Islamic wing opening at Louvre Museum

A member of the media examines a ceramic tile wall displayed in the new Islamic art section of the Louvre museum in Paris. Photo / AP
A member of the media examines a ceramic tile wall displayed in the new Islamic art section of the Louvre museum in Paris. Photo / AP

In its boldest development in a generation, the Louvre Museum has a new wing dedicated to Islamic art, a nearly 100 million euro (NZD$157 million) project that comes at a tense time between the West and the Muslim world.

Louvre curators tout their new Islamic Art department, which took 11 years to build and opens to the public on Saturday, as a way to help bridge cultural divides. They say it offers a highbrow and respectful counterpart to the recent unflattering depictions of the Prophet Muhammad in Western media that have sparked protests by many Muslims.

Still, one of the Louvre's own consultants acknowledged that some Muslims could be "shocked" by three images of Muhammad with his face exposed in the new wing. Many Muslims believe the prophet should not be depicted at all - even in a flattering way - because it might encourage idolatry.

The galleries provide a needed showcase for one of the West's most extensive Islamic art collections, some 18,000 artifacts that range from the 7th century to the 19th century.

But the wing does not dwell on the old: It is housed under a futuristic, undulating glass roof designed by architects Rudy Ricciotti and Mario Bellini that has garnered comparisons to a dragonfly wing, a flying carpet, even a wind-blown veil.

France, meanwhile, is bracing for possible disruptions at embassies across the Muslim world on Friday after the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo published lewd caricatures of Muhammad on Wednesday. The publication raised concerns that French interests could face violent protests like the ones targeting the United States over a video produced in California that ridiculed the prophet. Those protests, which continued on Thursday, have left at least 30 people dead.

But could the new museum wing actually be good timing?

Sophie Makariou, head of the Louvre's Islamic art department, hopes the new wing will teach lessons about tolerance and diversity.

"We are suffering from simplistic views on the Islamic world. (Some) would make us believe that there is just one Islam, which is just not true."

In a sign of the political importance of the new collection, French President Francois Hollande attended an opening ceremony Tuesday, calling it a "political gesture in the service of respect for peace". Saudi Prince Waleed Bin Talal and the president of Azerbaijan accompanied him.

"The best weapons for fighting fanaticism that claims to be coming from Islam are found in Islam itself," Hollande said. "What more beautiful message than that demonstrated here by these works?"

- AFP

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