More than 300 objects — including funerary steles, dishes, statues, paintings, murals, and jewelry — are on display at the Louvre through September 27 as part of the "Routes of Arabia" exhibition, which includes many objects that are being shown outside Saudi Arabia for the first time. Carine Juvin is a researcher in the museum’s Islamic Arts department and one of the show’s curators. She sat down with ARTINFO France recently to talk about this unique collaboration between France and Saudi Arabia.
How did such a large exhibition come about?
It’s the culmination of a cultural collaboration agreement between the Louvre and the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities that was signed in 2004. The first stage took place in 2006 at the National Museum of Riyadh and featured works from the Islamic Arts collection of the Louvre. "Routes of Arabia" is the second stage, an important second step. It’s also part of Saudi Arabia’s major sponsorship, through Prince Al-Saud, of the Louvre’s future exhibition area for Islamic art (due to open in 2012).
This is the first exhibition of its kind devoted to Saudi Arabian history and culture.
Yes, it’s a first for France, but also worldwide, since most of these items have never left the Saudi kingdom and some have not even been shown locally. Some pieces were just recently discovered, like the large statues of the Lihyan kings (6th through 4th centuries B.C.). This event also fits into the Louvre’s practice of having large archaeological exhibitions on a regular basis.
What interest is there in such an exhibition in France today?
This project is part of a general interest in Islamic art and history. Since Saudi Arabia is the cradle of Islam, it seemed appropriate to us to situate this religion in the land of its origin, with all that came before it and the culture in which it developed. The exhibition is also the result of 30 years of excavations in Saudi Arabia; the moment had come to present all this research.
How long did you work on putting the exhibit together as co-curator?
I’d say a year and a half, though some of the work having already been started. All the exchanges were friendly. There were a number of us working on it, including a Saudi curator. Overall, the Saudis were very cooperative. Along with the exhibition, we also produced a substantial catalog that is 624 pages long. In terms of publications, there are relatively few things available in French, so this will be a real reference work.
Why the title "Routes of Arabia"?
It seemed to us to be the only choice. The routes are the guiding principle throughout the exhibition. Areas of the country developed according to the trade routes across the Arabian peninsula. This idea can be found throughout the centuries, including during the Islamic period, when pilgrimage routes began to appear linking various parts of Islamic territory to the holy places.
Does this title also represent a way to avoid dividing the Arab world into pre-Islamic and Islamic?
Yes. We didn’t want to emphasize this division too much, even if it remains very present for Saudi Arabians. The exhibition was organized by the department of Eastern Antiquities and the department of Islamic Arts on a chronological basis. The idea was to provide a panoramic view of Saudi Arabian history above all else.
Is it necessary to have a sophisticated knowledge of archaeology and to follow the Middle East closely in order to appreciate this exhibition?
Not necessarily. The exhibition is aimed at diverse audiences, including people who simply want to know more about this region — a part of the world that shows up in the news a lot but is often not well-understood. It’s arranged chronologically and we took a great deal of care to make the written material clear. Also, we tried to clearly show the influences at work on the Arabian peninsula.
What have early reactions been like?
The public has really noticed it and we’ve gotten excellent feedback. People sometimes have an idea of Saudi Arabia that’s limited to "Lawrence of Arabia." I think that they will be rather surprised to find such variety on the Arabian peninsula. It’s a real discovery for a lot of people.