AMMAN, JORDAN -- A review of 70 Years of Contemporary Art in Jordan, which opened at the Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts in Amman, and which presents local art in the hopes of engaging audiences in stimulating dialogue.
Intended as a comprehensive overview, 70 Years of Contemporary Art in Jordan comprises almost 250 works spanning the Modern and Contemporary periods made by 195 artists living in the country. “It is neither a critical nor a thematic exhibition,” explains HRH Princess Wijdan Ali, founder of the non-profit Royal Fine Arts Society, which runs the Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts (JNGFA). “Rather it showcases the breadth of Jordanian art.” Notwithstanding her tremendous pride in the museum’s mission to exhibit art from across the developing world, HRH proposed this exhibition because, “70 years of artistic development presents a milestone which Jordanians should be aware and proud of.”
Dr Khaled Khreis, the museum’s Director and chief Curator of the exhibition, intends for the show to convey “the wealth of local artistic talent” and “become a resource for anyone interested in trac- ing the progression of Contemporary art in Jordan from its origins to the present day.” Towards that end, he has ensured the inclusion of work by all Jordanian artists including those of Palestinian and other descent. For content, he hardly had to look beyond the JNGFA’s impressive permanent collection of over 2000 artworks (hailing from 59 countries). The remaining few pieces were lent or donated by the artists.
A 360 DEGREE
Walking through the pleasantly airy galler- ies that span the museum’s two buildings, one confronts several generations of art historical concepts and movements displayed without chronological order or other classifications. According to assistant director Bana Fanous, who also contributed curatorial input, “the arrangement is based on an aesthetic synergy,” although some works are grouped by genre or medium. Highlights include abstract and landscape paintings and sculptures by mid-century pioneers such as Muhanna Dura; Echoes from Sabra & Shatila, a haunting portrait of sleeping Palestinian refugees by Aziz Ammoura; a video installation, From A to B - Round in Circle, by Samah Hijawi criticising the bureaucracy’s hindrance of everyday activities; and Rajwa Ali’s spiritual installation, Jewels, consisting of silver-plated cubes arranged in a crossover square surface covered with coal dust. A single raw stone at the centre represents the starting point of all creation.
Video art, mixed media installations, pho- tography and prints are present, but painting, and to a lesser extent, sculpture dominates. Dina Haddedin, an artist with two paintings in the show, explains the focus on traditional media as a sign of Jordanian artists’ reluctance, at least until recently, to embrace more experimental art forms. This is partly due to commercial pressure
to produce “sellable” works and also a result of conservative academic instruction. For her part, Haddedin would love to work across a wider variety of media, but finds the cost of materials and production prohibitively expensive. She con- tents herself with painting, drawing on her archi- tecture background “to investigate the shifting power distribution in Amman, signified by end- less construction and demolition.”
A SIGNIFICANT PLATFORM
Few have managed to articulate exactly why this show, the first ever dedicated exclusively to Jor- danian art is so important, but there is a general consensus that it carries special significance, and not merely because of its unprecedented (for the JNGFA) scale. Beaming with pride, the artists, whether highly seasoned or newly minted gradu- ates have reiterated how honoured they have felt to be included in such an exhibition. Several mentioned how exhibiting at the JNGFA, which has grown from humble origins into a venerable institution over the past three decades, lends their work gravitas. Besides, the opening reception ac- complished the rare feat of attracting more Jorda- nians than foreigners, which HRH Princess Wijdan finds heartening “because we’ve been working hard to expose more local people to art.” Moreover, four panel discussions addressed challenges facing the artistic community, such as the need for more and better art criticism to spur continued progression. “We needed this because young Jordanian artists need to confront the art of the past and at the same time incoming Iraqi and Syr- ian artists should see what’s here,” added Hijawi.
Fair enough. Yet Contemporary art in Jordan derives directly and indirectly from Western aes- thetic codes and concepts mixed with Islamic influences. It developed in a regional context, spurred by Napoleon’s conquest and cultural in- filtration of Egypt in the late 18th century. Taken at face value, the exhibition is a trove of artistic treasures. Accompanied by a catalogue brim- ming with historical background, it has the po- tential to inspire the next generation of Jordanian artists and galvanise international recognition of art from the country, especially if JNGFA realises its hope of sending the show abroad. If nothing else, visitors can enjoy a visual feast.
A version of this article was published in the July/August 2013 edition of Canvas Magazine.