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New Horizons in the 21st Century Gulf’s Cultural Production

Panel II-21, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Thursday, November 2 at 5:30 pm

Panel Description
This panel will focus on new developments in the cultural scene in the Arab Gulf countries. This scene is currently undergoing significant changes, opening up for new cultural and geographic horizons and in particular a renewed attention to the Indian Ocean world. The panel asks how this may affect the cultural scene more broadly, both within the Gulf region and beyond. In the first two decades of the 21st Century in particular Qatar and the UAE fostered large-scale museum projects with characteristic spectacular architecture designed by international architects, such as the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha (2008), the Louvre Abu Dhabi (2017), the National Museum of Qatar (2019) and the Zayed National Museum, Abu Dhabi (under construction). More recently the focus has shifted from establishing such grand scale globalized (and arguably westernized) institutions to a regional focus that foregrounds relationships within the Indian Ocean world and not least religion. This focus is evident in revised presentations in established museums and new museums as well as cultural and academic projects addressing this geographic and cultural territory. This also includes attention to other voices in Gulf cultural history and cultural production, global and transregional as well as local voices. The panel will contribute with case studies of individual projects and countries that together highlight the importance of this new direction for the Arabian Gulf. The panel does not only focus on museums but also on cultural production more broadly, eg. art fairs and galleries, cultural events and cultural management and bureaucracy. The panel will examine how this new regionally focused agenda is being materialized and the motives behind it through an examination of key case studies in Qatar, the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
Art/Art History
Religious Studies/Theology
  • Dr. Thabiti Willis -- Presenter
  • Thomas Fibiger -- Organizer, Presenter
  • Fergus Reoch -- Presenter
  • Thomas Fibiger
    This paper focuses on the dissemination of religion in The Louvre Abu Dhabi (LAD), opened in 2017. The paper highlights how the Louvre puts religion at the centre for a history of world civilisations. However, this exhibitionary layout is arguably not Islam-centred, as could be expected in the Gulf, nor Eurocentric as the Louvre mother museums and similar Western museums would be. Rather, different religions and cultural geographies are exhibited together, in the same rooms, ie. Islamic tombstones with a sculpture of Mary and Jesus as well as figure of a dancing Shiva Hindu Goddess. Critical questions has been raised (eg. Wakefield 2020) on how this reflects a postcolonial legitimization of the Louvre mother museum and other ‘old’ world museums. I suggest, however, that the narrative at LAD may open, indeed may have opened, new horizons for museums in the Gulf as well as, potentially, on a global scale. At the same time the narrative may also be furthered, at LAD not least in the sections on contemporary art which are arguably still West-focused. The exhibitions speak to a Gulf society where religion is important but also a society and an institutional embedding where Islam is not the only religion in focus. While the aspirations for local inclusiveness may well be debated, as several scholars have already done, the universalization of the exhibition narrative can also be an inspiration to other world museums, old and new. Thus the Louvre Abu Dhabi and other new, international museums in the Gulf are not only ‘franchises’ but may speak back to their mother institutions and other world museums.
  • Dr. Thabiti Willis
    This paper looks at African cultural production in the Indian Ocean world as the lens through which to explore longstanding and revised representations in establish and new museums and other heritage sites and in performances in the Gulf. Recent developments in the field of Indian Ocean Studies have decentered European imperial powers to consider the ways that environmental factors like the monsoon winds played in facilitating the circulations and interactions among people, ideas, practices, and objects between Africa, the Gulf, and India. This paper highlights that ways that people and institutions historically have adopted practices and objects during such interactions. It offers an analysis of exhibits that feature music at the National Museum in Bahrain (1988), the Bin Jelmood Museum in Qatar (2015), and the Sharjah Biennial 15 in the UAE (2023). While older, establish museums in Arab Gulf states name Arab elements, new museums and exhibits have begun to identify elements with Africa in ways that acknowledge the dynamism that has long shaped the development of societies.
  • Fergus Reoch
    What is the relationship between growing cultural confidence in the Arabian Peninsula and the centring of local narratives about Arabian history in museums?   Recent years mark a turning point in how the history of the Arabian Peninsula is approached in museum settings in the region. The rich and vibrant stories and histories of Central Arabia and the Gulf coast are being highlighted, using oral histories, poetry and intangible traditions alongside archaeological and written evidence. This is a departure from previous approaches whereby museums centred the accounts of foreign visitors to the region and sometimes lost interest in the Peninsula altogether after the Prophetic era (apart from Makkah and Madinah), focusing instead on the worldwide spread of Islam and objects brought to the Arabian Peninsula by pilgrims and traders.   Middle East studies and museum studies have highlighted the importance of growing national cultural confidence and respect for local and national heritage and history across Arabia, but are yet to consider the role of centring Arabian narratives in museums in empowering people to feel pride in their own heritage and history, often rewriting the narratives received in education. This paper draws on recent and ongoing narrative development for museums in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and Oman to explore how this change is happening and who is driving it. It offers an important contribution for conceptions of local and national history and identity in the Arabian Peninsula.