The Louvre Abu Dhabi’s auditorium program manager, Noor Suwaidi – a painter and curator in her own right – saw her first original work of art at age 23 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington DC. She says, “I studied art from slides and books. I had tears in my eyes in that gallery. Now I’m 36, and the fact that this is in my own backyard, right by my house, opens up a whole other dimension.”
It has taken a decade of behind-the-scenes footwork to prepare for the groundbreaking Louvre Abu Dhabi in Saadiyat Island’s Cultural District to finally open its doors to the public on November 11. The museum’s presence is intended to solidify Abu Dhabi as a cultural catalyst for the region, and will also give generations of locals and residents the experience of coming face to face with masterpieces – an encounter with the power to change the course of someone’s life. Some of the most remarkable members of the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s team are Emirati women with impeccable educations and professional backgrounds. These include Suwaidi, as well as assistant curator Alia Zaal Sultan Lootah and registrar Najla Busit, who supervises logistics and installations of priceless works on loan from France. Hissa Al Dhaheri serves as deputy director.
I phone Al Dhaheri for an interview from Boston on the first icy day of fall. I picture her at the other end of the line tethered to a laptop at the close of the workweek, perched cross-legged on her overstuffed floral couch in the family majlis, the place she admits to spending all her spare time of late – that is, when she isn’t pulling a frequent all-nighter at the office. Al Dhaheri is a competitive perfectionist who doesn’t do anything halfway.
As a girl growing up with five siblings in Al Bateen, she spent years enjoying twice weekly art lessons at the Cultural Foundation of Abu Dhabi, which at that time was the only institution in the emirate that provided educational opportunities in the visual arts to local students. With a surprisingly sarcastic laugh she recounts, “When I enrolled at Zayed University in 2001, I seriously considered becoming an artist. But then I got a B in a studio class and said, that’s it, I’m not good enough at making art. I got the reality check early on.” It can be considered fortuitous to the future UAE art ecosystem that Al Dhaheri chose to lead her life in a different direction. After closing the studio door for the last time, a winding path ultimately led to her prestigious current appointment.
Plans for the 24 000 sqm museum were announced in 2007, when, as the result of a unique agreement between the governments of France and Abu Dhabi, the museum gained rights to retain the Louvre name for 30 years, support from Agence France-Muséums for 15, and 300 works on loan for 10. The Jean Nouvel-designed building is already famous for its steel dome, which is almost as heavy as the Eiffel Tower, and yet allows for ethereal rays of sunlight to penetrate its eight layers of steel and ornate geometric workmanship. The effect is poetically named the “rain of light” for the more than 7 000 stars that constantly shift patterns as the result.
Al Dhaheri divides life into “before LAD” – Louvre Abu Dhabi – and “after LAD.” In the more balanced days before the final push towards the opening, Al Dhaheri regularly sped through Abu Dhabi’s serene desert on foggy mornings on her bicycle, was at her most relaxed over a heated tennis match, and frequently Instagrammed herself mid-workout, once with the tips of her skis dangling over a terrifyingly steep slope at Baqueira-Beret, a jet-setters’ paradise set in Spain’s Pyrenees mountain range. Although she describes her style as “sporty,” Al Dhaheri is slowly dipping into fashion, too. Her almond-shaped nails are always painted (sometimes subconsciously coordinating with works in the collection) and she is hung up on architectural rings by Emirati designer Maryam Al Omaira as well as Swear’s magenta platform sneakers picked up on a trip to her favorite Abu Dhabi boutique, Minbart.
