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Volume 47, Number 4July/August 1996

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Jordan's House of the Arts

Written by Jocelyn M. Ajami
Photographed by Bill Lyons

On a hill overlooking Jordan's capital city, within sight of the ancient Roman temple of Philadelphia, stands what looks like an attractive, stone-built private home, with two curving staircases leading to its second-floor entrance. In fact, this is "Darat al-Funun," or ''The House of the Arts," Amman's new center for contemporary art and one of the most innovative meeting grounds for East and West today.

With its three galleries, library and studio, the center has promoted the work of contemporary artists from Jordan and elsewhere in the Arab world since 1993. For some of these artists, it has provided a stepping-stone to greater exposure in the West; for others, living in the West, it has been their link back to the East. And to the neighborhood in which it stands, Darat al-Funun has brought exposure to a world of creativity.

In the field of "modern" or "contemporary" art, the Arab world has long been an unfamiliar and somewhat inaccessible voice, little heard in the West. But a new generation of Arab artists is beginning to change that.

Eric Gibson, executive director of the New York-based magazine Art News, explains that the term "contemporary art" can be used as a chronological marker to set off art from after 1945—or after 1960, depending on one's point of view—from that which went before. But, he says, contemporary art can also be loosely defined as "a constellation of ideas that represents a perception of the world in which people can see something they can identify and explore."

In order to share their perceptions with the public, artists require venues: gallerjes, museums and the art-world publications that let viewers know they are there. And therein lies Darat al-Funun's role as a launching pad for Arab artists and as a gateway for exchange within the international art arena.

Darat al-Funun's vision is sustained by Jordan's multicultural history. Located in one of the oldest of Amman's residential quarters, the site itself epitomizes the Jordanian talent for linking new and old with thoughtful grace.

Built shortly after the turn of the century, the original building was a private home next to the ruins of a Byzantine church. The garden and the fragmentary columns of this church now serve as the dramatic setting of Darat al-Funun's candlelight poetry readings and performances.

During excavations at the site early this century, archeologists found five inscriptions on stone slabs. Two are in Safaitic, a pre-Islamic Arabic script; another is in Kufic, the script commonly used to write Arabic in the early years of Islam in the seventh century. A third indicates that a structure beneath the Byzantine church may have been a Greek temple dedicated to Hercules. And a Byzantine tablet dedicates the church itself to Saint George.

Now administered by the Abdul Hameed Shoman Foundation, the house has been fully restored and renovated. Three bays open off the central hall, and twin staircases rise from the garden to an open, breezy semi-circular portico. The windows in the high-ceilinged central gallery allow soft light into the interior and warm the decorative tiles on the floor. A library was added above the old roofline. From there down to the studios on the lower floors, a sense of air and light prevails. With this graceful interior and its elegant limestone exterior, the house provides an appropriate environment for the display of art.

The renovations have added momentum to revitalization efforts in the community surrounding Darat al-Funun, says Ali Maher, the center's director. Darat al-Funun, he says, "made available a world of art and culture" to a neighborhood of Amman where such resources are scarce. The musical, theatrical and poetry programs, held monthly, reach beyond the professional arts community into the community at large, slowly adding, Maher says, to "a sense of pride in [Jordan's] architectural and cultural heritage."

Darat al-Funun was "the realization of a long-cherished dream," says artist Suha Shoman, whose family foundation—created in 1978 with a mandate to "promote knowledge in the sciences and humanities"—had originally established a simple gallery for exhibitions from Jordan and the Arab world. It was not long, however, before the foundation's directors recognized the need for "a more comprehensive center," says Maher. Darat al-Funun was opened in 1993.

In addition to showcasing artists and providing community-oriented programs, Darat al-Funun is also "a haven for study and research," says Shoman. The library, open to the public, contains books in Arabic and English, the latest periodicals and art journals and a comprehensive video collection from the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris. It is building a computer database on contemporary Arab artists.

It is the more than 50 artists, all from the Arab world, who give daily vitality to Darat al-Funun. Paying careful attention to installation details, the curatorial staff mounts monthly solo and group shows of work by artists from Jordan, Palestine, Morocco, Tunisia, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Sudan. The work is for sale but, unlike other galleries, Darat al-Funun takes no commission. The shows present as wide a range of themes, styles, media and experience as possible, and films, demonstrations or seminars—often led by the artists whose work is being shown—sometimes accompany the exhibitions.

In much of the work they exhibit, the Arab artists reflect their different connections with the West—most often residence, education or travel there—including Western methods and motifs to which they have brought their own cultural idiom. It is abstraction that emerges as the theme that cuts across styles and genres, and because Islamic abstraction and Western abstraction have different roots, many viewers, critics and buyers see an exciting and noteworthy confluence of the two traditions.

