ABU DHABI. Oasis of Culture

The impressive and complex design for the roof over the Louvre Abu Dhabi is based on observations by the museum’s architect, Jean Nouvel, of the effect of sunlight through the interlaced palm fronds in the Oasis of Al Ain. When I visited the United Arab Emirates for the press opening of the new museum I also visited that oasis, together with the nearby Al Jahili Fort and the Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi city. These additional visits enabled me to piece together some of the history of this vibrant young country and to gain a better context for the understanding of one of the most remarkable new museums in the world.

A brief history of the UAE traces its evolution from a nomadic tribal society to a modern state, and Abu Dhabi city from a fishing village to a modern high rise capital. The history of this part of the world begins in a period in pre-history 125,000 years ago, although the key archaeological sites are dated at around 5000 BCE. The more recent history of the region originates in the period from 1829–53 when a series of treaties between the mainly nomadic tribes and the British Government, among them a treaty to combat the piracy along the coast, led to the establishment of the Trucial States. The British decision to withdraw from the area in 1968 led to Independence in 1971 with the creation of a Federation of the States, and then in 1971/2 to the establishment of the United Arab Emirates. The founding signatories of Federation in 1971 were Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Naryan of Abu Dhabi and Sheikh Rashid bin Said Al Maktoum of Dubai. Thus the country is both ancient in origin and recent in its establishment as a thriving modern country. The discovery of extensive oil reserves from 1930 onwards led to a massive increase in the country’s wealth, the establishment of major cities and a cosmopolitan society.

Al Ain, a bus journey of about 2 hours inland from Abu Dhabi, was once a small settlement based around a major oasis on the edge of what is known as ‘The Empty Quarter’, a vast arid desert that fills much of the interior of the southern Arabian peninsula. The settlement was the heartland for Shaikh Zayed, not only holding a special place in his life but also providing one of the core inspirations for his original vision for the UAE. Al Ain has grown rapidly to become much larger than in the Sheikh’s time, and is now a favourite destination for Emirati holidays and relaxation. The oasis, recognised by UNESCO for its ecological and historical importance, came into existence many centuries ago. Its establishment was largely as a result of the irrigation system based on a complex of underground channels known as ‘falaj’ connecting boreholes to tunnels leading from nearby hills to the system of ground level channels and sluices in the oasis itself. This system originated in the Iron Age, and works entirely by gravity. Within the oasis it now provides irrigation for over 147,000 palm trees spread over 1,200 hectares (3000 acres), sharing out the water equitably among the many farmers who grow dates there. Similar systems are found in other places in the UAE which, together with the more recent methods of irrigation, make parts of this region considerably greener than might have been expected.

On the outskirts of the city is the Al Jahili Fort, built in 1891 to protect the palm groves. Recently restored to its original form using traditional materials, the fort became the regional HQ of one of the brigades of the Trucial Oman Scouts. This organisation began as a paramilitary force raised under British command in 1951 to guard the Trucial States as they emerged as oil-producers, and upon independence in 1971 was renamed as the Union Defence Force. The fort now contains a small museum and a selection of the desert-modified vehicles used by the Scouts, including a 1951 Mark 1 Land Rover. There is also a small gallery dedicated to the remarkable photographs of Sir Wilfred Thesiger, the British soldier, explorer and writer who is celebrated for his book, ‘Arabian Sands’ (first published in 1959, and republished as a Penguin Classic in 2007), which records his hazardous journeys in the Empty Quarter and its coastal zones in the years immediately after the Second World War. This book remains one of the great books on exploration. Thesiger (1910-2003), known to Emiratis as ‘Mubarak bin London’ (Blessing of London), wrote about this part of the world as it was on the edge of emerging as a prosperous modern nation. He was known to many local sheikhs and became a close friend and confidante of Sheikh Zayed.

