The Sandstorm

by Kanishk Tharoor

The Louvre Abu Dhabi under construction. April 2015. Photo: Caren Firouz.

This is an excerpt from Even no. 2, published in fall 2015.


Why, specifically, have the Louvre and Guggenheim landed in Abu Dhabi? Who are the Guggenheim and Louvre actually for? Who will benefit from Saadiyat Island? Critics of the UAE’s poor treatment of migrant labor – numerous reports in the Guardian have affirmed that the builders are modern-day slaves – argue that these museums offer only a liberal gloss to the illiberal conditions of their construction. In this view, Saadiyat Island is a smokescreen, a shop window for a society that doesn’t exist. Can museums cross borders as easily – and with the same impunity – as capital? Saadiyat Island proposes that global museums are like railroads or fiber cables, functional infrastructure that can spread over physical geography heedless of human geography.

Announcing its deal with Abu Dhabi, the Louvre justified the move by pointing to the city’s historical and modern cosmopolitanism. A statement on the Louvre website claims that the museum’s “universal approach suits Abu Dhabi well, reflecting the city’s position at the crossroads of east and west, and its vital ancient role in the days of the Silk Route.” This is a rather bald exaggeration. While the wider Gulf region has always sat on the trade routes of the Indian Ocean, Abu Dhabi itself didn’t exist in any form until 1791, when the nomadic Bani Yas tribe pitched their tents around a serendipitous spring. As many writers have noted, Abu Dhabi is itself only as old as the Louvre Museum. In 1791, just as the Bani Yas bedouin were setting down, the revolutionary National Assembly in Paris decreed that the royal palace should become a public gallery, which opened two years later, at the height of the Terror.

When oil was discovered in the region in the 1950s, fewer than one hundred thousand people lived in the Emirates, which were then still a British protectorate. Now the population of the UAE, whose capital is Abu Dhabi, is 9.35 million: a little smaller than Paris and its environs. Though small, the cities and states of the Gulf are islands of relative stability in a turbulent Middle East, offering refuge not simply to jet-setting upper class elites and foreign “expats,” but to middle-class professionals, scholars, and artists from around the region. This is the more modest way to understand the Gulf’s epochal ambitions. Where for centuries Damascus, Baghdad, and Cairo defined the Arab world, oil has tilted the scales of heft and influence towards the likes of Abu Dhabi and Dubai in the UAE, and Doha in Qatar.

Both the UAE and Qatar have increasingly involved themselves in regional conflagrations, including forays in Libya and Syria. In August, UAE troops entered Yemen. The UAE ranks fifth in the world in terms of military spending as a percentage of gross domestic product (just ahead of Israel). Since the convulsions of the ill-fated Arab Spring of 2011, both governments have worked hard to stamp out the merest inklings of dissent, jailing citizens and non-citizens alike. It is therefore a mistake to imagine the Gulf cities as versions of Singapore or Hong Kong, placid islands of global capital. The countries of the Gulf are not simply commercial and financial hubs, but nation-states — with all the bristling accouterments that implies.…

Gustave Le Grey. Mollien Pavilion of the Louvre. 1859. Albumen silver print. 14½ × 19 in. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

Resembling a flying saucer that has touched down in the Gulf, the Louvre Abu Dhabi will be an Emirati museum. It nevertheless has relied heavily on French guidance, not only from curators and consultants but from organs of the French state — reaching past the culture ministry to the diplomatic corps and all the way to three successive presidencies. (Indeed, the announcement of the Louvre deal with Abu Dhabi coincided with the building of a French military base in the UAE, and the Hollande government is currently negotiating the sale of 60 Rafale fighter jets to Abu Dhabi.) The Louvre Abu Dhabi, its parent institution says, “is intended to be a place of discovery, exchange and education….It will also play an important social role in the United Arab Emirates. In this respect, it can be seen as a product of the 18th-century Enlightenment in Europe.” With a whiff of the mission civilisatrice, the Louvre in Paris suggest that its Gulf spinoff will finally bring the Arab world into the relative modernity of the late 1700s.

