The Doha, Qatar, branch campus of VCUarts may be half a world away, but kindred spirits bridge cultural divides in this desert city.

The Doha, Qatar, branch campus of VCUarts may be half a world away, but kindred spirits bridge cultural divides in this desert city.

In November 1997, Richard Toscan, then dean of VCU School of the Arts in Richmond, stood in the desert of Qatar, a small peninsula reaching northward into the Arabian Gulf from Saudi Arabia. There, in the vast monochromatic landscape of shifting sand, located about 30 minutes outside of the country’s capital city of Doha, he saw a modest building, and, a half-mile off in the all-but-empty distance, another equally unremarkable structure. But he saw something else—opportunity.

A year later, the site became home to the university’s first branch campus—VCU Qatar, which this year celebrates its 15th anniversary.

VCU was the first Western university to be invited to start a program in Qatar’s Education City—today a 3,500-acre super campus enrolling more than 4,000 students from all over the world, and comprising programs from seven top universities in addition to VCU: Weill Cornell Medical College, Texas A&M University, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, Carnegie Mellon University, Northwestern University, HEC Paris and University College London.

Though VCUQ (known until 2002 as Shaqab College of Design Arts) began as an all-girls school, it went coed in 2006 and now enrolls more than 250 students (about 50 percent are Qatari nationals) representing 42 nationalities. It offers a bachelor of fine arts degree in graphic design, fashion design, interior design and painting and printmaking, as well as a new bachelor of arts degree in art history, which was established in 2012, and a master of fine arts degree in design studies.

But why Qatar? How did the far-flung oil and natural gas-rich Middle Eastern monarchy, half a world away, find its way to Richmond? And, just as curious, why did VCU say yes?

“In August 1997, I received a call” from a pair of representatives of Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Thani—one of the three wives of the Emir of Qatar at the time, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani—who was then developing a new private university in Qatar, says Toscan. Charged with identifying the world’s top schools for art and design and making a short list of candidates to be at the vanguard of the Sheikha’s education initiative, the pair looked at U.S. News & World Report’s list of schools for the top 25 in art and design (VCUarts was ranked 19th at the time) and made contact with those they thought would be culturally compatible: “It was very Japanese-like at the time in Doha,” says Toscan referring to the Qataris’ emphasis on restraint, hospitality and public decorum. The pair quickly eliminated schools in the Northeast and the West, and focused on those in the mid-Atlantic.  

The Sheikha’s representatives looked at other leading art and design schools around the world, but Toscan and his team from VCUarts were the only team that Sheikha Mozah wanted to meet. The cohort traveled to Qatar that November: “We were waiting in her palace, and in walks this stunning woman dressed in Western garb. … She stuck out her hand—I was surprised because we’d been told never to shake hands with an Arab woman—and asked why I was interested.” Toscan answered that he had for some time been “intrigued” with the notion of single sex education for women and thought that Qatar’s culture seemed to be one where single-sex education made sense. “She asked if I was a feminist,” laughs Toscan. “I said, well, I’m married to one.” The Sheikha laughed, too, and in less than a year, VCUQ moved into a brand new 40,000-square-foot building and enrolled its first 33 students.

“Gene Trani was president of the university then and was a great risk-taker, so we decided to take the leap to see if it could work,” recalls Toscan. He says the prospect of starting a curriculum from scratch was exciting, but “what caught my attention was, first, that Qatar would pay the whole freight of this thing, including a building.” And, he adds, “We were going to get a very nice, hefty fee we could use to invest in the school.”

The Qatar Foundation, a state-run organization established in 1995 and headed by Sheikha Mozah that funds a broad spectrum of education, science, research and community development projects in the country, offered to pay 100 percent of the school’s operating expenses in addition to constructing the building. The fee—Toscan won’t disclose the figure, honoring his original confidentiality agreement with QF—gave VCUarts the resources it needed to pursue Toscan’s goal to become one of the nation’s top five art schools. “I wanted to increase our national reputation,” he explains. “When people saw VCUarts’ name on a resume, I wanted them to say, ‘I need to pay attention.’” By 2003, U.S. News & World Report ranked VCUarts the #1 public university arts program in the country (Toscan retired in 2010). Today VCUarts retains that position (fourth overall), and holds the top slot for best sculpture program in the country as well.