The highway between Al Ain and Abu Dhabi is lined to either side for most of its length, and in the central reservation, by plantations of trees, sustained by a complex system of irrigation. It was Sheikh Zayed’s visionary desire that conceived of the highway as being a green link from the Oasis to the new capital on the coast. Glimpses of farms and agricultural businesses can be seen through the trees, as well as high sand dunes in some places, and the area is a major source of fresh food for the Emirates. As the road approaches the capital there are areas of extensive further development with numerous high rise towers, many with striking architecture. The road also passes close to the vast Sheikh Zayed Mosque and Mausoleum, an architectural wonder attracting large number of both worshippers to the mosque and visitors to one of the most extraordinary and beautiful buildings in the Middle East. I visited the Mosque towards sunset, a time at which the building looks at its best as daylight fades from the sky and the carefully designed artificial lighting comes on. The colours within the building and its magnificent courtyard change and shadows form, creating an atmosphere of serenity and peace, with a spiritual calm. It is a fitting place to remember Sheikh Zayed, who died in 2004, the central role he played in laying down the foundations for Abu Dhabi and the United Arab Emirates, and its emergence as a major nation in the world.
Thesiger describes Abu Dhabi in, ’Arabian Sands’ as a dusty fishing village of some 2,500 people. Since then its transformation, as with other major cities in the Emirates, has been both rapid and dynamic, resulting in a thriving metropolis. The further development of housing and commercial buildings continues on the outskirts of the city and on many of the 200 islands upon which the city is built. The population in 2014 was around 1.5million and has continued to grow since then. As part of the growth of the city Saadiyat Island, some 500 metres from the coast and linked to it by a wide bridge, is being developed extensively with a large part designated as the Saadiyat Cultural District, devoted to culture and the arts. This ambitious and significant undertaking will become the nucleus of developments attracting local, national and international participation in the creation of an important global centre for the celebration of 21st culture. This initiative is under the guidance of the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi, that has the stated aim of, ‘conserving and promoting the heritage and culture of Abu Dhabi and integrating them in the development of a world-class sustainable destination that enriches the lives of visitors and residents alike.’ To this end there are plans for five major museums and arts centres, each by an internationally recognised award-winning architect that will, when completed, create a complex of arts facilities of international importance. The Louvre Abu Dhabi by Jean Nouvel is the first to open, and will be followed by the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi by Frank Gehry, the Zayed National Museum by Norman Foster, the Maritime Museum by Tadao Ando and the Arts Centre by Zaha Hadid. In addition there will be areas for housing and education from nursery to secondary level and beyond, with the Abu Dhabi campus of New York University moving to the island from its temporary base in the city. The Cultural District will be adjacent to the Saadiyat Marina District which will provide a marina for boats, as well as hotels and shops, with additional leisure and entertainment facilities. The combination of these two districts will create a destination in its own right that will extend the attraction and facilities of Abu Dhabi well into the 21st century and beyond.

The Museum
Louvre Abu Dhabi opened to the public on November 11th 2017, and has already proved to be a major attraction as well as a critically acclaimed architectural success around the world. The idiosyncratic and complex design by Atelier Jean Nouvel is, as it was intended to be, eye-catching. The buildings that comprise the museum sit low at the water’s edge, covered for the most part by the intricately interwoven dome that is said to cover the same area as the Grand Cour of the Louvre Museum in Paris, and to contain as much steel as the Eiffel Tower. The effect intended by Nouvel is striking, a weave of light and shadows that shifts throughout the day, illuminating the surfaces of the stone floor and white buildings and reflecting from the surface of the areas of water that penetrate the complex. It does, indeed, create the feeling of an oasis, with places to wander and to sit, to talk and to observe. The buildings include not only the Museum galleries, but also the entrance and visitor areas, educational facilities, a Children’s Gallery, a Café and a Restaurant. In all the Museum provides everything to sustain and occupy visitors for a full day.

