Qatar has been a prominent country in the sports field in the last few years. However, it is less known that Qatar has been investing more in art. More and more Qatari artists are presenting Qatar on international platforms. In this interview, we talked to Muna Khalid Al Bader, an artist, an IT engineer, the Ambassador of Qatari Art to UNESCO, and the woman who speaks in blue. So, who is Muna Khalid Al Bader?
I am a passionate person, and passion is what drives my success. I am passionate about information technology (IT), and I am passionate about art. My journey in art started long ago when I was still a student in school. I used to participate in many art competitions, and throughout the years, I have won many of them. Also, I was chosen as the supervisor of the artistic activities of my class. However, those experiences were not that big of a deal for me. I didn’t think that winning in those art competitions meant anything significant or that they made any difference in my life perhaps because art was nothing more than a subject that I had to study in school. Things changed once I finished high school. Suddenly, I had a lot of free time, so I decided to fill it by attending art workshops. One of the first comments I received in one of those workshops came from the instructor, who told me that I was very slow in completing my paintings. Where my colleagues were finishing 6 or 7 paintings, I would manage to finish one painting only. The comment was a bit disheartening, but I didn’t let it affect me. Instead, I used his comment as fuel because I believed that I had something valuable to offer. Everything changed once he saw my first painting. He was amazed by how detailed it was and how I presented my ideas in that painting so meticulously. Such experiences motivated me to attend more art workshops and learn different techniques. Years after that, I participated in an art competition open to all Arab countries, and I won first place in it, which was a huge success that motivated me to learn more about art and dive into its world. However, there was a small dilemma. Although I was passionate about art and very talented in it, which helped me win many competitions, I also loved IT. I was torn between the two as I had to decide which subject I would pursue in my undergraduate studies. Ultimately, I chose to study IT as I believed it would be a better career option. Today, I am an IT engineer during the day, and when the sun sets, I fly in the sky of art.
Could you tell us about your educational journey?
After graduating from high school, I started working and also pursuing a diploma in IT. Everyone around me was talking about jobs, getting promoted as quickly as possible, and other things that I didn’t care much about. I wanted to dive into work and learn through practice, so I didn’t confine myself to learning theories. I would create opportunities in which I could practice. For example, I would dismantle computers to study them. It might have been rare at that time to see women in technology, so when I was fixing computers at work, people were surprised to see a Qatari woman in this field. I was surprised by their reaction and view of Qataris and of women. I think my work in technology was a challenge for me to prove that women can do anything if they want to and that there is nothing such as a manly job. This experience made me happy because I was able to dismantle a stereotype they believed about Qatari women. Contrary to what people expected from me as a woman working in technology, I didn’t mind working in factories and even once worked at Jazirat Halul. All these experiences encouraged me to learn more, so I went back to study and got a higher diploma in the same field. After getting a higher diploma, I joined Virginia Commonwealth University to study art because I was told that an artist needs an art degree to be successful. However, I studied at the university for two years and eventually dropped out. I didn’t like the idea of following rules because art comes from within me, from what I feel, and my art is an expression of my feelings and myself. However, I continued learning about IT and later received a bachelor’s degree in IT engineering with distinction. By completing my bachelor’s, I felt like I had achieved my ambition in education, but it didn’t stop me from studying for a Master’s in Business Administration. I felt that understanding business management would help me in my work in IT. Also, we should continue learning and growing our expertise because things are always changing; discoveries are made, and staying up to date on the latest information in different fields will improve our knowledge.
How does your expertise in such different fields come together?
There were many instances where I was able to benefit from my knowledge in two different fields, especially using my expertise in technology to create art. For example, in 2008, I bought a tablet for digital drawing, and I would plan and sketch the art project on the tablet first and then use that plan to create the art on a canvas. And with time, I learned to use programs for designing and digital drawings, such as Photoshop, Illustrator, and applications to create animation. Another instance when I used my expertise in the two fields was during the Covid-19 pandemic. I launched a virtual art exhibition that presented more than 1000 paintings for 80 Qatari artists, and that was the first virtual art exhibition in Qatar. The exhibition was titled: Art Stay Safe. Although the technology required to create virtual exhibitions has been available in Qatar for a long time, it has never been used in such work. That is why I think the Covid crisis has opened up new horizons for technology and its integration into our lives. For example, we can use virtual exhibitions to archive exhibitions that happen in real life, which shows that the lessons we have learned during the Covid pandemic can be utilized even after it.
