It has taken ten years, countless construction delays, a reported one billion dollars and not a bit of controversy to build the Louvre Abu Dhabi, which finally opened its doors to the public on 11 November last year. The result of an agreement signed between France and the United Arab Emirates in 2007—for which the Louvre Paris collected $520 million in fees for the use of its brand, over a period of 30 years—the new museum sits on Saadiyat Island, a 27 square kilometre desert island 500 metres off Abu Dhabi’s coast.
While the Louvre Abu Dhabi is the lone jewel in this vacant landscape, a cluster of commercial, residential and leisure developments as well as museums are intended to keep it company in the future. Four other museums are expected to be included in the Saadiyat Island development. They include a maritime museum by Japanese architect Tadao Ando and a performing arts centre by Zaha Hadid. The Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum is thus far the only one to have been begun, laying foundations and infrastructure in 2010 but appears to remain some years from completion. Plans for a Norman Foster-designed Zayed National Museum have stalled after a rift in the museum’s ten-year partnership with the British Museum due to frustration over construction delays.
Since the Saadiyat Island cultural development was first proposed, much has changed in the country’s economic position due to a dramatic drop in oil prices. The UAE is currently the seventh-largest petroleum producer in the world and hydrocarbon export revenues account for roughly 20% of all export revenue. The goal is that the museum will transform Abu Dhabi from a playground of the oil-rich into a post-oil cultural capital, much like the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Bilbao put the city of Bilbao in Spain on the cultural tourism map.
One of seven Emirates—others including Dubai and Sharjah—with a population of only 2.784 million, Abu Dhabi has arguably undertaken one of the most ambitious projects of the 21st century in trying to create the region’s ‘first universal museum’. But the museum promises to be more than that. In a region torn apart by difference and intolerance, Jean-Luc Martinez, President-Director of the Musée du Louvre, hopes the museum will be ‘an antidote to the poison of hatred and barbarism’. His Excellency Mohamed Khalifa Al Mubarak stated the Louvre Abu Dhabi will be ‘a centre that will broadcast tolerance, acceptance and culture’. The opening address was heavy on rhetoric of openness, equality and inclusivity—buzz words reflecting our aspirational zeitgeist. Driving towards the museum on a scorching afternoon I noticed a large banner advertising the museum that read ‘We live by the same light’. Yet in the background, controversy has dogged the museum over the exploitation and abuse of migrant workers; workers largely from the Indian subcontinent experienced what many have claimed amounted to forced labour conditions, with accusations made regarding the withholding of wages and passports by employers, alongside allegedly other abusive practices. Liberté, égalité, fraternité… The Pritzker Architecture Prize winner Jean Nouvel himself dismissed these concerns as an ‘old question’. The detainment of two Swiss journalists (who were also reporting on the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s opening) for filming migrant workers at an open-air market (very much a detour from the itinerary) was indication enough that we were all here to nibble on baklava and focus on the star attraction: the dazzling museum that promises to redefine the idea of the modern museum. And it is a breath-taking mirage to behold.
Across the sandy desert landscape, a metal domed roof hovers above the cluster of white blocks. Comprised of 55 buildings—with 23 galleries—the museum complex resembles an archipelago floating on blue water. The Jean Nouvel-designed cluster of buildings is modelled around the idea of an Arab medina, giving the impression of a ‘neighbourhood’ rather than just a building, explains the architect. ‘It is a meeting point of art work and people, of cultural meetings’ he continued in the opening address. The museum’s design is a dialogue between sun, sea and desert. The water surrounding the complex is reflected in dapples across the white stone. Inside the museum, light pierces through the geometric metal dome ceiling creating a mosaic effect with fragments of the sky above and sunlight penetrating down into the space below. Nouvel calls it a ‘rain of light’, evocative of overlapping palm trees in the region’s oases. And indeed, the space does inspire peace and calm. The design takes much inspiration from its surrounding environment and is rich in traditional Arab symbolism. The dome—constructed of eight layers of interlocking steel and aluminium creating a design of more than 7,800 metal stars—is suggestive of traditional Arab patterns. Leading from the car park and then dotted around the museum complex are white slatted screens, inspired by mashrabiya—the traditional Arabic ornate latticework screens that give shade and protection from the sun.
Inside, under the museum’s vast dome visitors are greeted by commissioned site-specific works including Italian Arte Povera artist Giuseppe Penone’s large bronze tree sculpture—Leaves of Light (2017)—whose branches, hung with shards of mirrors, reach up towards the domed ceiling, reflecting the space around it in broken fragments. A large wall limestone relief, For the Louvre Abu Dhabi (2017), by American artist Jenny Holzer—based on a Mesopotamian tablet, a 14th-century text by Arab scholar Ibn Khaldun and writing by French philosopher Michel de Montaigne—is the backdrop for Auguste Rodin’s Walking Man, on a Column (created in 2006 by Fonderie Coubertin). It was surprising and disappointing that a regional artist could not have been commissioned to create something for the space. In fact, regional artists were not a major feature in this ‘universal museum’.
