The first thing that is likely to strike visitors as they set eyes on the Louvre Abu Dhabi is how unlike the rest of its overly glamorous, painfully shiny, modern Emirati architectural context it is. Standing just 30 meters tall with a dome of 180 meters in diameter, the structure is a picture of tranquility and calm.


Interior spaces of the Louvre Abu Dhabi under the museum’s iconic light filtering dome

The unique design of the grey, multilayered aluminium dome brings to mind images of many disparate things all at once, from a multi star-shaped spider’s web, to a mechanical honeycomb, or even a space ship. Seemingly floating over a multitude of white cubes that house the gallery spaces (55 of them, to be precise), the structure actually weighs in at a hefty 7,700 tones.

However, the effect is undoubtedly that of lightness and weightlessness.

Turquoise water surrounds the entire complex and completes the tranquil tricolor palette of grey, white and blue, juxtaposed with the yellow and beige colour tones of the surrounding desert.

The museum complex was designed by the Pritzker Prize-winning French architect Jean Nouvel, who considers himself to be a contextual architect, taking his inspiration from the locality in which his projects are situated. In the case of the now iconic dome design, he is said to have been inspired by the way sunlight falls through date palm tree leaves. The overall effect of light filtering though the 7,850 stars in the dome’s latticework and scattering droplets of light onto the white walls and grey floor of the museum body below is ethereal, memorable and otherworldly.


In the foreground: “Walking Man, on a Column,” by Auguste Rodin, cast in 2006 by Fonderie de Coubertin

The deal struck between France and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to create this cultural oasis in the desert is the first of its kind and has not gone without controversy. Attracting as much in the way of awe and excitement as it has in the way of outrage and criticism, this has been a game of high stakes, high-level investment and high hopes for high gains.

The main point of criticism has been the working conditions of the labourers hired for the construction of the museum, and their alleged abuse. This issue attracted international attention from Human Rights Watch, a New York-based human rights group, accusing the Abu Dhabi authorities of failing to tackle multiple abuses of foreign workers. The Observer, a major UK newspaper, embarked on its own investigation into the state of the labourers’ working conditions, which they concluded were akin to ‘modern day slavery’. The consequent media outrage led to labour law reforms in the UAE, which continue to be criticised for systemic problems and failures.


Exterior spaces of the Louvre Abu Dhabi

Additionally, opposition also came from both the academic and artistic circles in France, led by the art historian Didier Rykner, resulting in an online petition to block the deal signed by over 4,500 curators, art historians and archaeologists, whose stand was clear: “French museums are not for sale.” Despite this level of opposition, the deal went through, not least because politically it was seen as raising France’s profile internationally, and economically it would bring in revenues, which could then be spent on further French art investment, according to the French Minister of Culture, Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres.

The deal is arguably a shrewd move in Abu Dhabi’s strategy to put itself on the world cultural map.

It is just a part of a much wider plan to build up Saadiyat Island (Happiness Island), where the Louvre is located, into a cultural spectacle, housing a number of major museums, including the yet-to-be-realised plan to create the biggest Guggenheim Museum in the world there.

Investing over a billion dollars in the Louvre project, Abu Dhabi has in effect managed to take on loan the Louvre brand for a period of 30 years, buying in to their management expertise along the way, along with the respect and authenticity that the name of the biggest museum in the world brings with it. It has also gained access to the collections of 13 major French museums in the process, from which it will loan artworks over a period of 10 years. The loans will buy the new museum time to invest in its own collection, and are planned to diminish over time, as the young museum gathers pace, acquiring its own artworks.


‘Fragment of a plaque in the form of a mihrab’, Iran 1250-1350

Currently 300 of the 600-plus artworks displayed at the museum are on loan through the Agence France Muséums organisation, which includes the Louvre Museum, the Georges Pompidou Centre and Versailles among others. Also part of the deal are four temporary international exhibitions per year, over the course of 15 years, which will be brought to the new Abu Dhabi museum. Currently planned exhibitions range from Charlie Chaplin’s avant-garde cinema, to an exhibition examining the age of chivalry, and an exhibition focused on luxury items from different ages and cultures.

The strategy seems to be working – the Louvre Abu Dhabi has attracted one million visitors in its first year. 60 percent of those were international visitors, with India topping the list.

So how does a branch of a Western museum, situated in the Middle East, and visited by people from a multitude of nations, many of whom are coming from the East, find that cultural balance and make it work? What kind of art should it exhibit, and how best to do so? These were always going to be tough questions to answer, but the approach chosen by the curators focused on highlighting cross-cultural connections through the ages, and attempted to build a collection which would tell a multicultural story of humanity for a multicultural audience.


‘Winged Dragon’, Northern China 475-221 BCE

The experience presented by the Louvre Abu Dhabi is essentially a walk through the cultural history of humanity, illustrated by objets d’art, and curated in such a way as to draw on the similarities between cultures, suggesting connections, and removing the traditional regional boundaries between them to demonstrate a multifaceted multicultural story of humanity. Jean-Francois Charnier, scientific director of Agence France Muséums, calls it ‘the first universal museum’. He says, “It is the first time we not only have the decompartmentalisation of museum departments, but a means of reflecting on unexpected dialogues between artifacts."

