Modesty Leaves and The Absence of Female Perspective at The Louvre Abu Dhabi
For two years, I watched from my Reem Island, Abu Dhabi apartment while they constructed the Louvre. My excitement peaked when one night, I looked out my window and saw the dome all lit up for the first time. The illuminated dome at night is wildly impressive, rays of light streaming through the gaps in the roof as if a hi-def mirror of the night sky. It would be at least another year before the museum opened during peak tourist season but I, a hater of crowds, decided to wait. Finally in August, low tourist season, when the heat is too much to endure any outside activity, I visited The Louvre Abu Dhabi.
As you walk into the building area you’ll immediately become entranced by the intricate and overwhelming lattice dome, conceived of by Jean Nouvel. The light streams through the dome as if through a canopy of trees in a magical, dense forest. Your eye will eventually be drawn back down to the heavy set white walls and dark stone floor which feel a little too heavy and permanent compared to the ethereal, magnificence of the roof. The views from the Louvre stare straight out into the Gulf where on one side you see yachts and on the other you see the sand coloured industry that keeps this place going. This part of the museum is an Instagrammers paradise; there is a life guard on duty should any selfie-takers fall in the Gulf.
Upon entering, I must have missed the sign stating the theme of Wing 1, but after going through the museum chambers it became clear to me that the theme for all the wings was unity through art around the world. Instead of having the “Africa wing” or the “Classical Art section” each gallery spans a general time period and includes pieces from all over the world that have similarities. Even though the theme was clear to me, I wasn’t convinced of it’s effectiveness and felt the execution was lacklustre. While the museum focuses mainly on European, Middle Eastern, and East Asian art and religion; there are a few pieces from West Africa (Gabon, Guinea, Senegal), and a few statues from the South Pacific Islands (Papua New Guinea). They seem to have missed the Americas all together which was a bit disappointing, I would’ve loved to see some Haida Gwai or Incan art for example.
After a few wings of ancient art, I was getting a bit tired of seeing ceramics and miniature statues; obviously the large scale works were impressive but the galleries move far too slowly through the ages for my taste. The cosmography wing hosts a large globe and a fascinating and intricately illustrated world map before the continents had been divided up before mass colonialism.
Midway through I notice a nude male statue and see that the genitalia have been covered by a leaf but being unfamiliar with the sculpture I think nothing of it until I come to Antonio Canova’s sculpture ‘Le Combat de Creugas et Damoxene’ (1797-1803). My eye immediately finds something amiss, as their genitals have been covered by the same ridiculous leaf. As an artist I thought this covering of genitalia on a 200-hundred-year old masterpiece to be rather dubious. My husband responded to my incredulous queries with ‘why do you need to see his penis?’ To me it’s not about looking at his penis but more about seeing the sculpture as a whole, as it was made and meant to be seen. The modesty leaves disrupt the overall effect of the artwork. After 4 years of living in the UAE; a country where you cannot even teach teenage girls about their own reproductive system or say the word breast in conjunction with cancer during Breast Cancer Awareness week (in an all girls high school), I was not surprised at the modesty leaves of course, just disappointed in the integrity of The Louvre.
I have been to many museums around the world, large and small, famous and obscure; the Louvre Abu Dhabi for all the money that was spent, hosts one of the least impressive collections I have seen to date. More than being unimpressed, I was left confused as to the true identity of this museum. While most art museums display works from around the world, The MOMA for example, is undoubtedly a product of New York City, the same can be said for the National Art Gallery of Canada. Sadly, I could not tell you what the purpose of the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s art collection was other than to say, it was there for no other reason than to be there.
Beyond the lack of identity, I felt there were far too many galleries devoted to ancient art and there was just the briefest overview of modern art (1900 on). In the same room there was a Kandinsky, Rothko, Pollock, Matisse, and Ibrahim Al Salahi; a modge podge collection of modern art without any kind of unifying theme. There is also a glaring absence of female artists present within the galleries. Historically, female artists and art work would have been difficult to come by but surely they could have found space for a few works in the Modern and Contemporary art sections. Obviously, they did not see fit to ‘See Humanity in a New Light’ with regards to gender representation.
In the final gallery “A Global Stage” Ai Wei Wei’s large reinterpretation of Vladimir Tatlin’s ‘Monument to the Third International’, stands startling bright and gaudy. Ai Wei Wei reinterpret’s this piece by recreating the original steel structure and stringing glass crystals from the top and illuminating the sculpture like a chandelier. While Tatlin’s original conception was austere and utilitarian, it was meant as a symbol of technology and industry in Soviet Russia. Wei Wei’s artwork, in the context of the UAE’s rapid development and their obsession with ridiculous chandeliers and over the top luxury comes off as social commentary. Although Wei Wei intends the piece as a statement on Chinese rather than Russian Communism, commenting on the divide between communist ideals and the lifestyle of the Chinese elite. The artwork certainly works in much the same way, as a statement of social ideals in the UAE; concerning the glaring disparities between under qualified and overpaid locals and the overqualified and underpaid foreign workers. The Louvre itself, is symbolic of an arrogant nation that has to buy culture to be internationally relevant.
After all the hype, all the excitement, and the wait, The Louvre Abu Dhabi falls far short of achieving international acclaim for anything other than it’s name. The museum does no reach the same caliber as the Guggenheims, the Louvre Paris, The MOMA’s and many other museums and galleries world wide. If you already happen to be in the Emirates then by all means check it out, there are some interesting pieces and for an art nerd like me, I did get excited when I caught sight of a Titian, Matisse or Cezanne to name a few. Jean Nouvel’s brilliant dome is a major crowd pleaser and is deserving of every bit of praise and recognition, that alone is a reason to visit, if you’re in the area.
At 10 am, parking was a breeze, except that finding the parking lot was a bit frustrating as there don’t seem to be any signs indicating where to go for parking until you are at the actual parking lot. The ticket process is painless, we purchased our tickets online and as a teacher I receive a 50% discount (from 60 to 30 aed). We spent about 2 hours exploring the galleries but there are plenty of bathrooms, water fountains, and seating areas throughout the museum.