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Shahzia Sikander in Middle East Art Gallery

Significant physical changes to the Cincinnati Art Museum’s existing 2,800-square-foot ancient Middle East gallery are currently underway and are set to open to the public beginning December 18, 2021. The new space will showcase works from across the ancient Middle East, including the most significant collection of Nabataean art in the United States.

The new galleries will be arranged thematically and incorporate contemporary reflections on ancient pasts, encouraging visitors to rethink the way a twenty-first century museum interprets ancient Middle Eastern art.

The reinstallation includes objects displayed for the first time alongside much lauded strengths of the permanent collection to celebrate the art, innovation, and human endeavor from this vast region. This approach presents political, religious, economic, and cultural connections between the network of empires and city-states of the ancient Middle East. The objects and architectural material in the collection represent centuries of trade and cultural exchange that are formative in our understanding of how the region developed.

The project team is led by Dr. Ainsley M. Cameron, Cincinnati Art Museum’s Curator of South Asian Art, Islamic Art & Antiquities, alongside two Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Curatorial Research Fellows, PhD candidates at the University of Cincinnati and Hebrew Union College, respectively. Other significant collaborators to the project beyond the museum include constituents from the Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati, the Harvard Museum of the Ancient Near East, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the University of Oxford.

According to Dr. Cameron, “The new galleries do not provide a chronological, geographical, or materially complete presentation of history, nor does it hold those modes of presentation as a goal. Rather, it is a view into the ancient world that is representative of how we see, embody, feel, and experience these ancient civilizations today, located in the American Midwest and situated in a globally connected world.”

Commissioned by the museum and inspired by the objects on view, the galleries will also feature a new artwork by the artist Shahzia Sikander, titled Caesura. The monumental painted glass commission will occupy the clerestory windows across both sides of the gallery and create dynamic connections between past and present. Sikander is known for innovative works that engage playfully with scale, religion, culture, histories, and iconographies of power. While her own identity connects with Pakistan rather than the countries of the modern Middle East, her practice mines cultural influences and forms that play across this vast region.

“By incorporating a contemporary commission into these ancient galleries, we encourage multiple ways of seeing, reading, and understanding cultures—just as Sikander’s layered work suggests movement, color, density, gesture, and ever-shifting light,” said Dr. Cameron.

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