Another example of me merging different fields is that I have used my knowledge of business management to market my artworks through social media and digital platforms. Every knowledge and skill we learn and every experience we go through can be utilized in different areas. Furthermore, the projects that I did have an impact on other artists too. After the virtual exhibition, I noticed that artists started to care more about social media platforms and how they can use them to showcase and market their work or hold virtual exhibitions.
How was your journey thus far in both the art and IT fields?
I had a very modest beginning as an artist. However, my first participation in a competition that was open to all Arab countries and winning first place in it was a huge motivation for me. Two months after that competition, I won two awards from Sotheby’s Auction House, a very prestigious British auction house, it is considered one of the largest auction houses in the world, and It was very encouraging for me to win awards from such a reputable institution when I began my art journey. Later, I held my first solo exhibition, which was inaugurated by His Excellency Dr. Hamad bin Abdulaziz Al-Kuwari. I have also participated in many local and international exhibitions, including a few solo exhibitions. All these achievements have happened in the last two years. During those two years, I believe that I have accomplished what an artist aspires to accomplish during a very long journey. Alhamdulillah, I was lucky that I haven’t faced challenges in achieving those successes and that I’ve had the support of everyone around me, and these things have motivated me even more, not only to be more artistic but also to inspire others. My ambitions are not limited to succeeding in art, as I have a lot that I aspire to achieve in my career in IT. During my work in the IT field, I was promoted many times. I started my career as a technician; then, I was promoted to a technical support engineer and then the department supervisor. Later, I was promoted to be the head of that department, and now I am the Business Relations Manager at Milaha. This slow progression in my career has taught me a lot, and I think it’s important for a person to start their career from scratch so they can learn and become familiar with everything related to their field, rather than just chasing promotions and job titles. In addition, I still have the passion and the desire to learn more, so I am now studying for a Ph.D. in Entrepreneurship and Women and how to use social media platforms to market businesses.
Can you tell us more about your achievements?
One of my proudest achievements is to be named Art Ambassador of Qatar in 2019. I was selected at the Qatar International Art Festival to be the face of art in Qatar. And in 2021, UNESCO selected me as Qatar’s art ambassador at UNESCO in the ResiliArt Talk. Moreover, Art Without Borders, an organization in Spain, chose me as an ambassador for art from Qatar. To be honest, I don’t care about titles; what matters to me is how I do my job as an ambassador, how I represent that role, and how successful I am in doing so. As an ambassador, I believe it is my duty to make sure that the initiatives that I launch, and the activities I do, reflect positively on the artists around me, so I consider titles and positions as responsibilities rather than just an honor. As an ambassador, I have a group of tasks that includes attending art exhibitions, participating in international conferences, highlighting new artists, helping them participate in exhibitions, and providing the support they may need to develop their talents. Another achievement of mine is being selected to be in the art residency program: Fire Station: Artists in Residence. I was selected to be a part of the 2019-2020 edition.
In 2021, I drew a mural at the University of Houston in America. I consider it a great achievement because it is a renowned university and also because I was able to take my art to a new world and a different culture. Additionally, I grabbed the attention of the people there because I wore an abaya and a hijab as I was drawing in a public space. Alhamdulillah, I think my presence there has helped change their perception of Muslim women who wear hijab, and I consider that an achievement. As for IT, sometimes we are subjected to frustrating negative comments, but I always stick to positive thinking, which has been positively reflected on my co-workers. However, if I want to summarize what I see as an achievement in my life, it would be when I see that I have been an inspiration to others, that I’ve been able to help, or inspire change, whether it’s through art, through my work as an IT engineer, or through volunteering. And as an example of my influence on the art scene in Qatar is that people associate anything in blue with me and many artists reach out to me to show me their work inspired by my use of the color blue.
How was your experience in the art residency program?