It aims, however, to avoid a western point of view. It will abandon the traditional taxonomy of the Louvre in Paris and its fellow western museums, which classify and segment artifacts by region. Its organizing principle will be time, not space. According to museum officials, “the Louvre Abu Dhabi will be different. Its unique museographic approach – displaying objects and art chronologically – will explore connections between seemingly disparate civilizations and culture around the world. This is what will make the museum truly universal, transcending geography and nationality.”

A more circumscribed version of this approach can already be seen at the Louvre’s outpost in Lens, a depressed mining town in northern France that has been home to a satellite of the Parisian flagship since 2012. The heart of Louvre-Lens is the Galerie du Temps, a single massive gallery in which works of art – from Egyptian, Persian and Greco-Roman antiquity all the way to 1900 – are arrayed in strict chronological order. Where other ways of ordering objects might emphasize discrete cultures and fenced-off civilizations, the Galerie du Temps encourages viewers to seek both commonality and difference in art. The impetus for such a revised presentation, we might note, came from architects outside the traditional west. Louvre-Lens was designed by the Japanese firm SANAA, and their Galerie du Temps is an explicit reworking of Lina Bo Bardi’s design for the Museu de Arte de São Paulo, which opened in 1968. At MASP, works were not hung on walls but placed on freestanding glass easels spread across the floor, creating a forest of art that contested the European teleology of art history and allowed connections across space and time.

It remains critical to remember that, unlike Louvre-Lens, the Louvre Abu Dhabi is not a branch of the Louvre. It is a new institution, Emirati and not French, that has rented the name “Louvre” until 2037. It is also renting 300 artworks from the Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay and other French museums, including Manet’s Fifer David’s Napoleon Crossing the Alps, Whistler’s portrait of his mother, Titian’s Woman with a Mirror, and Leonardo’s La Belle Ferronnière. (No self-respecting nouveau riche can be without a Leonardo.) And it has acquired many works of its own, on the advice of French curators. Critics of the Louvre Abu Dhabi have warned that a museum in conservative Abu Dhabi may shy from much of western art history — nudes, notably, or else paintings of Christian saints — though according to Jean-Luc Martinez, the Louvre’s soft-spoken new director, the Emiratis imposed “no censorship….not of themes, not of techniques, not of countries.” One hundred fifty works from the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s growing collection were seen in Paris in 2014, at the exhibition “Birth of a Museum,” which the (French) Louvre celebrated as a “dialogue between civilizations, in a spirit of universality and humanism.” Some of the works on display were strong, such as a fine Madonna and Child by Giovanni Bellini. Others were more dubious, and the connections among them were opaque. Little of that mattered to those at the vernissage, first among them François Hollande.

Aurélie Filippetti, former French culture minister, and His Highness Hazza bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, national security adviser and vice chairman of the Abu Dhabi Executive Council, at the opening of “Birth of a Museum.” Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi. 2013.
Aurélie Filippetti, former French culture minister, and His Highness Hazza bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, national security adviser and vice chairman of the Abu Dhabi Executive Council, at the opening of “Birth of a Museum.” Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi. 2013.

Nevertheless, the planned display of Louvre Abu Dhabi is a measure of how much the Louvre itself has moved from its roots, when as a national museum it sought to produce an emboldened citizenry. “The ritual task of the Louvre visitor was to reenact [a] history of genius,” the art historian Carol Duncan writes, “relive its progress step by step and, thus enlightened, know himself as a citizen of history’s most civilized and advanced nation-state.” In the 19th century, almost every western nation established a similar public art museum, whose function, at least in part, was to stage a civic ritual of cultural specificity and national greatness.

The Louvre Abu Dhabi, by contrast, will try to conjure the experience of belonging not to a nation-state or even a civilization, but to the world. There is a wonder to the prospect of being able to flit from, say, Han dynasty pottery to the statuary of Mesoamerica to funerary reliefs from Sidon. That experience may well produce the kind of “secular cosmopolitan space” craved by proponents of universal museums like James Cuno. But there is a clear irony: this post-national presentation is being paid for and masterminded by a government using art as an instrument of national power, and the bourgeois values of liberty and individualism are nowhere to be found in autocratic Abu Dhabi.