Illustration by Anastasiia Zubareva
The new Louvre Abu Dhabi museum is a curatorial project aiming to transcend socio-cultural and geographical barriers in order to preach messages of universality and see humanity through a more positive, unified perspective. It’s undoubtedly an ambitious attempt. One of the museum's goals is to bridge the East and West by placing artwork from various cultures and backgrounds but similar themes together. It’s unlike the usual curatorial practice of separating artworks by location or artistic movement. However, in the mission to bridge often disparate or clashing aspects of humanity and society — religion, culture, race — there is one glaring omission: Gender. Does this sentimental attempt at fostering unity and harmony through art actually work? What is the state of female representation in this purportedly universal museum?
The Louvre Abu Dhabi is set up in a chronological format, consisting of 12 chapters beginning from The First Villages and Civilisations and Empires to Challenging Modernity and The Global Stage. The early chapters focus on highlighting similar themes in the emergence of civilization in different parts of the world, spanning from both East to West — a dichotomy that the museum ultimately attempts to transcend. One example of this is in the wall text for The First Villages gallery. The gallery represents primitive human models in the form of female figurines across the world, suggesting a global preoccupation with fertility. This artistic thesis of sorts is most prominently shown in the display of a sculpture of a Bactrian princess dating from the third millennium B.C., one of the museum’s focally advertised pieces. Items such as flints, pots, jewelry and containers from a variety of places are also on display here.
But this early section of the museum, in particular, begs the question: Is merely placing a bunch of artifacts and artworks from different parts of the world, which happen to have similar themes, side by side truly asserting some grand, effusive statement of common humanity? Frankly, it comes across as rather dubious, or too idealistic. As such, the museum unfolds more like a history textbook describing a worldly narrative of civilization — a narrative largely diluted of its darkness and tragedies. In the attempt to marry large concepts like religion and culture across geographical barriers, a holistic view of humanity is actually lost. In fact, it misses the point of seeing the artwork in a new light, as the museum pamphlets claim.
Human history is turbulent. It teems with conflict, catastrophes and injustice. In an attempt to become universal, a museum must provoke conversations on both similarity and difference, cooperations and calamities, humanity and its history. The Louvre Abu Dhabi only emphasizes the former.
Furthermore, while “promising to shed a new light on humanity,” in focusing on the universality of the things that unite us, the museum has unfortunately failed to include gender in this conversation. The inadequate representation of female artists in its collection cannot be overlooked. In curating a museum that is meant to invite critical self-reflection and allow its audience to engage with problems of the 21st century, the lack of female experience and artists represented at the museum is problematic. It actually sets a precedent which suggests that the voice of an entire gender is unimportant and unnecessary to contemporary issues.
In her essay “A Room of One’s Own” Virginia Woolf writes, “I would venture to guess that Anon […] was often a woman.” By this, she means to say that literary or artistic work produced by women would often either be signed as anonymous or go unnoticed because the world was not ready to recognize the success of a woman. Historically, Woolf’s words have proven to be true in that women have been written out of the artistic canon because of the male-dominated establishment that did not allow for their inclusion. Critics simply did not take women artists seriously, treating them with a combination of condescension and distrust. While artists like Edouard Manet rose to prominence in the 19th-century, model and artist Victorine Meurent was acclaimed for being Manet’s model but not an artist in her own rite.
The Louvre Abu Dhabi has done little to recognize female artists outside of the artistic canon, yet makes exceptions for more locally based artists. In an effort to bridge East and West, the curators have placed renowned Western works next to lesser known Eastern works. In a single room, one might find Impressionist French artwork next to Papua New Guinean sculptures. While this positioning is effective because it prompts audiences to understand the international context of the art pieces, no such liberty is given to female artwork, or artwork representative of a female experience. Femaleness emerges through sporadic displays of pieces of clothing, jewelry, sculptures of goddesses, depictions of harems and Renaissance portraits of the Virgin Mary. In these examples, women are either mystical beings or objects of a male’s gaze, making it clear that the artworks were most definitely not created by women.
And yet, female artists have existed throughout time. To name a few, Hildegard of Bingen in the 12th century, Sofonisba Anguissola in the 16th century, Giovanna Garzoni in the 17th century and Mary Cassatt, Eva Gonzales and Berthe Morisot in the 19th century were iconic female artists of their time. Cassatt, Gonzales and Morisot were prominent painters during the Impressionist movement in France and have work displayed in several galleries all over Paris.
In the context of the Louvre Abu Dhabi museum, the inclusion of female artists is important not only to acknowledge that women have been excluded but also to prevent the future erasure of women from the canon. Museums are houses of collective cultural archives. In displaying sculptures, paintings and artifacts, a museum is meant to convey a consciousness and an experience. Failing to include artwork by women in a museum that markets itself as something that is meant to transcend boundaries by championing human creativity continues to prove Virginia Woolf’s point that for most of history, anonymous is a woman.
Larayb Abrar is a contributing writer and Vamika Sinha is Features Editor. Email them [email protected]