Louvre Abu Dhabi Stories: Immortal Figures

What does an 18/19th century Uli statue from Papua New Guinea have in common with a Saint Peter Martyr bust from Renaissance period? Or a 225-250CE Fayum mummy portrait from Egypt with a 12th century gilt and copper Maitreya from Nepal?

Their timeless relevance in the history of human civilization.

I am a layperson, in the truest sense of the word. My only claim to fame is an endless fascination for all things out of the ordinary. Oh yes, I know… Ordinary – or its opposite – is in the eyes of the beholder. To me, the list of things that come under the head of ‘out of ordinary’ is very long, and includes art, history, human civilization and anthropology, among other things. 

Which is why the chance to visit the ’Louvre Abu Dhabi Stories: Immortal Figures’ display at Manarat Al Saadiyat’s Gallery One came as a treat. The fact that the package included the show’s curator Ms Alia Lootah’s expertise was the icing on the cake. To view a piece of history at close quarters is a privilege, but to view it with an expert whose enthusiasm for the subject is infectious – that’s an honour!

Alia Zaal Lootah presents Maitreya

In a bid to raise awareness about the Louvre Abu Dhabi and its philosophy, and to create a sense of anticipation prior to its opening, the museum’s research and acquisitions team has been conducting a series of events since their first presentation titled Talking Art: Louvre Abu Dhabi in 2009. The latest of the series, Louvre Abu Dhabi Stories, is being held in two parts, ‘Al Qalam’ and ‘Immortal Figures’, and delves deeper into the museum’s philosophy of exploring the interconnectedness of cultures and civilisations.

Four artefacts from completely different civilisations, geographies and eras connected by the fine thread of their significance in the evolution of human history – that’s what Immortal Figures is about.

It was the Fayum mummy portrait that greeted me at the entrance. A beautifully preserved example of Egyptian funerary painting, the wax painting depicts a young man with large liquid eyes, whose costume and bearing are curiously Greco-Roman in their aesthetics. It was with a thrill that I noted the marks behind the portrait that Ms Lootah pointed out: marks left by the mummified body of the young man. Traditionally used to cover the faces of bodies mummified for funeral, the Fayum mummy portrait is one of the approximately 1000 pieces that still survive.

7 - Portrait of Fayum © Louvre Abu Dhabi, Photographer Jonathan Gibbons

In contrast is the classic Maitreya sculpture produced by Newari artists of the Kathmandu Valley in the Middle Ages. The form and aesthetic of the Maitreya are all too familiar for someone who grew up in a culture like ours; however, viewing it as a part of the display brought a fresh perspective to the ‘the Buddha of the future who spreads enlightenment’, while conveying the law of dharma, manifested in the physical form to fulfil a purpose.

        9 - Maitreya © Louvre Abu Dhabi, Photographer Jonathan Gibbons

The bust of Saint Peter Martyr is a perfect example of art during the Renaissance period – natural and realistic, yet with an edge of refinement in its representation. Created by the Florentine artist Andrea della Robbia in the 1490s, the detailing on the bust is impressive. It is also one of the rare pieces from the period that can be attributed to its creator.

            10 - Saint-Pierre Martyr © Louvre Abu Dhabi, Photographer Jonathan Gibbons

I found the last piece of the display, the Uli statue in painted wood (polychromy) from New Ireland, Papua New Guinea, an extremely interesting relic of traditions that no longer exist, in this post-colonial era. Once a part of the funerary ritual of the chiefs of Madak tribe, the Uli, whose physical form embodies the essence of both male and female, represents attributes of power, procreation and death. According to Ms Lootah, there are only 255 Ulis today in public and private collections around the world, and finding one in such a good state that even the paint on the Uli still exists is extremely rare.

Uli statue, New Ireland, 18th-19th century

As residents of a nation that is as yet growing into itself, it is rare that we – and our children – find opportunities to explore art, history and human evolution at close quarters.  For those who are interested, Louvre Abu Dhabi Stories: Immortal Figures display is on till the 30th of August. Let’s take our children there. Let them listen to stories – stories of a unique species called homo sapiens that inhabit this planet.

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Note: The museum also conducts workshops related to their current display. When I went, children – and adults, for that matter – were busy making Renaissance masks using plaster of paris!

For more details on workshops, visit : http://www.saadiyatculturaldistrict.ae/en/cultural-programme/workshops/

Visit http://louvreabudhabi.ae/en/exhibitionsandevents/Pages/louvre-abu-dhabi-stories.aspx to know more about Louvre Abu Dhabi Stories.

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