Ancient wonders

By Katie Boucher

Anyone who has visited the Splendours of Mesopotamia exhibition at Manarat al Saadiyat in Abu Dhabi, which ends today, will have been transported 5,000 years back to 3300BC, when the world’s first great civilisation was starting to evolve.

Splendours of Mesopotamia, Manarat al Saadiyat in Abu DhabiThrough a collection of objects of remarkable historical significance, including a 5,000-year-old clay slab (dated 3301 – 3100BC) depicting the earliest forms of writing, and the monumental Assyrian reliefs (great slabs of carved gypsum, the oldest dating from 875-860BC, showing some of the earliest known examples of narrative art) we are given glimpses of the 3,000-year period when Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) was the centre of the world.

Peopled first by the Sumerians, then the Assyrians and finally the Babylonians, by the time the latter were defeated by the Persians in 539BC, the framework for society, trade, culture and agriculture, on which all future societies would be based, had been established.

Combining 200 objects loaned from the British Museum’s renowned Middle East collection, as well as a selection from the Al Ain National Museum, the exhibition also demonstrated the role the UAE played within this sprawling, sophisticated empire. Items excavated from the Umm al Nar and Hafeet cultures in modern-day Abu Dhabi prove that the UAE was trading with the Sumerian people in the third millennium BC. In fact, it was thanks to Sheikh Zayed, the founding President of the UAE, that they were discovered, since it was he who invited a group of Danish archeologists to Umm al Nar, a small island off the coast of Abu Dhabi, to excavate in the 1950s.

“He knew and understood the land,” said Dr Paul Collins, the lead curator of the Zayed National Museum Project at the British Museum, when we spoke at a preview of the exhibition in March, “so he was able to take them directly and say ‘how about here?’ and they then discovered this crucial link.”

It is these kinds of stories that feed into the vision of the Zayed National Museum, due for completion in 2014. The Norman Foster-designed structure of the museum, its soaring steel “feathers” inspired by those of a falcon, will tell the story of the life and works of the late Sheikh Zayed, as well as the history of the UAE and its links to the wider world. Splendours of Mesopotamia was the first in a planned series of shows that will take place in the lead-up to the museum’s opening, using the British Museum as partner.

Perhaps it was the excitement surrounding this first glimpse of the themes that will be explored within the Zayed National Museum that explains the five-fold increase in visitors compared with previous exhibitions held at the same venue, says Hend Mana al Otaiba, a representative of the cultural department at the Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC) which presented Splendours of Mesopotamia.

“It has been extremely well-received,” she says. “I think being linked to the Zayed National Museum and its relevance to the UAE and the region means that it has drawn a lot of curiosity from people here, be it UAE nationals or visitors.” Since the exhibition opened at the end of March, 25,000 people have passed through its doors. The programme of talks and discussion panels, which has run alongside the exhibition, has also, she says, been well attended.

“I gave a lecture a couple of days after the exhibition opened,” says John Curtis, the keeper of the Middle East department at the British Museum, who spoke at the Manarat al Saadiyat on the subject of “The Discovery of Mesopotamia”, “and even though it was a very large space, it was full. I was very impressed by the level of interest.”

As well as the exhibition’s regional significance, the high quality of the artefacts on display was, says Curtis, likely a draw for many. “Some of our best pieces were in the show. My personal interest is in the Assyrian period, which is 900 – 700BC and so I regard as among the most spectacular pieces the wall reliefs of the Assyrian palaces. Those are really wonderful pieces and among the great cultural treasures of the whole world, really.”

Seventeen workshops for adults, teenagers and children were also fully subscribed. “What I’ve heard about and I find very gratifying,” says Curtis, “is a whole series of children’s workshops in connection with the exhibition. We’re really pleased that there has been such a focus on that. All museum curators like to think that children and young people should be involved in museums as much as possible, but it’s an aspiration to which we can’t always rise with the demands that there are in London, with huge numbers of people coming through the doors.”

Overall, says al Otaiba, the increase in visitor numbers is a positive sign that the public are gradually becoming engaged in the cultural experience that Saadiyat Island now offers. “It shows the growing appetite of the people here,” she says, “wanting to be part of cultural events.” The exhibition went out with a bang on Thursday with Artscape Neo Babylon, a bohemian mix of poetry, music and workshops.

No sooner have the great Assyrian Reliefs been heaved from the walls than the next project will start to take shape. The second instalment of Emirati Expressions (the last exhibition, The Movement of Thought, took place at the Emirates Palace from February to April 2009 and featured a number of works by Emirati artists) will shift its focus to photography. Since May, a group of Emirati artists have been participating in a series of workshops with the great American photographer Stephen Shore (a friend of Andy Warhol, a pioneer of colour photography and the second living photographer to have a one-man show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York). The sessions will continue over the summer and the results of their work will go on display at Emirati Expressions 2011 at Manarat al Saadiyat from October 19.

“The show is not going to be a retrospective of the best work of these artists,” said Shore at a talk he gave in Abu Dhabi last week. “It’s about the workshop and the process of having a dialogue – not just between me and them but between each other.

Shore admits to having done “a lot” of workshops. “I like the structure of a class,” he said. “It answers questions that they have unconsciously been asking. It’s an intense learning experience, which I find fascinating.”

Bringing the focus back to Emirati artists is, says al Otaiba, part of TDIC’s commitment to fostering home-grown talent. “It’s focusing on an area that’s of great interest to UAE nationals,” she says. “A lot of them do photography as a hobby and it will be good to see their work in an exhibition.”

This year will also see the third instalment of Abu Dhabi Art, the city’s art fair, shift from its previous home of the Emirates Palace to the Manarat al Saadiyat. It is an encouraging sign that the city’s cultural focus is, it seems, moving to the site of the museums. “We’re exploring new ground all the time,” says al Otaiba, who will not be drawn on further plans for the fair. “It will be exciting to have it on the island.”

Emirati Expressions 2011 will open at Manarat al Saadiyat on October 19 and run until January 28. Check for information on a series of related discussion panels that will be taking place over the summer

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