A first look at Louvre Abu Dhabi's new show on China and the Islamic world

Dragon and Phoenix brings together 240 artworks from 14 institutions, tracing the cross-cultural relationship from the 8th to the 18th centuries

A 14th-century ablution basin made of copper alloy inlaid with silver is set beside a smaller porcelain counterpart in a new exhibition at the Louvre Abu Dhabi, which opens on Wednesday.

The metal basin, created somewhere within the borders of Egypt and Syria, is a prime example of the craftsmanship dating to the Mamluk era, but with an added tinge. Alongside the thickset Arabic calligraphy inscribed on the inner and outer walls of the receptacle are engravings of lotus flowers, a recurring aesthetic motif in Chinese art.

In contrast, the porcelain basin was made almost a century later in China. Embellished with floral cobalt blue designs, the work has a uniquely Islamic shape and colour, but with Chinese artistry and know-how of porcelain production.

Side by side, the two artefacts echo the centuries-old fascination between the Islamic world and East Asia. Prudent pairings like these are replete in the exhibition, which features paintings, silverware, glassware, manuscripts and luxury fabrics, showcasing the patchwork of influences the two regions shared through land and sea for almost a 1,000 years.

Dragon and Phoenix – Centuries of Exchange Between Chinese and Islamic Worlds is organised with the Musee national des arts asiatiques – Guimet, popularly known as the Musee Guimet, in Paris. The dragon and phoenix embody two cultures – China, the dragon, and the Islamic world, the phoenix.

The exhibition brings together 240 artworks from 14 institutions in China and France to trace the cultural interchange between East Asia and the Islamic world from the 8th to the 18th centuries.

“It’s the story of two civilisations meeting and exchanging through terrestrial and maritime roads. The story of the ideas, goods, artworks and raw materials exchanged along those roads,” Souraya Noujaim, scientific, curatorial and collections management director at Louvre Abu Dhabi, tells The National. “It’s an untold story, an extremely rich story between China and the Islamic lands.”

Curated in five sections, “the exhibition starts at the 8th century, around the time of the encounter between the Abbasid Caliphate and the Tang Dynasty”, she says.

Noujaim supported Sophie Makariou, the president of the Musee Guimet, in curating the exhibition, alongside Guilhem Andre, also from Louvre Abu Dhabi.

Terracotta figures from the 7th century are the first artefacts visitors see before walking into Dragon and Phoenix. Part of the exhibition’s introductory section, the collection shows figures with exaggerated expressions and in a gamut of colourful clothing – characters one could meet along the Silk Road. More peculiarly, the collection exhibits polychrome earthen figures of camels, made as funerary pieces in northern China during the Tang dynasty.

“The introductory section leads us into the Silk Road,” Andre, chief curator of Asian and medieval Arts, says. “These routes of exchange were not only about trading goods but of ideas and religions between China and the Islamic countries.”

The network of maritime and land routes that became known as the Silk Road were established around 130 BC, when the Han Dynasty in China opened trade with the West. The so-called Silk Road, Andre says, was at a peak in the 8th century, and would come to serve as the footing to the flourish of cultural exchange to follow.

The exhibition’s first section opens in the 8th century, coinciding with the establishment of the Abbasid Caliphate, which inaugurated an era of peaceful relations between the Islamic world and China.

There are region-sourced earthenware exhibiting the three-colours glaze technique often associated with the Tang dynasty, whereas ceramics from China showcase intricate patterns of cobalt blue, a pigment that was used in ancient Egypt but popularised during the Abbasid era.

“The technique was soon exported to China, who put it to great use,” Andre explains.

The exhibition then moves on to artworks between the 11th and 13th centuries. This period is particularly interesting, Andre says, because it marked the moment when the land-based routes of the Silk Road were cut off because of invasions from nomadic forces. However, this territorial severing only reinforced maritime trade between East Asia and the Islamic world, stretching from Guangzhou to Basra.

The mid-13th century is marked by one of the bloodiest chapters in the region’s medieval history: the Mongol siege of the city in 1258. The invaders committed several atrocities during the attack, in which tens of thousands of people were killed. The attack was a fatal blow to the Abbasid Caliphate, which had ruled the region since 750. However, the Pax Mongolia (Mongol Peace) that followed was “conducive to an unprecedented development of commercial and artistic exchanges", the exhibition’s didactic wall panel reads.

And it is perhaps at this point in Dragon and Phoenix where the exhibition’s title truly flourishes as the motifs pervaded along the territories controlled by the Mongol dynasties, which encompassed China and part of the Islamic East. The phoenix and the dragon, representations of the empress and emperor in Chinese imperial iconography, began appearing in the decoration of the Islamic East.

Among the highlights of this section is a golden cup with a dragon-shaped handle, made some time during the rule of the Yuan dynasty in the 13th century. The artwork is set beside a larger, more bulbous variation made of black jade. Also sporting a dragon handle, the piece originated from Central Asia or Iran and dates back to the second half of the 15th century.

This section also shows Chinese crafts that were specifically made for the Islamic market. These include a large 14th-century porcelain serving dish, which is embellished with geometries often found in Islamic designs.

Phoenix-headed ewers and dishes with fish adornments tell the story of another travelling craft, where Chinese potters, inspired by the Middle East, began using copper oxide to colour translucent turquoise glazes, keeping the embellishments underneath visible.

Commercial ventures between China and the Islamic world were ramped up in the 15th century as the Ming Dynasty fortified its rule over East Asia. The period that followed saw increased use of maritime routes. Chinese influence on the art of the Islamic East was exemplified in the theme of combat between fantastical beasts. A fiery chimerical animal known as the qilin was a typical example of this – found in illustration and brocades throughout the exhibition.

In turn, as trade increased between China and the Ottoman empire, artists became inspired by Chinese ceramics and textiles, incorporating their own artistic practices with the materials.

Dragon and Phoenix also explores connections between Chinese calligraphy and Arabic scribing of the Quran. There is a panel with the poetry of the 14th-century Persian poet Hafez written in Chinese calligraphy and a 17th-century Quran scribed by an anonymous Chinese copyist.

“The art of writing is something that is shared between the two civilisations,” Andre says. “The use of calligraphy as art almost disappeared from the Western World after the increased use of printing techniques. But it has remained as a main shape of art in both the Chinese and Islamic civilisations.”

The exhibition draws to a close at the 18th century as European cultural and economic influence began looming. By then, Western explorers had already established an increasingly important position in regional trade routes, even between the Chinese and Eastern Islamic worlds.

But Dragon and Phoenix does not fade out into a conclusion, but rather in an immersive experience that pits viewers in a bestiary for fantastical animals. Dragons and phoenixes, animated based on artefact designs, traverse fiery, aquatic and aerial realms in an experience that is riveting for adults and children alike.

“The installation is meant to help people encounter these motifs in a new way,” Andre says. “To create an experience that encompasses the artwork and leaves a lasting impression.”

Dragon and Phoenix – Centuries of Exchange between Chinese and Islamic Worlds will run from Wednesday, October 6 until February 12

Updated: October 5th 2021, 9:16 AM