Divided into 12 chapters that traverse time—from prehistoric era to today—the inaugural exhibition tells the story of humanity with a collection of artefacts and artworks that cross cultures and civilisation. It was the history of the world in 600 objects—with 300 loans from 13 French museums including the Centre Pompidou, the Musée d’Orsay and the Palace of Versailles—curated to highlight commonality throughout humanity rather than examine differences. With galleries titled ‘Asian Trade Routes’, ‘Civilisations and Empires’, and ‘The First Great Powers’, the museum aims to rethink the narrative of the traditional museum by juxtaposing old, new, Western, African and Asian, emphasising interactions between civilisations. In a vitrine dedicated to maternity (the maternity ward, if you will), an ancient Egyptian statuette of the goddess Isis nursing her son Horus, stands next to a medieval French sculpture of the Virgin and Child and a 19th-century maternity figure from Congo’s Yombe culture, highlighting preoccupations with fertility in ancient communities. In the dimly lit gallery of ‘Universal Religions’, books from three monotheistic religions—a 6th-century Quran, a gothic Bible and a Yemeni Torah—rest side by side, opened at verses carrying the same message. In a country that does not have one single synagogue, the museum has indeed stepped up as a space of dialogue between various cultures and communities.
An exquisite small Bactrian ‘princess’ stone statue from Central Asia (3rd/2nd millennium BCE), a silver Ottoman turban helmet (15th century) and a bronze Oba head from the Kingdom of Benin (19th century) are also amongst the museum’s treasures. The oil-rich emirate also presents 235 of its own impressive acquisitions, including an 11th/12th century bronze lion from either Andalusia or southern Italy—which has a hidden mechanism to make the lion roar—and a bronze Winged Dragon from Northern China from 475–221 BCE. It is a beautiful and elegantly displayed collection of high quality historical objects and artefacts. And despite the many rooms one must navigate through one doesn’t feel overwhelmed or fatigued by the amount of art on offer. The galleries are just small enough, with enough breathing space between displays, to allow the viewer to take in the bite-sized collections in each room.
The city’s conservative mores are reflected in the absence of nudity throughout the galleries. A pair of male nudes by Canova retain their modesty with fig leaves intact, while several others were more castrated than Adonis. In the painting galleries there was nary a nipple to be seen—no bathing nymphs or seductive Venuses—demonstrating that women don’t always have to be naked to make it into a museum, although works by women barely feature at all. In its ambition to create a ‘global’ museum, the curators seem to have forgotten females. In the galleries covering the 19th and 20th centuries, where paintings seem to dominate, a gender bias becomes pronounced—I counted three female artists—and the curation towards an all-inclusive universal museum becomes less convincing.
There is also a conspicuous absence of Middle Eastern and Arab-Muslim artists. The gallery titled ‘Challenging Modernity’, which focuses on the works of 20th-century artists, features predominately Western art icons such as Rene Magritte, Pablo Picasso, Wassily Kandinsky and Yves Klein. There is a Piet Mondrian—Composition with Blue, Red, Yellow and Black (1922)—acquired by the museum in 2009. Amongst the artworks on loan from French institutions are Leonardo da Vinci’s La Belle Ferronnière (the Louvre)—one of about 15 da Vincis in existence and the first time the painting has ever left Europe; James McNeill Whistler’s Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1 (1871) known as ‘Whistler’s Mother’; Vincent van Gogh’s Self-portrait (1887, Musée d’Orsay); and Napoleon Bonaparte, First Consul, crossing the Alps at Great St. Bernard Pass, 20 May 1800 by Jacques-Louis David (1803, Château de Versailles). A sculpture by Lebanese artist Saloua Raouda Choucair—who died earlier last year—is one of very few notable inclusions from the Middle East.
In the 12th ‘chapter’ of the exhibition, titled ‘A Global Stage’—a room presenting global contemporary art—there are, by my count, just three Arab-Muslim artists, including a wall installation of burned cooking pots by Maha Malluh (Saudi Arabia) and a video installation by Abdullah al Aadi (United Arab Emirates). A large crystal chandelier, Fountain of light (2017), by Ai Weiwei—inspired by Vladimir Tatlin’s proposed monument to the Communist International—dominates the gallery room. It’s presented alongside a photographic series by Zhang Huan, and a painting by South African artist Duncan Wylie. A lone Australian Aboriginal dot painting by Ningura Napurrula is hung next to an installation by Emirati artist, Abdullah Al Saadi. The contemporary section feels like a post-script, tacked on at the end to complete the timeline.
The curators did away with all the usual ‘isms’ that provide a framework for Western institutional exhibitions—imperialism, colonialism, post-modernism, orientalism, feminism. There isn’t a single one to be found on any exhibition text. There is scant reference to the politics and war, and the ensuing trauma, exploitation and migration that have shaped civilisations and nations and brought them into contact with each other—visitors will have to dig a little deeper into their recollections of history class. Instead the exhibition proposes a new narrative and perspective for a globalised world, trying to reassert the works in a different context by grouping them by chronology, rather than by geography, tying the works together through visual cues. It’s a lot to take in. It can be challenging to connect the dots and see the thread of commonality between the various juxtaposed artefacts and artworks upon just a cursory glance. But at the same time, it is also refreshing to be prompted into visual encounters and discoveries, and to engage in a different dialogue with artworks without extensive pedagogy.
Jean-Francois Charnier, Scientific and Cultural Director of Agence France-Muséums suggests that the Louvre Abu Dhabi offers the opportunity to reconsider modernity away from a Western framework, shifting the focus to the Arab-Muslim world. ‘The birth of Louvre Abu Dhabi is also taking place at a particular moment…when the Arab world is reasserting its culture’, he states. ‘This dynamic calls for a different narrative of the world’. These ambitions fall short as the exhibition progresses through the various galleries. But this is all a starting point. While Western cultural institutions have formed a narrative over hundreds of years, the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s is still in its infancy. Going forward the museum’s challenge will be to find a balance between being a ‘universal’ museum and retaining its local flavour and cultural integrity.