VCU recently signed a new 10-year contract with the Qatar Foundation to continue its mission. That empty sea of scrub and sand that Toscan saw in 1997 is now filled with sparkling new buildings (the other universities each have their own buildings and similar financial agreements with QF), including dormitories, faculty housing and even a stable. Three years ago, QF funded a renovation of VCUQ’s building, doubling its size. Expanded spaces include a media lab, digital fabrication lab, printmaking studios, photography studio, an expanded library and the first materials library in the region.

VCUQ and the other universities and research organizations in Education City comprise the Hamad Bin Khalifa University community—named for the former Emir, 61-year-old Sheikh Hamad, founder of the Qatar Foundation who took control of the country in 1995 after deposing his father in a bloodless coup. (He ceded power to his second son, 33-year-old Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani last June, when he stepped down and named the heir apparent the new Emir of Qatar.) The community shares a 108,000-square-foot student center that houses indoor waterfalls, a cinema, a bowling alley, an arcade and a dramatic sculpture garden in addition to the more quotidian coffee shop and bookstore.

It has been estimated that as much as $40 billion has been spent on education projects in recent years in Qatar. And oil and gas power it all: Since the discovery of the world’s largest natural gas reserve there in the 1970s, the country has transformed from one of the poorest to one of the richest: Qatar’s annual GDP per capita is more than $100,000, according to the CIA World Factbook, and double that of the U.S.

It is the largesse of Qatar’s ruling family that has funded QF’s education initiatives: Sheikh Hamad launched Al Jazeera, the Pan-Arab satellite television network, not long after taking power and, during his 18-year reign, amassed international holdings that include London’s iconic department store, Harrod’s, and Italian luxury label, Valentino. The motivation for the big spend on education? “The blessing of the oil and gas won’t last forever,” Sheikh Abdulla bin Ali Al Thani, Ph.D., a member of the ruling family and president of Hamad Bin Khalifa University, told BBC News in 2012, “so focusing on something more sustainable is more important.”

“I think about all the schools that are over there,” says current Dean of VCUarts Joe Seipel. “They looked around and cherry-picked the best operations. We’re really proud to be there.” Seipel travels to Qatar regularly. His most recent visit was in March for the eighth international art and design conference, Tasmeem. Organized by and held at VCUQ every other year, the conference brings together students and faculty from the Richmond and Qatar campuses with artists and students from around the world for a week-long series of exhibitions, charettes, tours, presentations by international artists, designers and architects, and collaborative workshops and labs.

The 2013 conference involved 160 students from 74 countries, including 38 students and faculty from Richmond, and was designed around the theme, “Hybrid Making,” exploring the role of art and design in the transformation of Doha from a small pearl-fishing village to a growing center of international influence. Architect Rem Koolhaas, whose projects include the new headquarters of China Central Television in Beijing and the Qatar National Library, delivered the conference’s keynote speech.

“The kinds of activities that went on were amazing,” says Seipel. “They brought in professional artists from around the world who worked with these student teams to make these wonderful, wild, crazy things, like solar-powered bicycles connected to things like big inflatables, and people taking tents, taking them apart and making different things with them, then making them back into tents again.”

“It was really great to kind of be removed, out of the situation I’ve been comfortable in,” says VCUarts senior Alex Curley, 21, a double major in art education and sculpture, who participated in the conference for the first time this year. “Qatar is one of the biggest buyers of contemporary art in the world right now. It just put it in perspective that you don’t need to go to New York to be an artist. There are so many different types of art in the world.” (In 2012, The Economist reported that the Al Thanis are estimated to have spent over $1 billion on Western art alone in the last decade, including the record $250 million purchase of Paul Cézanne’s The Card Players in 2011.)

VCUarts sculpture and extended media department assistant professor, Corin Hewitt, led one of the week’s workshops: the building of a masonry wall in the exhibition space of the Arab Museum of Modern Art. “I was interested in the rapid shift in identity in the country and how this generation of Qataris have been afforded a less direct experience with the materiality of the city that surrounds them,” explains Hewitt of the thinking behind his project.

Doha is a city under construction 24/7. Its futuristic skyline comprises gleaming modern buildings designed by leading international architects—including I.M. Pei who created the imposing Museum of Islamic Art—that rise up, mirage-like, out of Doha’s harbor. Everywhere is the detritus of this constant construction—piles of concrete block, stucco, mortar powder. The students “are surrounded by buildings of concrete and steel, but many in this generation probably never mixed cement,” says Hewitt. (Most of the students at VCUQ are the children of well-to-do Qataris and expats who regard manual labor as the exclusive work of the lower castes.)  

