Louvre Abu Dhabi prepares to unveil itself to the world

2017-11-08 20:00
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Abu Dhabi — Stepping into the Louvre Abu Dhabi, one of the first artworks a visitor sees is a two-headed Neolithic statue from Jordan, one of the oldest known in human history.

That duality — looking back and toward the future, encompassing both East and West — is a theme that extends throughout the new museum, which is opening to the public on Saturday, 11 November, after a decade of delays and questions over labourers' rights.

The conservative mores of Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates that's more buttoned-up than freewheeling Dubai, can be seen in the relative absence of pieces depicting nudity.

Still, artwork at the new Louvre offers a brief history of the world and its major religions, not shying away from Judaism in a country that officially does not recognise Israel.

SEE: Abu Dhabi opening its own Louvre in November

"Here at the Louvre Abu Dhabi, we've accomplished history," says Mohamed Khalifa al-Mubarak, the chairman of Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority. "This museum is a lot more than just a museum."

The modernist museum, designed by French architect Jean Nouvel, sits under a honeycombed dome of eight layers of Arab-style geometric shapes.

It draws the lapping waters of the Persian Gulf into its outer corridors, allowing individual beams of light that pass through the roof to strike the surface and cast dancing reflections across the white walls. At night, light inside pours out like tiny little stars from a salt shaker against the city's skyline.

"I imagine this metaphor of the sky, cosmic, cosmographic, with a random system like the stars itself," Nouvel told The Associated Press. "I imagine that with not a lot of lighting, just a little bit to create a kind of rain of light."

That rain has been a long time coming in this desert country, a federation of seven sheikhdoms on the Arabian Peninsula.

Authorities first announced the Louvre Abu Dhabi project in 2007 as Dubai feverishly built the world's tallest building and other wonders.

Today, much of Saadiyat Island, envisioned as a cultural district anchored by the museum, is still empty. A planned Middle East outpost of the Guggenheim remains unbuilt, with just a poured foundation on the salt flood plain.

Part of the reason is the drop in global energy prices from over $100 (R1415 @R14.15/$) a barrel in 2014 to around $30 (R424.50) in early 2016. Officials in Abu Dhabi have not disclosed how much it cost to build the museum.

Use of the “Louvre” name 

What is known is that Abu Dhabi agreed to pay France $525 million (about R7 bn.) for the use of the “Louvre” name for the next 30 years and six months, plus another $750 million (R10 bn.) to hire French managers to oversee the 300 loaned works of art.

A centre at Paris’ Louvre now bears the name of the late UAE President Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, which was also part of the deal.

Project faced intense criticism

During construction, the project faced intense criticism over conditions faced by labourers, who faced low pay, long hours and hot conditions. A worker was killed in an accident in 2015 while another died of “natural causes” in 2016, according to Abu Dhabi authorities.

SEE: WATCH: New Louvre Abu Dhabi emerges out of the Sea

Hundreds working on projects on the island, including the Louvre, were deported or lost their work visas for launching strikes over their conditions, according to according to a 2015 Human Rights Watch report. Labour strikes are illegal in the UAE.

Jean-Luc Martinez, the president-director of the Louvre in Paris, contends the museum spoke “very frankly” about labourer conditions. He described the museum as a bridge between Asia, Africa and Europe.

“We are not a European museum,” he told the AP. “It’s a place to see the world from Abu Dhabi.”

That begins in the first gallery, where the floor bears an outline of the UAE with the names of different world cities in Arabic, China, English and Hindi. Different cultures face each other in exhibits: for example, a French suit of armour is positioned to look directly across from a Japanese warrior’s outfit.

World’s religions exhibited

The museum also makes a point to put the world’s religions side by side.

In one exhibit, a Jewish funerary stele from France in 1250 sits next to a Tunisian Muslim’s funerary steel and a Christian archbishop’s stone epitaph from Tyre, Lebanon. A painted French stone statue of Virgin and Child stands by a section of a Syrian Quran dating to around 1250, open to a page recounting the night during the holy month of Ramadan when Muslims believe the holy book was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad.

In a darkened room, a page from the Blue Quran, one of the oldest ever found, sits near a Gothic Bible, Buddhist sutras and a Torah from Yemen dating to 1498.

In a Middle East still torn by religious and sectarian conflict, whether between Sunni and Shiite or Israelis and the Palestinians, simply putting them side by side is a major statement.

“By addressing their message to all humanity without distinction, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam transcended local cultural characteristics and deeply transformed ancient societies,” one placard reads. “These religions shared with Judaism the concept of monotheism but diverged on the subjects such as the representation of the divine.”

Nudity, however, is only lightly represented, either in bare breasts on an Italian dish or nude bronze ballerina statuettes by Edgar Degas, seemingly dancing in the line of sight of James McNeill Whistler’s famed painting of his mother. Whistler’s painting joins a woman’s portrait on wood by Leonardo da Vinci, two works by Pablo Picasso and a hot-pink Andy Warhol image of an electric chair.

For now at least, the museum’s exhibit ends with an installation by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei called “A Foundation of Light,” an illuminated work of steel and glass that recalls the museum’s gleam at night.

5 must-see pieces of art at the Louvre 

Here are five pieces of art, out of the 620 on display, to look out for:

1. Monumental Statue with Two Heads

This plaster statue, dating to around 6500 BC and discovered in Ain Ghazal, Jordan, is one of the oldest known in human history. It's among the earliest large-scale representations of human form. The settlement in which it was found, spread across 30 acres (12 hectares) along the Zarqa river, was one of the largest known Neolithic settlements in the Near East.

(Associated Press/ Kamran Jebreili

2. Page of the 'Blue Quran'

The page, from one of the oldest-ever-found Qurans, sits in a darkened room near a Gothic Bible, Buddhist sutras and a Torah from Yemen. It's part of the museum's theme of showing what's universal among people of the world. The Blue Quran dates from around 900 and was discovered in North Africa.

(Associated Press/ Kamran Jebreili

3. Portrait of a Woman, called La Belle Ferronniere

This is one of some 15 pieces of art known to exist today from the Renaissance master Leonardo da Vinci. Dating around 1495, the painting is thought to be of Lucrezia Crivelli, a mistress of the Duke of Milan Ludovico Sforza. The clothes the woman is wearing, her position and the smoothness of the painting all reflect the style of the Renaissance.

(Associated Press/ Kamran Jebreili

4. The Saint-Lazare Station

This Claude Monet painting from 1877 came during the Industrial Revolution. Monet, known as the father of Impressionism, often painted railway stations, modern life and urban landscapes during this period. His signature brushstrokes and the effects of colour can be seen in it.

(Associated Press/ Kamran Jebreili

5. Fountain of Light

The Louvre Abu Dhabi commissioned this chandelier-inspired installation from Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. The 7-meter piece of art is made of stainless steel and glass. It's inspired by the Tatlin Tower, a utopian project that was meant to be built in Russia in 1919 but never was.

(Associated Press/ Kamran Jebreili

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