DUBAI: Over the past decade the world has watched as China has expanded its economic presence in the Gulf region, becoming the biggest trading partner and external investor for many Middle Eastern countries.
Yet what many forget is that China’s relationship with the Arab world dates back to antiquity — to the time of the Silk Road and the birth of Islam in the Arabian Peninsula.
Thanks to Arab explorers, such as the 14th-century adventurer Ibn Battuta, and the expansion of trade activities in Europe, business and cultural exchange flourished between China and the Arab world.
What many analysts refer to as China’s “new Silk Road” is, in essence, a return to this shared past, one that is explored through the exhibition “Dragon and Phoenix: Centuries of Exchange between Chinese and Islamic Worlds,” on display at the Louvre Abu Dhabi until Feb. 12, 2022.
The show includes over 200 masterpieces from the Louvre Abu Dhabi in partnership with the Guimet Museum in Paris, and showcases the cultural and artistic exchange between the two civilizations for more than 800 years up till the 18th century.
The exhibition pays tribute to the Dragon, representing China, and the Phoenix, referring to the Islamic world, with artifacts dating back to the establishment of the first Arab merchant colonies in the trading city of Canton in the 8th century.
Objects reveal the journeys of tradesmen and explorers from the Arab world through Central Asia and across the Indian Ocean to China and South-east Asia.
“Dragon and Phoenix: Centuries of Exchange between Chinese and Islamic Worlds” was curated by Sophie Makariou, president of the Guimet Museum, in collaboration with Souraya Noujaim, scientific, curatorial and collections management director, and Guilhem Andre, Louvre Abu Dhabi’s chief curator of Asian and medieval art.
“The exhibition gives visitors the opportunity to compare artworks, set side by side, from different regions that are connected by overwhelming aesthetic and symbolic similarities,” Andre told Arab News.
“The works appear similar at first glance, but when you uncover their history and provenance you are made aware of the many threads of inspiration and cultural exchange which run between the Chinese and Islamic worlds. Each of these items and the materials used represent mediums for artistic exchange between these great cultures.”
Masterpieces on display include the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s rare Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) gold cup with dragon-shaped handle from China, which may have been made for a nomadic dignitary.
Another highlight is the Panni Tartarici (or Tartar cloths) — Mongol silk fabric with gold threads — from the Guimet collection.
A calligraphy section features paintings and calligraphies by Wen Zhengming (1470-1559), Dong Qichang (1555–1636) and Zha Shibiao (1615–1698) on loan from the Guimet Museum. These works correspond to the exquisite letters of Arabic script found in a selection of illuminated manuscripts from the Qur’an.
The exhibition also includes paintings, silverware, ceramic, glassware, manuscripts and luxury fabrics.
“Wherever trade routes exist, artistic and cultural exchange exists in parallel,” Andre said. “With every exhibition, we hope that visitors come away with an understanding that, as humans, we have more in common than we realize, whether historically or in the present day. Exhibitions such as this allow us to trace the routes of exchange and inspiration between peoples and cultures that have been present for thousands of years and will continue to be sources of inspiration.”
The exhibition will be accompanied by a cultural program, including weekend family film screenings.
Andre said that the exhibition is the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s most important show of 2021. With the opening of Expo 2020, this is a pivotal year for the UAE in terms of cultural exchange, he added.
In 2022, the Louvre Abu Dhabi will feature a performance piece by local artist Ahmed Al-Areef. Starting in October, educational activities and programs will include daily express tours for adults, Take Me to Asia interactive events with museum educators, “MakeandPlay” activities inspired by the exhibition, and masterclasses.