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Rachel Gadsden presents This Breathing World in Qatar / 18 March 2013

photo of group including royals attend a bodymapping workshop

Rachel Gadsden presents a bodymapping workshop in Qatar

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It is an easy 6 hour flight from London to Qatar; where it is late spring and like a hot English summer.

Qatar, so the brochures tell us, is the only true desert nation; and my first impressions are just so: from the rooftop of our base at the Torch Hotel indeed the desert does surround us. If, conveniently, for the time being, I set aside the rich Bedouin heritage, Qatar, in addition, is almost brand new. New in any case in the sense of the speed with which over say twenty years it has set about coming to terms with vast oil and gas wealth and concurrently developing a relationship with the west.

There is a truly space-age skyline, still under construction (and which has to be seen to be believed); a corniche; a falconry festival. There is a vast village of culture, Katara, where the brand new symphony orchestra play, and in one gallery of which we set up our exhibition of paintings; and here where I sit in a traffic jam at the main road intersection in the newly built Aspire District, the sporting centre of Qatar through which we drive every day, stands a monumental hording advertising… well, I don’t know quite what, because I can't read Arabic…but depicting centre stage a sportsman who is a wheelchair user.

We are here in Qatar at the behest of the British Council to mount an exhibition of Rachel Gadsden’s paintings at Katara Culture Village as part of the first ever Art and Disability Festival in the Middle East which is to include, amongst many other events, performances by Claire Cunningham and Mark Brew (in collaboration with Evelyn Glennie).

Rachel’s own exhibition has the title This Breathing World and sets about addressing her perennial themes of fragility and hope under four main headings, namely: Unlimited Global Alchemy, the work that she made during her residency and collaboration in South Africa in 2012 for the Cultural Olympiad, and focussing upon issues connected with the availability of life-giving medication; In Their Human Gloves, a series of expressionistic paintings which use as their starting point the extremes of the human condition; Power and Glory, images relating to the London 2012 Paralympic Games; You Inhabit My Soul, referencing the influence of Rachel’s early upbringing in the Middle East upon her adult consciousness.

These artworks seemed to have been held up in customs, so we didn’t get them on site till late one afternoon a day and a half before the opening, and so the hang was last minute.

The opening took place on the evening of Thursday 14th March and was marked by a painting workshop which Rachel undertook inside the gallery space for the benefit of fifteen or so local Qatari young disabled people. The show was formally opened by HRH Prince Charles and HRH the Duchess of Cornwall accompanied by HE the Minister of Culture, Arts and Heritage, Dr Hamad bin Abdulaziz al-Kuwari and Katara director general, Dr Khalid al-Sulaiti, all of whom were introduced to the young people and stayed to chat to them about their work.

The opening turned out to be a wonderful event. By the time the Royals arrived, most of the artistic mayhem had subsided, and an impressive array of interwoven bodymap-paintings lay on the floor of the gallery – competing with Rachel’s own paintings on its walls.

It was my very first experience of a royal visit. Charles and Camilla were greeted with a fanfare; an entourage, and an arbitrary timetable; but despite considerable pressure they switched that side of things off completely and devoted all of their energies to the young people.

Then Rachel led the Royals around the exhibition. Few may know that Rachel’s artistic career began with a Princes Youth Business Trust Award twenty five years ago, so Rachel was able to discuss with Charles and Camilla her motivations and achievements and interest in how disability issues have become intrinsic to her practice in the intervening years.

So, first and superficial impressions. Well, simply that in every sphere the Qataris are coming up to speed very quickly. As a nation they are having to ‘travel’ further than most and in an infinitely shorter time. In the field of disability the speed and momentum seems to be no different. There is a clear will to address shortcomings comprehensively and quickly.

Last Thursday we travelled to Bahrain for 5 days for a live drawing commission and to begin the first of a series of workshops at schools for disabled young people. Then it is back to Qatar on the 19th for the fuller opening of the Arts and Disability Festival on the 20th March. Exciting times.

Keywords: visual arts