Western abstraction derives from the embrace of individualism, and is produced in a secular cultural context. Islamic abstraction, on the other hand, is a cultural, intellectual and communal expression of faith.

The beginning of Western modern art, from which abstraction emerged as a dominant movement, is generally traced to the Salon des Refusés in Paris in 1863, an exhibition by artists whose work had been refused by the official Salon exhibition. There, Édouard Manet exhibited work that crystallized two ideas that still guide Western artists today: first, that the artist is free to pursue an individual vision that reflects or anticipates the inquiries of the day; and second, that the artist alone can determine subject matter, and the arrangement of color and form need not depict real objects or stories. Thus the artist is freed from the requirement of literal representation.

The roots of Western modernism run back to the Italian Renaissance. Combining the classicism of the Greek and Roman eras with new humanist values—embodied in the credo "Man is the measure of all things"—the artists of the Renaissance believed they reflected artistic aspects of divine creativity. They looked at themselves as "creators," as masters of their own destiny. This view laid the foundation for the individualism that ultimately led to modernism and abstraction.

In stark contrast, the Muslim aesthetic tradition is based on the fundamental belief that only God is worthy of worship; from that, Muslims derived the ideas that only His word is to be embellished, and that His magnificent living creations should not be imitated. Particularly with respect to sacred art, Islam adopted abstraction as the pictorial solution to the complicated issue of expressing oneself in concrete works without thereby running the risk of violating the prohibition against the creation of objects that could be worshiped like idols. Abstraction thus serves the purity of Islamic monotheism.

As a result, a highly intellectual, collective, abstract visual vocabulary evolved in Islamic art that is dominated by two elements: Arabic calligraphy, the merging of meaning and form through the writing of God's revelation; and architecture, the geometric embodiment of nature, time and space.

Western art has embraced diversification and segregation through a multiplicity of styles, artists, regions and generations, as well as by the separation of media and motives: Painting is not sculpture, fine art is not decorative art, and so on. Islamic art, however, seeks a harmony of expression through a collective language symbolic of unity. In calligraphy, sound, words, meaning and form are united. In architecture, geometry unifies the arts, from painting to carving to decoration, into a single experience.

The search for unity suffuses the work of Arab contemporary artists such as Shaker Hassan Al-Said and Kamal Boullata (See Aramco World, July/August 1990), each of whose work is part of Darat al-Funun's collection.

Al-Said, who was born in 1925 in Al-Samawah, Iraq, writes that "through searching for the meaning of the eternal, I attempt to capture the temporal."

In one of his abstract watercolors, Al-Said uses a sketchy square rotated 45 degrees. Running through the corners of the square, he has drawn lines that follow the vertical and horizontal axes of the canvas. A vertical axis is used here to represent one's obligations to God, and a horizontal axis to represent one's obligations to fellow Muslims or the ummah, the community of the faithful. Surrounding the square are code-like scratchings, a kind of personal, implied calligraphy.

Another of Al-Said's works is less experimental, but equally revealing of his search. This is a watercolor whose paper is broken by a large, rough-edged elliptical hole. The painting is hung outdoors, and placed so that the torn opening incorporates the landscape behind it in the composition of the picture. We need look only as far as the Alhambra Palace in Grenada to see the same phenomenon. There, each window embrasure incorporates the view of the landscape beyond into a single tapestry of stone, tile and nature (See Aramco World, January/February 1993). By doing the same thing with paper, Al-Said locates himself firmly within the Islamic artistic tradition.

For Palestinian painter, printmaker and writer Kamal Boullata, however, geometric abstraction is his link between Western and Islamic traditions. "The neutral language of geometry becomes the bridge between the two visual sensibilities of my world," he writes, "...two modes of expression which historically developed in opposite directions."

Boullata recently exhibited "Duets, Quartets and a Triangle" at Darat al-Funun, work that drew upon two years of Fulbright-sponsored research in Islamic geometric art in Morocco.

Born in Jerusalem and educated at the Academy of Rome and the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, Boullata has shown throughout Europe, the United States and the Middle East. Although he has lived in Washington for the past 25 years, his ties to the Islamic world and to his place of birth are strong. "All my work," he writes, "seems to have been done with Jerusalem seen through the mind's eye."

This memory of Jerusalem is constantly renewed through Boullata's geometric precision, which seeks to bridge the gulf between cultures and times: "Connections emerged between the presence of contemporary works I saw in the Western metropolis and the memory of the geometric art I have seen within the walls of Jerusalem. Centuries ago the same language of geometry was employed in my culture of origin."