Asma Hosna, a 20-year-old VCUQ junior majoring in interior design was one of the students working on Hewitt’s team. Born in Bangladesh, but a resident of Qatar since she was three years old, Hosna says her biggest challenge on the project was wearing her abaya; she layered a work jumpsuit over her traditional floor-length black robe and shayla (head scarf), to help haul cement and bricks to construct the wall.

“This was an art-making conference, getting filthy, making projects,” says Elizabeth King, professor in VCUarts’ sculpture and extended media department who participated in the conference. “A lot of the women [in Qatar] wear the full abaya, and they had to roll their sleeves up. In a way this surprised everyone—seeing the way these women effortlessly navigated the divide between the messiness of the work and the decorum and tradition of the abaya.”

“Many might take abaya as a challenge, and the solution to it might be to dress in something else,” says Hosna. “But for me, I feel I carry my dignity in my abaya, and changing to a different dressing isn’t my option. So I carried on with it, and it wasn’t impossible. Dressing won’t really matter if you have the will and determination to do it.”

“We think of the abaya as being some kind of cloak of oppression, but women have turned it into a beautiful, fashionable piece of apparel,” says Sandra Wilkins, a VCU faculty member since 1977 who has headed the fashion department at VCUQ and lived in Qatar since the beginning. (Western women are not required to cover in Qatar but are advised to dress modestly.)

Wilkins, who had never been to the Middle East before she agreed to teach in Qatar, says, “I was told it was dangerous and that they didn’t care for Americans or Westerners, but all of the things I had heard about were not true.” Wilkins says when she first went to Qatar, people asked if she was afraid. Her answer? An emphatic no. (She confesses to but one fear—the drivers in Doha’s traffic-congested city of nearly two million.)

What about 9/11? “It was a huge earthquake for us,” says Toscan, “because we didn’t know what would happen in Qatar, what their attitudes would be.” He describes an outpouring of sympathy following the attacks: “Our colleagues and parents and students urged us to stay in the country. ” He says they wanted “us not to feel like they shared anything in common with bin Laden.” Though faculty had the opportunity to leave the country, Toscan says not one of them did.

 VCUarts and VCUQ students who have had experience on each other’s campuses will say that they have found they have more in common than they expected. Hisham Dawoud, 21, a VCUQ senior majoring in fashion design, spent a semester studying in Richmond in 2012 (QF funds 3 exchange students from each campus each semester), and says that once, while pulling an all-nighter, he “came across a student who was riding a gyro car [a child’s toy]. I literally jumped at the sight of it, because we had one the exact same color back home in our department 7,000 miles away. I realized we really are more alike than I had imagined .… I blended right in.”

 But as alike as the world’s 18- to 22-year-olds may be, there are significant cultural differences between east and west, even in a country as friendly to the west as Qatar—home to the largest U.S. air base in the region, and host in 2022 of the FIFA World Cup. It begs the question: How does an art and design school firmly based in the traditions of Western art translate in a Muslim country?

“We have some modifications that are both cultural and context specific,” explains Allyson Vanstone, dean since 2007 of VCUQ. “It is culturally inappropriate to have nude model drawing,” so drawing in Qatar is instead taught using objects that have amorphic shapes. The human figure is embedded in the Western tradition of art, but the tradition of Islamic art, with its wide use of calligraphy, is very different, at least in the areas of religious art and architecture. The Islamic resistance to figural representation stems from a belief that only God creates living forms.

Vanstone says they also include bilingual typography in the graphic design program to incorporate Arabic text and fonts.

“The one thing we really do not want to do, is we do not want our students to lose their identity—who they are at the core, and their culture at the core. It’s not for us to do that,” says Seipel.

“We’re there to help them express themselves as who they are. What sense would it make for us to try to make a Chicago artist out of them?” Seipel says he is eager to avoid clichés “because it is so easy to fall into that.” But, he adds, “When you meet at a person to person level, there is one thing about art and design, it bypasses other barriers.

“Once these students are focused in their creative fields this creative energy just pops between the two of them, and there’s something marvelous about it because, in the mix of their conversations, in the mix of their developing a project, there’s always a looking back and forth at each other and saying well, what happens from your point of view, and how do we work this out? Well, that’s what education is about. It’s pretty interesting.”,

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