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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

On the move: does Louvre Abu Dhabi take us from darkness into the light?

It is hoped that Louvre Abu Dhabi will inspire a new generation of cultural leaders and creative thinkers, which is much-needed after rampant destruction in the Middle East

Embarkation of the Emperor of China by Philippe Behagle, one of the travel-related items displayed at Louvre Abu Dhabi. Rosemary Behan
Embarkation of the Emperor of China by Philippe Behagle, one of the travel-related items displayed at Louvre Abu Dhabi. Rosemary Behan

Early in 2003, I was booked on a 10-day tour of Iraq. I was due to depart with a British travel company, with flights to Baghdad, via Baku. The itinerary included Hillah, Samarra, Ur, Babylon and Nineveh. Nineveh!

As I’d already seen, not least from previous trips to Egypt, Jordan, Israel and Palestine, the image that the mainstream media was portraying of the Middle East, Arabs and Muslims in general was homogenous, alarmist and inaccurate. And I worked in the media. Even before the war in Iraq, which put paid to my planned trip, the western portrayals of the region as ablaze with conflict and religious extremism were starting to bother me, as was the reactionary media landscape in general.

The war itself, in all its bloody, destructive horror, was a wake-up call. I was ashamed and angry about what the country of my birth did in Iraq, dismayed by the pro-war propaganda and at the lack of contrition shown afterwards. Civilians were dismissed as “collateral damage”. Too many people, especially those with power, were seeing other countries in a one-dimensional light, unable to see people as equals.

I had even started to get bored of the knee-jerk reactions I myself was coming out with, or expected to come out with, when it came to commentary in the mainstream media. Travel had taught me that there were less judgemental and more enlightened ways of thinking that came from broader perspectives and exposure to the world. One of the reasons I moved to Abu Dhabi in 2008 was to explore a different perspective offered both by its geographical position and genuinely international demographic.

Writing the launch feature for The National’s Arts&Life section on April 17, 2008, I reported on the heady cultural ambition of Abu Dhabi’s planned cultural quarter, borne of a unique combination of cultural awareness and financial resources.

“Abu Dhabi has cultural plans that would have made [Wilfred] Thesiger quake,” I said. “It is about making Abu Dhabi the cultural headquarters of the Middle East and an attempt to stimulate a new international cultural awareness through the acquisition and display of cutting-edge art.”

This week, at the opening of Louvre Abu Dhabi, I was pleased to see the ambitious messages have not been toned down; merely refined.

Mohamed Al Mubarak, chairman of TDIC, got straight to the point when he said that one of the aims of the museum was to allow visitors to “feel at one with each other and at one with the world”. The museum would “broadcast tolerance and world connectivity” so that “culture wins” and “better generations” could grow. Manuel Rabate, director of Louvre Abu Dhabi, said that encounters with artwork would “change the lives of its visitors” and “make Abu Dhabi the focal point of the region.”

It would be impossible not to be blown away by the Louvre’s architecture, and I think it does, crucially, embody the place.

The jury is still out on what audiences themselves will make of the collection and how it is presented. But as the museum makes clear, the days of silos and spoon-feeding are over.

Meanings are made through context, perspective and unique personal engagement, and are constantly changing; clarity of perception requires the reduction of egos and an “us and them” approach. Could this signal a new age of enlightenment?

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