At the Press Conference HE Mohamad Khalifa Al Mubarak, Chairman of the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi, spoke of the role of the new Museum as having a global focus, a hub for educational, cultural and international communication, as a gift from Abu Dhabi to the world, a place where the people of the world will meet and share, part of his belief that culture will make a better future. This idealistic introduction was developed in the words of Manuel Rabaté, Director of Louvre Abu Dhabi, who spoke of art as one of the highest achievements of human kind, and of the intention, from the inception of the project, to create a universal metaphor for cross-cultural dialogue, and to celebrate humanity and diversity through art works originating from across civilisations, peoples and history. He said that Abu Dhabi has a focus on education and the future, of which Louvre Abu Dhabi is part. He added that art is a celebration of who we are, and the task of the new Museum is to shape the future of world culture, to create an experience that changes lives through the making of an important global cultural hub. Jean Nouvel spoke at length about the inspirations for the Museum and his underlying philosophy, of how he sought through his architectural design to re-create the welcoming atmosphere of the Greek ‘agora’, a neighbourhood, a cluster of cubical buildings, a medina, not to reproduce them but to follow their symbolism, their spiritual and intellectual philosophical notions. His intention has been to create a microclimate, a place to come to, return to, to stay, and to enjoy, protected from the sun and heat, with the refreshment of water, creating vistas across the water to the city. He described how the geometry of the dome creates sky and cosmos, working with light and geometry to give random points of light, rays of sunlight, a place of welcome. Other speakers at the Conference referred to the major role played by French museums in lending objects for the initial exhibition, and working in conjunction with the predominately Emirati team to create a fully functioning museum from the outset. Hissa Al Dhaheri, Deputy Director of the new Museum referred to the many initiatives that, over the past seven years, have been set up to inform, educate and train young Emiratis in developing their curatorial and interpretive skills and to use them in a broadly-based educational programme aimed at engaging different sectors of the population and across the very wide range of nationalities in Emirati schools. She stressed the importance of encouraging young Emiratis to engage fully with all that would be going on in the Museum, since it is they who will help to create the future for the Museum and the country. It was clear from all speakers at the conference that the project had been conceived and developed as a totality since the beginning, to ensure that when the museum opened it would be both attractive to visitors and efficient in its operation and its communication, not just as a place in which art would be displayed in a new way, but also interpreted and explained.

The museum can be seen from the bridge that crosses from the mainland to Saadiyat Island, but the scale of the whole building, even with its signature dome, cannot be clearly discerned due to its low profile. The car park is extensive, with numerous immature palm tree that will when grown provide welcome shade, as will the garden designed by Jean Nouvel as an oasis for visitors. The entrance way leads to a number of single storey rectilinear buildings that direct the visitor towards the entrance to the galleries. These entrance spaces have a clear human scale, somewhat understated. Once through these spaces a modest doorway leads directly into the wide expanse the spaces of the Plaza beneath the dome. It is then that the sheer scale and drama of the architect’s vision becomes fully apparent. The effect for many is one of astonishment – it is an accomplished architectural ‘coup de theâtre’. The series of linked spaces between the individual buildings makes for a large area in which it is a pleasure to wander. There are views out across the water towards the city and glimpses of other nearby buildings; large display windows offering clues to the works that lie within the gallery spaces; there are permanent works by contemporary artists as well as a small sculpture by Rodin at the top of a column, and a magnificent octagonal fountain set in geometric flooring from Damascus, dating from 1700-1800; there is a cafe and a restaurant and places to sit; there is the fascination of the changing patterns of light (the architect’s term is ‘the rain of light’) from the dome; there are shifting breezes of cool air and, interestingly, a number of life guards, one of whom is from Nepal, who patrol the edges of the area where it meet the sea – something that is rarely encountered in museums elsewhere! In short these spaces succeed in creating a meeting place on a human scale. And, over all this there is the soaring dome with its complex and fascinating multi-layered surface.

The sequence of galleries and exhibited works is carefully curated to create a journey through the history of Mankind’s endeavours in the making of art, spread across time and equally across the genres and mediums of art, linking nations and faiths in ways that are original and stimulating. Among the first impressions is that the chosen exhibits, either from the collection of Louvre Abu Dhabi or from the loans from more than thirteen French museums, are thoughtfully displayed so that connections may be made between various exhibits, but not packed so densely together that comprehension becomes difficult. Also, the quality of materials used, and their texture and colours, means that the building as a whole and in its details gives the museum an air of luxury and sophistication while encouraging free and easy movement, as does the minimum of physical barriers between the visitor and the exhibits.

The Collection
Many national museum collections have been built up over a considerable period of time, the work of numerous curators and directors, and the displays in the resulting galleries reflect this. In the case of this new museum, building its personal collection from scratch and integrating this with loaned artworks has enabled a different conception of how a world-class collection may be selected and displayed. The agreement between the French and UAE governments that established Louvre Abu Dhabi gave the museum access to a broad range of temporary loans from France, and from other museums in the Middle East, to which has been added items from the collection being established by Louvre Abu Dhabi itself. This has encouraged a fresh approach to curation that addresses the diversity of the target audiences, from local to national to international visitors, and with varying levels of familiarity with the world of art and its history. The directors of the museum are also very aware that the geographical position of the Emirates means that audiences can be drawn equally from South-East Asia and Australasia, from the Indian subcontinent, from the Middle East and Africa, and from Europe and the Americas, resulting in a wide range of expectations. It can be said that in this new museum the centre of the art world has, in a way, shifted.

