‘A flying carpet is lying in wait in Berlin’


From the Roads to Arabia exhibition, Pergamon Museum, Berlin

From Sign and Sight:

Archaeological exhibitions at Berlin’s Pergamon Museum have had an unprecedentedly successful year. “Tell Halaf” attracted 750,000 visitors, “Pergamon” sold 250,000 tickets in just two months and “Roads of Arabia” opened on January 26th. The more confusing the political conflict situation in the countries of the exhibits’ provenance, the more national borders blur in the globalised world and the more uncertain the future future feels, the more visitors look to the past for orientation, revelling in the treasures of fallen cultures.

“Roads of Arabia” – the exhibition that opened in late January in the Museum for Islamic Art in the Pergamon in the presence of His Royal Highness Sultan bin Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, president of the Saudi Commission for Tourism & Antiquities – is proof that this cannot work. It will be a magnificent show, a true visitor magnet: the objects from the Kaaba and the history of Mecca and Medina have never been shown in Germany before. The roads indicated by title refer to the millennia-old trade and pilgrimage routes that brought traders and pilgrims to the Orient during antiquity and the early Islamic period. This spectacular show has already toured the Louvre in Paris, the Hermitage in St. Petersburg and Barcelona. According to Arab News over a million people have already visited the exhibition. Ali bin Ibrahim al Shaban, vice president of the Antiquities Commission, estimates that another half million will see it in Berlin.

So a flying carpet is lying in wait in Berlin, and yet it cannot really transport us into the worlds of dreams. A glamourous past and a brutal present, art and politics are not so easily separated. Prince Sultan is the unofficial No. 4 in the hierarchy, topped by the 87-year-old King Abdullah – in a country under Sharia law where women’s rights are violated, political opposition suppressed and there is no freedom of press or expression. When Berlin’s mayor Klaus Wowerweit travelled to Saudia Arabia a year ago with a business delegation, he was sharply criticised at home. Not long afterwards, as if to validate the warnings, Saudi Arabia dispatched 1,000 troops to Bahrain to nip the uprising there in the bud. And the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights recently announced that the number of people condemned to death in the country had risen sharply in 2011, to 79.

It begs the question of whether it is acceptable to enter into cultural co-operations and hold joint exhibitions with such a country – with dictatorships, authoritarian regimes and rogues states. Stefan Weber, director of the Museum for Islamic Art and host of the “Roads of Arabia” exhibition answers yes. When he was leaned on by the Saudi embassy in an attempt to use the Berlin exhibition as an image campaign, he warded off potential propaganda by consistently emphasizing that the exhibition was about art and science. But one look through the catalogue reveals texts that present the royal house in a distinctly official light. The exhibition itself is an attempt at compromise: it traces the history of the country up to the 1930s, when the new Kingdom of Saudia Arabia was founded.

“When soft power fails the acid test”, Nicola Kuhn, Sign and Sight

Sign and Sight says good-bye