Abu Dhabi: The Louvre Abu Dhabi’s first international exhibition of the year — Abstraction and Calligraphy — Towards a Universal Language — is set to open on Wednesday.
The exhibit invites visitors to explore the dawn of modern abstraction through the exploration of signs and symbols, and traces their origins to Asian and Arabic calligraphy, and to sites of mutual inspiration around the world.
The exhibition will run until June 12, and will bring together 86 pieces, including 80 on loans from partner institutions like the Centre Pompidou, a house for modern and contemporary art in Paris. It will showcase how 20th century abstract artists like Paul Klee, André Masson, Wassily Kandinsky, Cy Twombly, Lee Krasner, and Jackson Pollock felt the need to establish a new universal, visual language that was inspired by calligraphy. The show will also focus on 20th and 21st century Arab artists — from Dia Azzawi and Anwar Jalal Shemza, to Ghada Amer, Shirazeh Houshiary, Mona Hatoum and others — for whom the letterform was a continuous source of inspiration, freeing writing from its purely linguistic function and investing it with new artistic value. Two contemporary artists, eL Seed and Sanki King, will also be featured, demonstrating how artists today are still seeking new visual forms to respond to current societal changes.
Free entry for some
The museum currently provides free entry to visitors aged up to 18 years, and to frontline professionals.
First 2021 exhibition
“The masterworks in Abstraction and Calligraphy, some on display in the region for the very first time, are exceptional for many reasons. Not only because they have been crafted by some of the world’s most celebrated artists, but because they tell stories of discovery and inspiration across time, cultures and geographies,” said Khalifa Al Mubarak, chairman at the Department of Culture and Tourism — Abu Dhabi (DCT Abu Dhabi).
“This exhibition is a continuation of the important work DCT Abu Dhabi has been doing throughout the past year, where in spite of challenges faced due to the global pandemic, we have delivered innovative and ambitious new cultural initiatives alongside diverse, dynamic cultural programming targeting all segments of the Abu Dhabi community,” Al Mubarak added.
“We are emerging from the very difficult past year of 2020, and it is a pleasure to invite the great curator Didier Ottinger to explore the relationship between abstraction and calligraphy, two visual languages, intimately entwined. Louvre Abu Dhabi will offer audiences an exploration of a universal language through pictograms, signs, symbols, lines, and other traces of the hands of the artists,” said Manuel Rabaté, director at Louvre Abu Dhabi.
“The sources of abstraction that might be said to have dominated 20th-century art are found in the attention that many artists paid to the varied signs, calligraphies and ideograms of non-Western cultures. Beyond the limits of immediate sensory experience, in an environment where letters are present everywhere in declamation, calligraphy and graffiti, Asia and North Africa were intuitively experienced as an essential model. This almost mystical dimension of gesture and letter finds an echo in the Arab Hurufiyya movement, whose importance in the development of contemporary abstraction should not be underestimated. The exhibition, therefore, aims to bring together works from East and West, and to show what Western art has learnt from different forms of calligraphy belonging to cultures and systems of writing and thought very foreign to it,” said Dr. Souraya Noujaim, director of scientific, curatorial and collections Management at Louvre Abu Dhabi.
Sections and chapters
The exhibition is organised in four sections, with the first focusing on pictograms, which are symbolic figurative images that represented ideas in ancient civilisations such as Mesopotamia and Egypt, and the way they inspired abstract artists. The second chapter explores signs, which took over from pictograms, breaking writing’s attachment to imagery. The third section is devoted to lineaments, revealing how Western artists incorporated the energy of Eastern calligraphy in their brushstrokes to produce free and fluid lines. The final section on calligraphy focuses on the ways artists and poets around the world — from Brion Gysin and Henri Michaux to Shakir Hassan Al Said and Sliman Mansour — incorporate calligraphic signs in their practice.
Tours and engagement
To facilitate on-site engagement with the exhibition, Louvre Abu Dhabi’s Education team has developed a digital learning resource, which guides young visitors and their families through the exhibition space and its artworks. An animated character named Qalam will help visitors explore the designated trail and engage young visitors with selected artworks and artists. These interactions aim to inspire creative expression and help children learn about the history of pictograms, alphabets, and abstraction. Small groups can also book a 45-minute Express Tour to explore the exhibition with a Museum Educator.
The temporary exhibition will also be accompanied by an extensive online cultural programme. Ottinger, its curator, will talk about how calligraphy has travelled across borders, as well as the evolution of symbols to the formation of language. He will also explore calligraphy and abstraction from cave painting to street art.
On Sunday, March 6, Emirati artist and calligrapher, Mohamed Mandi, will take the audience through a live calligraphy demonstration and speak about his practice, tracing the history of the meaning of calligraphy, the meditative act of a brush stroke and the spiritual significance of the letter. The session will kick off at 5pm.
A pop-up performance featuring musicians from Berklee Abu Dhabi will also go live on Louvre Abu Dhabi’s YouTube channel on Wednesday, 24 March from 8pm. Taking place under the museum’s famed dome, the performance will be a celebration of the mutual influence of contemporary artists and avant-garde composers of 20th century.
Finally, three short film screenings will be shown on a loop at Louvre Abu Dhabi’s auditorium from 31 March — 2 April. The award-winning films Virtuos Virtuell by German film director Thomas Stellmach and artist Maja Oschmann, and Wonder by Japanese animator Mirai Mizue will allow visitors to experience the relationship between abstract form and music. The screening of About a Mother by director Dina Velikovskaya will be dedicated to pictograms and symbols, with audiences discovering that the power of art that can transcend language and culture through the sacrifice of a mother for her children.
A surprise screening will take place for three days starting 31 March from 5-9pm, where visitors to the museum and kayakers in the surrounding waters alike will have the opportunity to experience the walls of Louvre Abu Dhabi coming to life with a live film screening.