The selected works are spread through the buildings in a series of twelve galleries, preceded by an introductory vestibule, together with specifically commissioned works by Giuseppe Penone and Jenny Holzer, and a series of paintings by the late Cy Twombly, that are installed in specific locations outside the formal galleries. What is to be seen in this initial year of the museum’s existence offers a foretaste of what will come in future years. The loans from French museums will continue, with a changing collection of art works, while the museum’s own collection will expand, offering a succession of changes. There is also the potential for temporary exhibitions, and for further works to be commissioned or loaned for display in the Plaza and elsewhere in the complex. What is to be seen in this inaugural year does not set the content in aspic for the indeterminable future: a process of continual evolution is very much at the heart of Louvre Abu Dhabi’s vision of a 21st century museum.

The Grand Vestibule is the first space that visitors enter and this sets the scene for what follows. A inlaid map of the Emirates coastline set into the stone floor has words in different languages and scripts that reflect the origins of the works in the museum’s collection. In addition there are nine elegant showcases presenting sets of objects from different cultures and times, set side by side to emphasise their similarities rather than their difference, to, in the museums’ words, ‘encourage visitors to reflect one the most important theme of the Louvre Abu Dhabi project: the extent of universality across human existence’. The introduction is tantalising and poses questions that visitors might wish to set themselves as they continue through the galleries. The twelve galleries that follow are arranged in a more or less chronological sequence, tracing the making of art from the time of the first villages, widening through the establishment of the first great powers and the spread of civilisation and empire, with the establishment of universal religions and the development of trade. The following galleries, with themes relating to the Renaissance and the moves towards modernity, but always including art works from beyond the European context, continue to display and demonstrate the inter-connections between different countries and, as the collection moves into the 19th century and beyond, the ways in which contemporary artists can be seen to belong to an increasingly global society. In all the galleries what becomes a strikingly powerful message is that no single country or culture can claim superiority or predominance.

Many of the art works are rarely seen beyond specialised museums, and there are many surprises, even for those with a good knowledge of art history. The boldness of the selection is admirable, but even more so are the decisions that have been made to place seemingly disparate objects side by side, underlining the universality of the desire to create objects that celebrate human existence. The introductory wall texts in each gallery provide just enough information to visitors without overloading them with detail, and the individual cards against each object, in Arabic, French and English, provide succinct information on the origin and date of the work. For those wishing further information there are audio-guides available at the ticket desk, conventional guides and catalogues in the shop, and admirably well-designed and highly informative apps that are available for free download to tablets and smart phones. However, even without such additional forms of information, it has to be said that the design and layout of the galleries themselves, and the curation of the extraordinarily diverse art objects, present an invigorating and stimulating visual experience. The attention to detail given by Jean Nouvel and his Atelier to the design of the galleries is noteworthy: as the architect became, in effect, part of the museological team he was able to design them in ways that integrate with the objects, using stone flooring of different colours and textures and a carefully controlled mixture of artificial lighting and daylight. Additionally, a number of the galleries have side-spaces in which specialised selections may be shown: one of these, of sacred texts from Islam, Judaism, Christianity and Buddhism, displays the texts in carefully illuminated showcases in a room lined with dark bronze. The effect is powerful and unequivocal.

Every visitor to Louvre Abu Dhabi will come away with their own favourite works and impressions – the sheer range of possibilities means that there is, literally in this case, something for everyone: that is one of the strengths of this museum. In Gallery 1, ‘The First Villages’, there is a remarkable plaster bust from the Department of Antiquities of Jordan, dating back some 8,000 years, and depicting a two-headed form in which the faces, their eyes picked out with bitumen, look engagingly contemporary. Perhaps representing a pair of deities and used in ritual ceremonies, the mystery of the piece remains. Gallery 4, ‘Universal Religions’, contains a wealth of works from across millennia and cultures, placing a Mosque Lamp close to a Christian reliquary, part of a Buddhist shrine next to a sculpture of Dancing Shiva, an ancestor figure from Mali and more than 8 metres of deeply carved red sandstone from northern India, bearing fragments of verses from Surah 50 of the Quran, dating back to eight centuries when Islam was fusing with the deeper traditions of India. Conjunctions such as this typify the approach of the curators, creating both comparison and contrast but emphasising the deep plurality of cultures and the search for spiritual expression. Among the many less usual works there is a painted ceramic ‘vessel for chocolate’ depicting a court scene that comes from the Maya culture in what is now Guatemala, dated to between 600 and 900 CE, and there is a decorated dish from Iznik, Turkey, dating to the mid-17th century CE, with a fascinating depiction by a Turkish artist of a European galleon. The close conjunction of what have been formerly classified as ‘works of art’ and those usually termed ‘objets d’art’ associated more with craft traditions, serves well to demonstrate that such distinctions are, frequently, unnecessary.

