bourgeois created MAMAN (French for “Mama”) for the 2000 inaugural commission of the Tate Modern’s Unilever Series. Mining the traumas and relationships in her own life as a creative quarry, Bourgeois created MAMAN as a tribute to her mother Josephine, a “weaver” who ran a workshop for restoration of medieval and renaissance tapestries in the early part of the 20th century. Conceived towards the very end of Bourgeois’s life and during a flourish of activity in the late 1990s, the MAMAN on display in Qatar is the largest example of her many spider sculptures. Today, seeing MAMAN (of which there are six bronze casts in the world) nestled in the impressive boughs of the Qatar National Convention Center, the already visceral reaction to the artwork is only heightened. She stands in wait at the center of a 40,000 square-meter structure inspired and designed in the shape of a sidra tree. Visible from the road behind a web of glass and steel, the location of MAMAN is symbolically potent as she watches over Qatar Foundation’s Education City. Overlooking this vast academic compound, one is reminded of the express intentions of Her Highness Sheikha Moza Bint Nasser, upon the founding of Education City, to create a safe and nurturing space of potential and growth.
Beyond the base human reaction to the sculpture, there is also a very special cultural resonance that the local public brings to the experience of encountering MAMAN. The spider holds an honored place in Islamic tradition. The Holy Qur’an includes a chapter titled “The Spider”, quoted above, and Muslim children everywhere are taught from their first squeamish encounters with spiders that it is forbidden to kill one. This protective, culturally specific attitude towards the spider is linked directly to the story of the Prophet Mohamed (PBUH) and his companion Abu Bakr’s narrow escape from a band of Meccan assassins on their way to Medina. Upon taking refuge from their aggressors inside a cave, they saw a tiny spider quickly weave her silver web over the entrance, throwing the trackers off the trail and sparing the two men from harm. Humbled by this miracle, the Prophet taught his followers that spiders were to be treated with respect.
As a profound and easily accessible work of modern art, I hope that the unveiling of Bourgeois’s ode to our origins transcends the usual boundaries that separate the general public from modern art. Like few other works, MAMAN transfixes art collectors and construction workers alike. In relation to her commanding presence, we are all tiny and meek. She ensnares equally everyone who crosses her path and therein lies her true power. After all, it doesn’t matter to MAMAN where you are from or where you are going; to her you are only human and she is there to remind you of that.