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Abu Dhabi Louvre to bridge cultures as well as arts

media French President Emmanuel Macron (2ndL) and his wife Brigitte Macron (R) look at a piece of art as they visit the Louvre Abu Dhabi Museum during its inauguration in Abu Dhabi, UAE, November 8, 2017. Reuters/Ludovic Morin/Pool

When the Paris Louvre was brought to life in 1791, it was a public space for everyone which, the French parliament proclaimed, was intended to “bring together monuments to all the sciences and arts". Now its Arabian namesake, 6700 kilometres to the east in the desert metropolis of Abu Dhabi, has a similar mission. This time though, it’s as much about uniting cultures as it is about uniting the arts.

Perched on the waterfront of Abu Dhabi’s lavish cultural district on Saadiyat island, half a kilometre off the coastal mainland, the Louvre’s 12 galleries showcase 620 works of art – paintings, neo-classical sculptures, contemporary installations – arranged chronologically from prehistory to the present.

Common cultures, civilisations

French architect Jean Nouvel designed the Louvre Abu Dhabi Reuters/Satish Kumar

Their purpose is to underline common threads between different cultures and civilisations, over time. Half of the works are on loan from 13 partner museums in France, while the other half is made up of the UAE’s own permanent collection – something it’s been working hard to build up ahead of the Louvre Abu Dhabi launch.

Much-talked-about is a small, dimly lit room displaying a page from one of the oldest Qurans ever found, along with a Gothic Bible and a Yemeni Torah which are opened to versus carrying the same message.

This deliberate convergence of religion may seem unusual in a country where there are no synagogues and only a limited number of churches, but the museum boldly makes use of this juxtaposition to drive home its message.

French architect Jean Nouvel has described his creation as the Arab world’s first “universal” museum.

More than a mere building, Nouvel sought to create a “neighbourhood of art”, as he put it.Indeed, with its brilliant scattering of 55 white blocks, the Louvre Abu Dhabi is sprawled out as if it were a village on the water, complete with a maze of intersecting alleyways.

Holding it all together is a mosque-like (or church-like) dome, resplendent with silver latticework – futuristic almost – rising above a bed of gentle, rippling seawater that fills the outer corridors.

This low-lying monument brings an oasis of serenity to the desert city. It’s late in the autumn here, but temperatures are tipping 32 degrees.

During the summer months, the heat is so intense that birds have been known to fall out of the sky. One wonders to what extent this desert jewel will maintain its cool allure when the summer comes again.

Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan with French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife at the Louvre Abu Dhabi on 8 November Reuters/Satish Kumar

Inside Louvre Abu Dhabi

Despite its gleaming, cosmic façade, the Louvre Abu Dhabi is most impressive on the inside. The glitzy publicity campaign leading up to its grand opening encourages would-be visitors to “see humanity in a new light” – with light being the operative word.

Almost as if in worship, the sunlight rains through thousands of star-shaped holes that perforate the dome’s eight layers.

It is then filtered through glass ceiling panels that have been moulded into 17 patterns. While many of the museum’s featured artists are renowned for their mastery of painting with light, Nouvel has managed the same feat through his architecture.

“The Louvre Abu Dhabi is more than just a tourist attraction,” Mohamed Khalifa Al Mubarak, the chair of Abu Dhabi’s Department of Culture and Tourism told local media.

“It’s a cultural project.”

Meanwhile, Nouvel’s masterpiece is paving the way for other cross-cultural partnerships on Saadiyat Island. An Abu Dhabi Guggenheim is in the works, while Britain has a deal with the Zayed National Museum, to be designed by Norman Foster. As with the Louvre Abu Dhabi though, these projects are suffering constant delays and setbacks.

Saadiyat’s intended audience is international tourists, expats  – and of course Emiratis themselves, who are eager to jump on board the culture train that is part of their country’s very open soft power push that – in part – intends to transform Abu Dhabi into an international capital of the arts, with the island at its heart.

Paying for art

In line with that drive, the oil-rich Emirate saw fit to fork out some €400 million to borrow the Louvre’s revered name for 30 years.

While very lucrative for France, the deal, agreed a decade ago, has not come without its fair share of controversy.

For all its grandeur, hype and excitement – not to mention the message of harmony – it did get off to a rough start. Critics said the UAE was being allowed to buy cultural legitimacy.

Many petitioned for the project to be shut down, arguing the move to rent the Louvre’s name amounted to France selling its soul.

This is, after all, the first museum to bear the Louvre name outside of France. There was also controversy surrounding the conditions of the migrant workers who constructed the museum (there were a few deaths), and allegations they were exploited.

Following the official inauguration by President Emmanuel Macron this week, and a sneak peek given to journalists, on Saturday, November 11, the museum will finally open its doors to a very eager public. Tickets are sold out. And, unlike its Parisian sister, the Louvre Abu Dhabi is open on Tuesdays.

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