Arabian frights

Art - Ned Denny digs through a curatorial mess to find the splendours of the Yemen

A powerful air of deja vu hangs round this exhibition like a cloud of Yemeni frankincense, a feeling that, though the names and faces might have changed, we've been this way before. The grouping of ancient artefacts around the coquettish figure of a semi-mythical queen - check. The attempt to add spice by including melodramatic Victoriana and stills from Hollywood films featuring said queen - check. The awkward blend of sensationalism and scholarship - check. The sloppy extension of the exhibition's remit to include things from previous, neighbouring and sometimes barely related cultures - check. What the British Museum's "Queen of Sheba: treasures from ancient Yemen" does, in fact, is to repeat the exact same formula that made last year's Cleopatra show so trite. Same set-up, different woman.

The worst thing about this isn't so much the shameless rehashing going on (in itself indicative of a certain unimaginativeness among the BM's staff) as the general curatorial attitude the formula reveals. The role of a serious museum, surely, is to provide an uncomplicated pedestal for the objects in its care. But to make a highly embellished, glamorised myth the focal point of an exhibition is to banish the proper exhibits to the wings, to lend them a curious air of unreality. We don't even get to see any of the mooted treasures without first having to trawl through a dubious selection of Sheborabilia, from the Arabian Babes schmaltz of Sir Edward John Poynter's The Queen of Sheba's Visit to King Solomon to a photo of a plump society lady dolled up Sheba-style for the 1897 Devonshire House ball. As a result, the subsequent display of pieces from the great and noble culture of ancient Yemen isn't seen on its own merits, but in terms of its distance from a cheap, spectacular orientalism.

All of which is just a little unnecessary, because the kingdom of Saba' (or Sheba) was a remarkable one. Centred on the ancient city of Marib, towards the bottom of the Arabian peninsula, Saba' and its monarchs appear to have lorded it over the region from around 800BC, imposing on neighbouring peoples not only an alphabet, but an art and an architecture. Greek and Roman authors referred to southern Arabia as "happy Arabia" (as distinct from the empty deserts of the north), with Herodotus declaring that it was "the only place that produces frankincense, myrrh, cassia, cinnamon and the gum called ledanon . . . the whole country exhales a more than earthly fragrance." Block out the din of all the Sheba-prattle, and this distant kingdom is evoked by the quieter music of some extraordinary objects, such as, for example, the "limestone libation table with bull's head spouts" (1BC), on to which water would have been ritually poured in a temple or beside a well, or the alabaster throne legs carved in the form of ibex hooves.

Stone altars resembling miniature temples give a flavour of Sabean architecture, the shallow geometric reliefs on their sides being oddly similar to the enigmatic patterning of modernist abstract art. Most alien-seeming of all are the limestone tablets bearing commemorative inscriptions - looking at these with uncomprehending eyes, you glimpse the strangeness of written language, the characters seeming to perform antlike acrobatics across the surface of the stone.

But of all the Yemeni relics, the ones that really stick in the mind are the statues. The earliest of them (female, arms folded) bear comparison with the Cycladic figures of pre-classical Greece, though without their air of vulnerability. These massive, squat, squarish idols are imbued with the same enduring strength as the granite out of which they are made, their relatively tiny heads giving a monumental sense of scale. The much later alabaster men, roughly contemporary with the Greece of Praxiteles, are far more detailed, but still retain the angular solidity of the blocks from which they were carved.

Whereas the lines of classical Greek statues are fluid and fleshlike, these four-square figures seem braced rigidly against burning sun or desert wind. The stance is one of rapt readiness, their big blocky fists poised to meet (and hammer) whatever comes. At the same time, these ancient Arabian kings are endearingly Super Mario-like, just absurd little cartoon men faced with impossible tasks. Along with the beautiful female funerary heads, they recall a remarkably similar exhibition held about four years ago at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris. The abiding memory of that show is of a majestic row of statues arrayed in a high arc in the large main gallery. In contrast to this messy, overcomplicated, over-curated display, they had the good sense to let the objects speak for themselves.

Queen of Sheba: treasures from ancient Yemen is at the British Museum, London WC1 (020 7323 8000), until 13 October

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