Mathaf, Arab Museum of Modern Art (pronounced mat-haf) is a new modern art museum in Doha, Qatar. Its mission is to showcase modern and contemporary art from the region, shifting existing perceptions of arts practice in the Arab world, and provide a forum for dialogue and scholarship. An existing building, in the traditional style, was redesigned by French architect Jean-François Bodin and the new branding was handled by the Dubai office of Wolff Olins with two custom typefaces, one by Tarek Atrissi Design and another by Pascal Zoghbi from 29ArabicLetters.
Branding for art organisations, particularly museums and galleries, have an almost universally accepted visual language, code, or style. Some of the more adept branding practitioners have managed to confound those expectations recently, but overall there’s a way most art galleries look and behave — it tells us ‘we are very serious, our walls are very white, the pictures are hung very straight, there is a very expensive gift shop at the end’.
Mathaf manages to sit comfortably amongst this world, whilst pulling off a slight twist. Its identity is almost wholly expressed through typography, and attention has clearly been lavished in this area. As someone with little to no expertise in Arabic typography, I’ll refrain from making too many comments on that aspect, other than to say this is probably one of the more pleasing English / Arabic double version logo I have seen to date. As simple a trick the left/right swap may seem, it’s sensitive, refined and elegant whilst retaining a link to the hand rendered essence of Arabic script. But then again, what do I know…
What’s with the squiggle? Across the English and Arabic logo versions, the ‘a’ or ‘ha’ characters respectively, are replaced by the hand doodled character. It’s a neat element that creates an even stronger link between the two logo versions, though I wonder if the typography could have that done that job on its own. But on deeper reflection, the squiggle also does a great job of introducing the creative, chaotic element of artistic expression, into what might otherwise had been a very clinical logotype indeed.
The squiggle sets up other elements throughout the identity using handwritten typography, which balances rather well with the perfection of the bespoke typeface. Some vibrant, poppy colours sprinkled in and the overall feel communicates a contemporary, worldly organisation firmly grounded in its rich cultural history. Unfortunately the jarring way that big grey box Jean-François Bodin plonked over the facade is another matter, but it does show the simple left/right alignment flip of the logo coming together in one place to show an Arabic museum with a western outlook. Or is it an Arabic outlook for a prototypically ‘white cube’ western art museum?
Like the infamous scene from Pulp Fiction, Wolff Olins are an adrenaline shot straight to the heart of the Brand New community — their work is heavily commented on, fiercely debated, loved or loathed. Often I’ve found the identities that garner the most controversy on launch, end up being the most appreciated, and imitated, over time. I can’t help but think this identity won’t cause much controversy at all. Really, it’s all very nice and well sorted out. This identity would look good in Shoreditch, the Bowery, Shibuya or Paddington. Anywhere people look at art and take themselves seriously while doing it. As for Doha, well I can’t really comment, but I imagine it’d work there too.