While the timeline is predictably chronological, the curation is anything but predictable.

Instead of grouping the artworks and artifacts by their place of origin, as is the more traditional approach in major museums across the world, here they have been arranged in 12 chapters of human history, from pre-history to the present day, the number 12 being significant across various peoples and civilisations, often used in the calculation of the passing of time (hours, months, zodiac).

Objects from different civilisations and cultures are presented in the same space, according to the time of their creation, rather than the place, highlighting the equality of their historical value, and covering up what might otherwise have been a perceptible lack of breadth in the young museum’s collections.


‘Sphinx, mythological creature’, Greece, 500-600 BCE

There are plenty of classical Western art big hitters on show, from Leonardo da Vinci’s portrait of an unknown lady 'La Belle Ferronnière', to Jaques-Louis David’s imposing portrait of Napoleon on his reared up horse, to Pablo Picasso’s ‘Bust of a Woman’, and Whistler’s iconic portrait of his mother. However, it is perhaps inevitable that despite all the efforts of the curatorial team to highlight the multicultural nature of this museum, criticism about it being Western-centric have been leveled.

While in the earlier chapters of human history there are many objects from Eastern civilisations on show – from a charming Chinese winged dragon, to an Indian sculpture of Lord Shiva and an Iranian mihrab plaque – the later, more modern chapters of human history seem to have a degree of Western bias. One Asian standout from the contemporary art period is the crystal chandelier inspired installation ‘Fountain of Light’ by Ai Weiwei, inspired by the concept of a utopian Communist monument, which is not only huge and visually striking but given pride of place, not least because it was commissioned by the museum.

To balance out these Western-centric criticisms, however, it is worth pointing out that the Louvre Abu Dhabi is only one of a plethora of art spaces in the UAE, showcasing a wide range of contemporary art both from across the Middle East and from across Asia. In fact, the entire UAE art scene has been going from strength to strength over the course of the last decade or so.

Dubai, Abu Dhabi’s more glamorous neighbouring emirate, has seen an injection of vibrancy into its art scene with the opening of Alserkal Avenue art hub in 2007, which is a cluster of architect-designed warehouses, spread across an area of 5,00,000 square feet, housing an array of public art spaces and galleries.


Artworks from the Iranian artist Khosrow Hassanzadeh’s solo show at the 1x1 Gallery in Alserkal Avenue titled ‘Khonyagar’

They house art by emerging and established artists from all across the world, many of whom are from South and Central Asia.


Artworks from the Iranian artist Khosrow Hassanzadeh’s solo show at the 1x1 Gallery in Alserkal Avenue titled ‘Khonyagar’

Also of note is the 1x1 Gallery, founded by Malini Gulrajani in 1996, and later moved to Arserkal Avenue. Its focus is usually on Indian modern and contemporary art, though recently they have been adding some Middle East-based artists to their roster, as part of collaborative initiatives with a predominantly cultural orientation.


‘Departure’ by Chirahu Shiota, Japan, on view at the Jameel Arts Centre

The New York-based Leila Heller Gallery has opened its first international branch in Alserkal Avenue. Its focus is on promoting a creative dialogue between Western, Middle Eastern and South and Central Asian contemporary artists, and it is the largest gallery in the UAE.


‘Madonna of the Oranges’ 1997, by Ismail Shammout, Palestine, on view at the Sharjah Art Museum

Sharjah, the emirate which lies on the other side of Dubai from Abu Dhabi, was named the UNESCO Cultural Capital of the Arab World in 1998, and in 2014, USESCO named it its Islamic Culture Capital.

The Sharjah Art Foundation runs a wide variety of exhibitions and cultural and art programs throughout the year, and hosts a bienniale every two years; the next one starts on 7 March 2019.


‘View of the Tigris’ 1934, by Abdul Qadir Al Rassam, Iraq, on view at the Sharjah Art Museum

The Sharjah Art Museum focuses on the diversity of modern and traditional art from the Arab world during the past 50 years. It has permanent collections by artists from a geographically diverse area, including Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Sudan, Jodan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and more, as well as a program of temporary exhibitions.


Dana Awartani, a Palestinian-Saudi Arabian artist, during a walk through of her solo show ‘The Silence Between Us’ at the Maraya Art Gallery

Dana Awartani, a Palestinian-Saudi Arabian artist, whose solo show ‘The Silence Between Us’ is currently on view at the Maraya Art Gallery, Sharjah, and whose artworks are included in a number of major collections around the world, including The British Museum, reflects on the rise of the UAE art scene: “It’s so exciting to see the art scene in the UAE thriving and being well on its way to becoming the next global cultural hub. I especially love how multicultural the art community is here, and how strongly it represents and supports art and artists from the Middle East and South Asia, which is lacking anywhere else in the world.”


'The Platonic Solid Duals’ by Dana Awartani

—All photographs by Polina Schapova