After Impressionism, inside Africa: the big shows from Louvre Abu Dhabi for next season

For its 2024-25 season, Louvre Abu Dhabi has again come up some very solid announcements – the kind of exhibitions that will help to burnish its reputation, underpin its ethos, and make the most of the relationships it has with French institutions. Alongside the big shows, there’s a busy programme of workshops, interactive installations and “events that encourage active participation and dialogue”.

‘Dialogue’ is big at Louvre Abu Dhabi. The museum’s director, Manuel Rabaté, was quoted in the PR bumf as promising that “our new season further solidifies the museum’s commitment to fostering dialogue”; Dr Guilhem André, Acting Director of Scientific, Curatorial, and Collections Management at Louvre AD, said the aim was “to create a platform that transcends boundaries and brings people together … [providing] visitors with an opportunity to explore different artistic movements, cultures and narratives, fostering a deeper understanding of our shared human experiences”.

The most obvious way of doing this is simply to put great art – or well-known art, which may or may not be the same thing – in front of an audience for which it is unfamiliar. The (slight) danger is that the celebrity of a piece may be all that impresses the visitor, but if it gets them into the museum that’s an important step …

Celebrity-wise, you don’t get much more impressive than the impressionists; and post-impressionism gets an eponymous head start, too. The Louvre AD’s excellent autumn 2022 show Impressionism: Pathways to Modernity featured some of impressionism’s greatest hits but also did what exactly as the title claimed – it demonstrated the essential modernness of the movement. This season gets a follow-on with the title Post-Impressionism: Beyond Appearances, and again it draws heavily on the expertise of the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.

The exhibition will focus specifically on the two decades between 1886 and 1905, a period that saw the emergence of heavy hitters like Gauguin, Cézanne, van Gogh, and Seurat, bookended by the Fauvistes like Matisse and Rouault. This was a time when painting was on a journey from the external to the internal, from depicting the world with declamatory gestures and universal symbols to saying something about the individual; it manifested as colour and form as means of communicating the artist’s emotional state, often via intimate of a personal life like Van Gogh’s Bedroom (1889, top).

That will probably be the highlight of the Louvre AD show, in fact. We don’t know what else will be included, apart from a couple of side-by-side contrasting works by Georges Hanna Sabbagh – born In Egypt, trained in Paris, highly regarded between the wars as a portrait and landscape painter (at least 28 solo shows and more than 130 group exhibitions), temporarily forgotten after WWII, and rediscovered in the 1980s. There’s a good collection of Sabbaghs in Doha’s Mathaf, and also of course in the museums of France – which are loaning at least two to the Louvre AD’s exhibition, L’artiste et sa famille à La Clarté (1920 – La Clarté is the Breton village where he was living at the time) and Les Sabbagh à Paris (The Sabbagh Family in Paris: 1921).

The exhibition will be curated jointly by Jean-Rémi Touzet, conservator for paintings at the Musée d’Orsay, and Jérôme Farigoule, chief curator at Louvre Abu Dhabi, with the support of curatorial assistant Aisha Alahmadi. It opens 16 October and runs to 9 February.

The other major show looks equally exciting. Kings and Queens of Africa: Forms and Figures of Power celebrates the history and cultural heritage of African royalty via around 300 objects, including some external loans but based on the collection of the musée du quai Branly – “a space for scientific and artistic dialogue” (that word again) which “aims to promote the Arts and Civilizations of Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas, at the crossroads of multiple cultural, religious and historical influences”.
We’re promised an “intriguing” exploration of the culture and beliefs that are intertwined with the lives of African kings and queens – “an enlightening experience that will deepen [the visitor’s] understanding and appreciation of African royalty”.

There’s no way this show can be less than fascinating. For a start it’s curated by Hélène Joubert, head curator of the African Heritage Unit at musée du quai Branly, who has written extensively on African art. She’s supported by two top associates – Malick Ndiaye El Hadji, Curator of the Théodore Monod Museum of African Art in Dakar, Senegal; and Cindy Olohou, an independent curator, art historian, and founder of the Wasanii Ya Leo, a French art agency focussed on African art. Also involved is Mariam AlDhaheri, Curatorial Assistant at Louvre Abu Dhabi. You could reasonably expect a good exhibition from that team.

Again, there are few details of what will actually be in the Forms and Figures of Power show. But we do know that it includes an Ife head; Ife (or Ile-Ife, or Ife-Lodun) was an ancient Yoruba city state in the southwest of present-day Nigeria, and while not much is known about the Yoruba kingdom it’s clear that art and especially sculptures were central to it – Ife artists are said to have begun creating beautifully finished lifelike heads in bronze, stone, and terracotta, depicting “youth and old age, health and disease, suffering and serenity”, from around the 12th century on (the one that will be on loan from musée du quai Branly is dated loosely as 12th – 14th century).

The other major exhibition is the fourth edition of Louvre Abu Dhabi Art Here, set for 20 September to 15 December. There’s a current open call for contemporary artists from the GCC and North Africa to propose sculpture or audio-visual installations for the exhibition (the open call closes 31 May). This year’s edition is curated by independent curator, writer and art critic Simon Njami, who has set the theme of ‘Awakenings’ and expanded eligibility to North Africa. Six or seven artists will probably be selected; one winner will be chosen by a jury panel in December 2024 to receive the $60,000 Richard Mille Art Prize.

In addition to the exhibitions, Louvre Abu Dhabi is relaunching its White Canvas project – temporary art projections onto the outside walls of the museum, thus extending the gallery space into the museum’s park and surroundings. Predictably, there are no details of what and when, but if it helps we’re told that “White Canvas will feature a range of exhibitions and happenings via art projections, inviting visitors to engage with art in a unique and immersive way”.

Inside the permanent galleries there will be a variety of new acquisitions and loans. The museum regards one of these, the Pyxis of al-Mughira, as “a significant highlight”; on loan from the department of Islamic Arts at Musée du Louvre, it’s a portable lidded container (that’s what a ‘pyxis’ is) made of ivory and covered with beautiful, elaborate carvings. A vessel of expert design and impeccable craftsmanship, its purpose is unclear – there are no clues in the interior, but it could have been used to hold jewellery or aromatics. There’s a lot of debate about the possible meaning of the carvings, too.

It dates from the Umayyad caliphate in Spain, and an inscription confirms it was made for al-Mughīra in 968 CE. The al-Mughīra in question was probably a son of the then caliph, so it might have been a coming-of-age present or similar.

For such a small object (15 cm x 8 cm) it’s loaded with conversation-starters about its history, craftsmanship and significance. Which is exactly the kind of thing the Louvre Abu Dhabi should be doing.

You could say exactly the same about the newly announced loan agreement that takes a couple of important pieces from the Louvre AD’s permanent collection to the National Museum of Oman for a year. The agreement builds on a nascent tradition of cultural exchange between the two museums, notably via the 2021 collaboration on the Gardens of Paradise: The Language of Flowers in Iznic Ceramics exhibition at the Omani National Museum which was based on loans from Louvre AD.

This time the loans are two very different pieces. One is a Samanid bowl with inscription, dated to the 10th–11th century and hailing from the Silk Road areas of Khorasan and Transoxiana. The contrasting black or brown slip decoration on a white slip base demonstrates the skill of the calligrapher who has adorned the piece with Arabic proverbs. The other loan is Josef Albers’ Homage to the Square (1963), one of a series of that encapsulates his exploration of colour theory and optical effects through compositions of nested squares.

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