Unlike many of her colleagues, Al Dhaheri – who is the right-hand woman to director Manuel Rabaté and thereby charged with overseeing a massive, invaluable operation – doesn’t have a formal background in art history or museum studies. When Al Dhaheri and her 20- and 30-something colleagues were growing up, museum studies wasn’t yet available as a university major in the UAE. She doesn’t even have typical “gallery girl” stories to share; there is no reminiscing on early family holidays spent traversing Europe’s capital cities of art, London, Paris, and Rome. At Zayed University she pursued a double major in social and behavioral sciences and international studies before pursuing a master’s degree in Gulf studies at the University of Exeter in the UK. Looking back on that time, she says, “What I was most interested in was understanding how societies are formed and what makes cultures what they are.” Her subsequent career has doggedly pursued the answer to this never fully answerable question. And perhaps not coincidentally, as a self-declared universal museum, the Louvre Abu Dhabi is bent on compelling its visitors to pause mid-gallery stroll to generate multiple open-ended responses to this very same puzzle. The exquisite first piece of art acquired for the museum’s permanent collection was “Composition with Blue, Red, Yellow, and Black,” a classic 1922 painting by Dutch modernist Piet Mondrian. The painting once belonged to Yves Saint Laurent, and most likely inspired his iconic A-line dresses in the Mondrian Collection. Ultimately, the museum’s permanent collection will contain hundreds of works from prehistoric to contemporary times, each of which, like the Mondrian, is intended to perfectly capture, name, and examine a poignant moment in history. Women are portrayed in the museum’s collection in a variety of voices and eras as well, beginning with a rare Bactrian princess statue dating from 4 000 years ago, and important works such as “Ayoucha,” an 1843 daguerreotype by French photographer Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey and the earliest photograph of a veiled woman from the Middle East.
Much like the UAE, which has always thrived as a global crossroads appropriating from multiple cultural influences, the Louvre Abu Dhabi sets out to become the Arab world’s first universal museum – a space in which Eastern and Western works will share wall space as though conversing through the 23 permanent galleries resembling a medina settlement, all offset by the cerulean waters of the Arabian Gulf.
After her school days, Al Dhaheri returned home to Abu Dhabi and began teaching at her alma mater. In 2007, the same year that plans for the Louvre Abu Dhabi were announced in the press, she took a group of students for a short course to London. A trip to the Victoria and Albert Museum gave her pause to think. “I remember being there and seeing the students’ reactions. Some of them were really enjoying the experience, and others were really not understanding why there was a collection of old stuff in a place at all. It was then that I decided to move from teaching, which was something I dearly loved, into the cultural field.”
She quickly secured a role at the Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority, or TCA, the department responsible for the capital’s ambitious art infrastructure development and implementation, including the Louvre Abu Dhabi, Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, and Zayed National Museum, all of which are slated for Saadiyat Cultural District. When she came on board in 2010, Al Dhaheri was outreach officer for the Louvre Abu Dhabi, and responsible for managing the preview exhibitions, lectures, and other events meant to give curious French and UAE audiences (not to mention an extremely skeptical international press), a suggestive taste of what would come when the museum opened. Any hesitancy about leaving academia that she might have been holding onto was shed by the time Al Dhaheri was appointed programs manager in 2012. “I believe culture and art have an impact on society – they are what make society,” she tells me. “I wanted to be at the center of making this museum relevant to the people of this region.” She then quips, almost apologetically, “I hope I won’t have offended academics by saying this.”
Al Dhaheri rapidly evolved into the local public face of the museum, speaking as its representative first at the Thinkers & Doers Conference held in Paris in 2015 at the Arab World Institute, and then at the New York Times’ exclusive Art for Tomorrow forum in Doha, rubbing shoulders with cultural luminaries including eternally provocative Jeff Koons and the late Zaha Hadid. In parallel, her own taste in art grew more sophisticated and she began collecting, initially with a playful figurative work on paper by Picasso’s contemporary, pioneering Algerian artist Baya Mahieddine, followed by a melancholy abstract portrait by her colleague at TCA Noor Al Suwaidi, and then two of Abraaj Group Art Prize winner Rana Begum’s signature “Fold” sculptures, which she had installed on a bedroom wall. During this time, she seemingly unfolded her wings, displaying innate but previously hidden abilities, much like the butterfly Damien Hirst drew for her at a book signing not long ago. As a result, when her role as deputy director was announced last year, it came as little surprise to those who had been observing her rise both in capability and confidence.
Al Dhaheri attributes her sense of patriotic ambition to her father, explaining, “In my father’s generation in the 1970s, they were all part of building the nation and took on roles for which they didn’t study. They might not have initially known what they were doing but persevered because they believed in building the nation.” She draws a connection from here to her international team, made up of locals working shoulder to shoulder with French and other highly skilled expatriates to fulfill a vision imagined by Abu Dhabi’s leaders. “Waking up every morning and walking into the office is absolutely beautiful, because we all believe, and it’s not only me. Everyone here is working with a passion because they believe in the impact that this project will have on future generations.”