In a brightly colored acrylic work titled "Jacob's Ladder," Boullata uses color and geometry to reflect the architecture, tilework and light of Palestine, and uses the title of the piece to evoke the three monotheistic religions. In using the title as part of the work, Boullata does homage to the "word" and its content, thus connecting the verbal imagery of Islamic tradition with the visual tradition of the West.

Not all of Darat al-Funun's artists, of course, are painters. Sculptor Samer Tabbaa has had numerous exhibitions in Jordan and abroad. Born in 1945 in Taif, Saudi Arabia, and educated in the us, Tabbaa now lives and works in Amman. One of his best-known works dominates the Second Circle of the city. There he has positioned a large stone wheel across rough stone supports, with a waterfall cascading over it, so that nature and invention seem to be exchanging energy. Tabbaa is consistent in his choice of an abstract, even archetypal vocabulary. Yet some of his works are highly refined, even painterly, while others are totemic and monolithic.

Moroccan artist Farid Belkahia, who was educated in Paris, Prague and Milan and now lives in Marrakech, incorporates a roughly drawn X as a dominant sign in several of his watercolors. He compartmentalizes the picture plane to accommodate other signs and gestures. With chalky pastels that suggest the fresh plaster of fresco painting, and an economy of line that evokes the primordial quality of cave drawings, the artist seems to recall a mythology that has not yet been articulated.

In contrast to Belkahia's pastels are Afaf Zureiq's moody charcoal and watercolor washes. Educated at the American University of Beirut and Harvard University, this Lebanese artist brings a dark vibrancy to her images. Working in a difficult medium, Zureiq creates a forest of vertical scratch-ings and strokes interrupted by interplay of darks and lights, transparencies and masses.

An influential artist who does not shy from socio-political messages is Laila Al-Shawa, born in Gaza and educated in Cairo and Rome. She is best-known for "Wall Of Gaza," which was featured in the traveling exhibit "Forces of Change" (See Aramco World, January/February 1994). Here, through photographs and painting, she documents the urgency of a people's struggle. Sometimes printing her photographs on canvas, Al-Shawa too incorporates geometry in her images, providing, she says, "a sense of order in a chaotic, torn and divided existence."

Among the younger artists nurtured in part by Darat al-Funun is Halim Mahdi Hadi, born in Najaf, Iraq, and educated in Baghdad. In Ali Maher's office at Darat al-Funun hangs an oversized, vertical canvas by Hadi that exhibits great simplicity and great magnetic presence.

This monochromatic acrylic is rich both in earth tones, as if Hadi had made the paint himself from fertile soil, and in chunky textures that give his surfaces an uncommon physicality. Hadi was trained as a ceramist, which may account for the thick paint and the furrows of tracings that sometimes appear in his work. The vast spaces of his canvases and their tactile presence have a powerful effect.

Since the opening of Darat al-Funun, Hadi has been in effect an artist-in-residence, using a room near the building's entrance as shop and studio. This has given him exposure to collectors, buyers and visitors that might not have been available otherwise. He has since exhibited his work in France and in Lebanon. "We would like to think that we have contributed to establishing him," says Maher.

Also receiving direct support from Darat al-Funun is acrylic artist Khaled Khreis of Kerak, Jordan. Educated in Cairo and a frequent visitor to Spain, he received his doctorate at the University of Barcelona in 1993. At Darat al-Funun, Khreis serves as a lecturer and researcher.

Claiming the influence of past civilizations from Egypt to Central America to al-Andalus, his delicately powerful paintings straddle the edge between cultures. Using a variety of media from cardboard to plastics to paper, Khreis creates a vocabulary of strokes, scratches and blotches that allows images to emerge through an improvisa-tional, "accidental" process. With counterpoints of warm yellows and cool aquas in the background, his calligraphy of gestures goes beyond cognitive allusion to enter a more subtle realm. "Art is not in the head," he writes. "It must be felt in your heart and deeply rooted in your soul."

As the artists of Darat al-Funun create visual languages of both West and East, the world of contemporary art is enriched. And as a generous advocate for them, Darat al-Funun is an open window for new visions, and an important bridge across cultures.

Jocelyn M. Ajami is a painter and filmmaker living in Boston. She most recently produced Oasis of Peace, a documentary on a Palestinian-Israeli community.

Bill Lyons does editorial and commercial photography from his base in Amman, where he has lived since 1975. This is his 10th appearance inAramco World.

This article appeared on pages 2-7 of the July/August 1996 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 1996 images.