Detroit Arts of ancient Mideast spotlighted at DIA Gallery includes 7,000-year-old collar-necked jar from Turkey

By David N. Goodman

Associated Press

DETROIT (AP) -- The ancient Middle East is coming alive at the Detroit Institute of Arts this week, with the re-opening of a long-closed gallery that will present ceramic, glass, silver and stonework from thousands of years ago.

The gallery that opens Wednesday focuses on the cultural heritage from what is now Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Yemen and Armenia.

The items include a serpent-dragon panel from the Ishtar gate of Babylon that was off display since before the project.

"We are happy to have Marduk's serpent back on view, along with a selection of our most important objects in the Ancient Middle East collection," museum director Graham W. J. Beal said in an announcement of the opening.

The gallery includes some of the museum's oldest objects, including a 7,000-year-old collar-necked jar from Turkey that is painted with a geometric design and two Iranian ceramics -- a conical dish with cheetahs and a footed cup painted with stags -- that are about 5,000 years old.

The gallery is in a basilica-like space that was subdivided during the past 30 years. The gallery's first phase received support from the National Endowment for the Arts and Ernest and the Rosemarie Kanzler Foundation Fund.

The museum is seeking more money to complete what curator Heather Ecker said is a "pretty interim project." While the museum has reopened space that had been closed for three years, it has much work ahead to update the way the ancient artworks are presented and to add the detailed explanatory materials to accompany them, she said.

Detroit's 1927 Beaux Arts-style museum of the arts underwent a $158-million, six-year overhaul that was completed three years ago. Despite the extensive work, a few areas remained to be updated. That includes the space now holding the Middle Eastern collection.

"It was built like a cathedral," said Ecker, the museum's Islamic art curator who also worked on the Middle Eastern gallery. "It's a magnificent space. It has a lot of ornamental detail."

The space also had an outdated utility system, with electrical lines running up its columns, dim lighting and other outdated features.

Now, the gallery has been turned into a bright, inviting space.

"It feels like daylight, whereas before, it felt like a nightmare," Ecker said.

The items on display are from the museum's collection and were obtained through gifts and purchases, Ecker said. She said the gallery is "geographical and chronological" in its presentation, with a focus on the sometimes light-hearted nature of ancient artworks.

A bas-relief from the palace of Nimrud, Iraq, for example, shows the Assyrian emperor Tiglath-Pileser III receiving homage. He is surrounded by fawning eunuchs, one with a large pot belly.

"There's a sense of humor," she said. "It's definitely a scene of fluffing up."

Published: Tue, Dec 21, 2010