There are, as befits the celebrations of the inaugural year, many celebrated and well-known works from French museums, integrated within the galleries and their less usual art works. On the end wall of Gallery 9, ‘A New Art of Living’ is hung the triumphant portrait by Jacques-Louis David of ‘Napoleon, First Consul, Crossing the Alps on 20 May 1800’. Close by there are two portraits of Voltaire (1694-1778), one in oil on canvas by Nicolas de Largillière (1718), the other in marble by Jean-Antoine Houdon (1778), showing the celebrated Enlightenment writer and philosopher first as a young man and then as a man close to death. The contrast in styles in these two works also in itself contrasts with the bombastic depiction of Napoleon. In Gallery 10, ‘A Modern World?’, well-known works include one of the best of Van Gogh’s self-portraits, Degas’ ‘Orchestra of the Opera’, Monet’s ’Gare Saint-Lazare’ and Gauguin’s ‘Children Wrestling’. This gallery also contains a group of four of Hiroshige’s ’36 Views of Mount Fuji’, an Uli statue of an Ancestor Figure from Papua New Guinea and a painting from 1878 in oil on canvas by Osman Hamdy Bey (Turkey) of a ‘Young Emir Studying’ that combines a western European technique with elements of Islamic style, but painted in a Turkish version of Orientalism. The combination of objects in this gallery is particularly successful, showing how the ferment of the 19th century brought about changes in many parts of the world.

The final gallery, ‘A Modern Stage’, offers some examples of the work being done by contemporary artists, working in a wide range of styles. Among other works there are paintings by Omar Ba from Senegal, who also works in Switzerland, a large painting by Duncan Wylie who divides his time between Johannesburg and London, and a powerful wall sculpture, by Maha Malluh from Saudi Arabia, that is made from burned metal cooking pots. The title is, ‘Food for Thought – Al Muallaqat’, combining the symbols of the heritage of Saudi women who use the pots to prepare traditional food, with the ancient heritage of a group of pre-Islamic poems. This work is visually powerful, but the double meaning within the title shows the artist’s exploration of the traditional and modern identities of her country. The final piece presented as visitors leave the galleries is a major work by Ai Weiwei, titled ‘Fountain of Light’, commissioned by Louvre Abu Dhabi. This masterly and joyful work is made from steel and glass crystals from Chinese chandeliers, built in the form of Vladimir Tatlin’s key work, ‘Monument to the Third International’ that was designed to be 400 metres high but never realised. The form of the sculpture is also reminiscent of depictions of the Tower of Babel in European art history. Ai Weiwei, with his characteristic aplomb, made his work just over 4 metres high and then illuminated it so that it shines out as a work of art that was capable of being built, but nonetheless one that, in his own words, is intended to imply that, ‘economic globalisation is making the myth of Babel a reality’.

The galleries contain many more works, displayed with both great care and originality. These will be changes, as intended, during the initial years in which there will be a series of loans form French Museums, and these changes will, also as intended, alter the stories that the works and the museum tell. The recent acquisition for Louvre Abu Dhabi of the painting attributed to Leonard da Vinci, ‘Salvator Mundi’, will lead to its installation just as the short term loan from Louvre, Paris, of the same artist’s, ‘ La Belle Ferronière’, comes to an end. This acquisition alone should ensure that Louvre Abu Dhabi becomes one of the prime art museums in the world, adding to the already considerable efforts of the Emirates to position themselves as a major tourist destination. At the same time Louvre Abu Dhabi will continue to develop its relationship with young Emiratis through the broadly based educational programme, ensuring that not only will there be a future flow of talented and informed art professionals for Abu Dhabi itself, but also that they can take their place within the international art community, offering new ideas and fresh approaches in other countries and museums.

Richard Noyce
January 2018


Louvre Abu Dhabi’s exterior with Abu Dhabi’s skyline (night)
© Louvre Abu Dhabi
Photography: Mohamed Somji