By Sophia Duvall, Jun 9 2014 08:00AM
Last month I went to an exhibition at the Louvre in Paris that showcased several of the works that will be included in the new Louvre museum in Abu Dhabi, opening in 2015. The curation was fascinating and unlike any I’d seen before. The concept is simple and obvious once you see it: Abu Dhabi is a meeting place of cultures and civilisations from all around the world, and the museum reflects that incredibly well. The curation focuses on periods of time as opposed to a particular part of the world, so it juxtaposes works of art from different regions from roughly the same period, as opposed to having separate sections for different regions as is done in most of the great museums and galleries in the world. The juxtaposition clearly demonstrates the differences between the regions, but more importantly the similarities, and how they influenced one another.
Some objects that particularly caught my eye were the Buddha heads – one from northern China from either the Henan to Shandong, Eastern Wei Dynasty (534-550 CE) or the Northern Qui Dynasty (550-77 CE), and the other from the northern Indian Mathers region (Gupta period, 5th century). Both Buddha heads were exactly the same size but the features clearly reflected their region of origin. Some of my other favourites included works from the Ottoman artist Hamdi Bey, as well as Picasso’s Portrait of a Lady. The finale of the exhibition was two luscious side-by-side works from 1960: Kazno Shiraga’s “Chrisire Kyubuki” and Yves Klein’s “Anthropometry”, which was a fantastic conclusion. By the time I walked out, my brain was buzzing. To say that I felt a little high from this curation is not an exaggeration.
The curation brought to mind a quote from the renowned Indian economist Amartya Sen, from the first podcast in the BBC’s History of the World series:
'I think what is really very important to recognise is that, when we look at the history of the world, we're not looking at the history of different civilisations truncated and separated from each other. They've a huge amount of contact with each other, there is a kind of inter-connectedness. So I've always felt, not to think of the history of the world as a history of civilisations, but as a history of world civilisations evolving in often similar, often diverse ways, always interacting with each other. And this is a very different view from the clash of civilisations to which we were exposed some years ago, as a way to understand enmity in the world. Enmity has not been the general condition of the relationship between people across the world in history.'
No other curation in any other museum has been able to communicate this message so clearly to me. Warfare and violence do not define humankind. At least, I choose to not see it that way. We've influenced one another across the distances and ages in astonishingly beautiful ways. Apart from that, challenging environments have often inspired the most illuminating art. We can witness this all the way back to the Paleolithic era. It was an incredibly difficult time for human kind, living through a blistering Ice Age. And yet, cave paintings and carvings appeared. Was this in spite of or because of the challenges the artists were facing? As a lifelong student of the human sciences, I would argue that it must be both.