In ‘Roads of Arabia’ exhibit, ancient objects spark an uncommon connection

04/27/2014 6:53 PM

04/27/2014 6:53 PM

A powerful human connection can be made when you stand face to face with an object out of time.

I had that experience more than once in the new exhibit, “Roads of Arabia,” which opened this week at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

The opening object — it’s one of the show’s justifiable poster children — is a simple abstraction of a human figure carved in stone. Two close-set almond-shaped eyes, an off-kilter triangular nose and the faintest vestige of a mouth define the rounded face of a draped and limbless figure with, apparently, a dagger in its belt. The funerary sculpture, one of three similarly mysterious pieces in the exhibit’s entry chamber, is said to be 5,000 years old; it’s both haunting and achingly evocative of our deepest human origins.

To see it is to confront the wondrousness of history, the mesmerizing quality of art and a kind of ineffable uplift.

That’s a pretty good start. The exhibit is comprised of more than 200 objects, from arrowheads and stone tools to monumental statues of kings to delicately lettered incense holders and tombstones.

A Neolithic horse sculpture and surprising examples of rock art — much like prehistoric petroglyphs the world over — speak to the need to take bearings and to communicate. A bronze lion’s head, bereft of what likely were decorative previous stones, retains an unmistakable expression of power and wealth and awe. A hammered-gold funerary mask, found in the tomb of a six-year-old girl, raises provocative questions. You can trace the arc of history in these art works as figural objects give way to text markings and arabesque designs that followed the rise of Islam.

Many of the wildly divergent pieces in “Roads to Arabia” were excavated in recent decades and had not been seen outside Saudi Arabia before they began a tour of Europe and the U.S. These archaeological projects have sparked new scholarship and insights about the history of the Saudi peninsula and the presence of civilization in what had long been considered a barren desert land.

“That country did not come from nothing,” Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud said at an inaugural reception at the museum Wednesday night.

With financial backing from Saudi Aramco and other oil interests and accompanied by a full-on campaign by the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities, the exhibit carries a promotional message that’s hard to miss.

“Roads to Arabia” is “not about antiquities or the beautiful sculptures,” the prince said. It’s about the story of his land — its central role along vital trade routes connecting far flung capitals, in the founding of a faith and in the creation of great wealth based on oil — and the backstory of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which was established only as recently as 1932.

Unsaid, as might be expected, was anything related to the current conflicts that bitterly divide his region of the globe. The prince made a reference to the so-called Arab Spring, marked by popular uprisings and repressive responses in other countries, but only to note the relative stability and economic progress in Saudi Arabia today.

You might find echoes of such things in this exhibit, but the main attraction is the opportunity to get lost in moments of contemplation.

I’d differ with the good prince on one point. Sure there is much to learn about Saudi Arabia’s deep place in the desert as a crossroads of humanity and trade.

But for many of us the story of “Roads to Arabia” absolutely dwells in the art.

The human connection we make with those figures in pitted sandstone crosses all boundaries. As with most artistic endeavors, we want to feel something in the synapses. We want to imagine what was going on in the minds of the creators of these works and in the lives of the people they depicted. The exhibit ends up being a road to somewhere of our own making.

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