A museum exhibition in Doha that was supposed to open a “bridge of friendship” between Greece and Qatar ended in embarrassment for both after a Greek cultural minister refused to let Qatari officials cover the genitalia of two traditional Greek nudes.
Qatar Museums Authority’s “Olympics: Past and Present” exhibition at the Qatar Olympic and Sports Museum opened March 27 with what it has been described as the largest showcase of its kind tracing the ancient and modern Olympic Games.
The statues in question, dating to between the sixth and second centuries B.C., were to be the centerpiece of the “Olympia: Myth – Cult – Games” section, which takes visitors through the history of ancient Olympia with more than 600 original objects on loan from the National Archeological Museum, the Numismatic Museum and the Museum of Olympia, birthplace of the games.
The cultural exchange was widely regarded as a way for cash-strapped Greece to woo investors from the energy-rich Persian Gulf emirate, which has filed two unsuccessful bids in recent years to host the Olympic Games.
In January, Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras announced that Qatar would invest as much as €1 billion ($1.3 billion) in a joint fund with Athens. Shortly afterward, the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, bought six isles in the Ionian Sea for his three wives and 24 children. Then, in March, Greece’s junior minister for culture, Costas Tzavaras, traveled to Doha on a bridge-building mission to tour the then-forthcoming Olympics exhibit, and that’s when relations between the two nations soured.
“Organizers in Qatar wanted to cover up the statues’ members with black cloth,” a culture ministry source told Agence France-Presse. “So they were never put on display. They went back into storage and returned [to Greece] on April 19.”
The statues, a Classical Greek youth and a Roman-era copy of an athlete, are now back on display at the National Archeological Museum. Like the Olympic competitors of antiquity they depict, both are shown sporting in the nude.
Qatari officials insisted the drapes were a precautionary measure to avoid “scandalizing” female visitors, but, in the end, Greece objected, saying the statues should be displayed in all their anatomical glory.
A representative of the Qatar Museums Authority, or QMA, told Doha News that initial AFP reports last week were false, and that the statues’ removal was “not due to censorship.”
“The decision to remove the objects was based on the flow of the exhibition, awareness of the outreach to all schools and families in Qatar, and desire to be sensitive to community needs and standards,” the QMA representative said.
Doha News explained that residents of the Middle East hold conflicting views on the arts, citing a survey last year showing that six out of 10 Arabs expressed support for government censorship of the arts.
Respondents said regulatory bodies and state-affiliated institutions were necessary, given that art could be “inappropriate” and offend “religious beliefs.”
Interestingly, while QMA authorities reportedly deemed the male genitalia too tantalizing for female visitors, they seemed to have had no problem with female breasts scandalizing the males. Statues like the partially bare-breasted Nike remain intact and on view in Doha through the end of June.