In the art residency program, the artist is given a studio to create an art project during a certain time period. I decided to make a sculpture, and that was something completely new to me. I wanted to use my time in the art residency program to try something different and new, maybe because I was motivated by the artists and the artistic energy that surrounded me. It is given that when we try something new for the first time, we will fail a lot initially, which is what happened to me. I wanted to create a figure of a human being in the true dimensions, but we were hit by the Covid-19, which made it difficult to import materials from abroad. So, most of the art materials ran out of our local market, so I didn’t have the materials I needed. Furthermore, most of the shops were closed for a while to combat the spread of Corona. In addition to all these challenges, I had difficulties in creating the art piece since it was my first time. Creating sculptures requires a different set of skills, from knowing how to sculpt using different materials, planning measurements, and executing it in real life. I thought about using 3D printing to create the sculpture, but it needs a large printer that is not available in Qatar, so I would need to import it from abroad, but Covid- 19 created obstacles. I tried to reach out to many artists for help, but unfortunately, I couldn’t get the result I wanted. I had to research and study the different ways to implement the idea and how to use resin; I made molds for the sculpture. Although the submission date for the artwork was approaching, and I had not reached the final result that I wanted, I kept trying and challenging myself to complete the artwork. I believe that every failure is a lesson that teaches me what mistakes to avoid in the future. The art residency program was a unique experience and had many benefits for artists because working along with many different artists will enrich the person with new perspectives of life and their own artwork regardless of where they are in their artistic journey.
What is the secret behind your repeated use of the color blue in your paintings?
I started using the color blue by coincidence. I was painting at Katara to celebrate International Human Rights Day, and I didn’t have a lot of colors with me. So, I mixed different shades of blue and used them to complete the whole painting. And to my surprise, people loved that painting and how I specifically used blue in it. I was surprised by the people’s admiration for my use of blue, so I searched for the meaning of the color and what it represents and found that you cannot find the color blue a lot in nature and that it is difficult to make and extract. Before that incident, I used to use strong colors and create my paintings on large canvases, as I liked the freedom that big space gives you to paint. I used to draw a lot of wedding scenes, and I was trying to recreate the joy and happiness that one sees during weddings through my strokes. That is what was known about me as an artist. However, and perhaps due to the influence of other artists and my experiences over the years, I started to walk in a different direction. When I found out that the color blue represents serenity which I have always tried to capture in my paintings, I slowly started exploring everything blue. I learned how to create different shades of blue and created whole paintings just using those shades. This technique was something new in Qatar’s art scene, as it was not common for an artist to create art in just one color.
Could you tell us more about your art exhibitions?
I had many exhibitions for my artwork. However, “Dan Danah” has a special place in my heart. It was held in 2019, after 15 years since I started my journey in art. It has a special place in my heart because it was a great success, and people loved it. It was a hit with the audience, and due to the high demand, we had to extend the exhibition’s opening hours. After it ended, people from Kuwait, America, and Britain contacted me to buy some of the paintings that were displayed in that exhibition. I was on cloud nine because of how successful the exhibition was, but at the same time, I was overwhelmed because it meant that expectations for any upcoming exhibitions would be higher. Sometimes, a huge success can make me worried about the future as it creates a higher standard for any upcoming project, but it also means that success challenges me to work even harder.
Have you faced any challenges in your journey?
I have faced some difficulties in balancing between work and art. The more work responsibilities I had, the less time I had for art. However, I have started to learn how to organize my time, so I set for myself eight hours for work, and then I devote the rest of the time to myself and for art or to do other things like volunteering, which I have been doing since the beginning of the Corona pandemic. I realized that I love volunteering, maybe because I like to help others, so volunteering is perfect for me because I can be helpful to others and see the effect of that on their faces. Also, volunteering brings me great comfort. One of my volunteering works was with the Qatari Red Crescent to help the people in quarantine in hotels during the pandemic, specifically those traveling. Our aim was to provide them with company and relief in their isolation. Indeed, every journey comes with its challenges, and one of them is facing the negative comments that surround us. Some people thought I wouldn’t succeed and get promoted without a degree, but I used those comments as fuel to keep me going, and in the end, what matters to me is that I do what I love.
What is your advice for women in Qatar?
Be passionate, let that passion guide you in life, and hold on to it regardless of the difficulties.
- Interview written by Fatema Ahmad.
- Interview was edited to improve readability and flow.