Ramadan nights in the Middle East are magical, but Ramadan days…they’re a different story. As a non-faster, it’s important not to exhaust yourself in the hundred degree weather because water and food can be hard to come by. Our solution in Amman was an art gallery day.
Honestly, art galleries aren’t my usual pick on vacation unless it’s a major gallery, but the idea air conditioning was very appealing. I went for the air conditioning, but I stayed for some of the most amazing, moving artwork I’ve ever seen.
We went to two museums: the Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts and Darat al Funun. Both showcased contemorary art from all over the Arab world and the diaspora — the majority of which was from women.
Read on for my top 10 favorite artists/artworks I saw that day who gave me a deeper understanding of the Arab world through their amazing work.
1. “Three Women” by Fahda bint Saud, Saudi Arabian
Fahda bint Saud is a Saudi princess, artists and daughter of King Saudi who ruled from 1953 to 1964. She grew up in Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, and has a M.A. in Political Science from the American University of Beirut (#goals).
This paining was originally part of an exhibit aiming to shatter the stereotypes about women in the Arab world. There’s no conclusion on the meaning of this watercolor, but Sahar Amer gave a great analysis in her book What is Veiling?To Amer, “Three Women” is a statement against forced veiling and women’s rights in Saudi Arabia that invites the viewer to see the issue from the perspective and feelings of Saudi women. Amer doesn’t provide and explanation for what these women are feeling, but there are many assumptions the viewer can make. There’s definitely a sense of isolation in their setting — alone in the desert. The representation of the three wise monkeys symbol could be a few things. Maybe it’s representing Saudi women/culture dealing with oppression by turning a blind eye. Or maybe it’s a representation of the pressure Saudi women face to adhere to strict cultural codes of conduct. Either make a powerful statement.
Most importantly, I loved this one because work like this urges viewers, especially outsiders, to see Arab women’s issues through the perspectives of Arab women, rather than through the dominant oriental or Islamophobic portrayals.
2. “We Had a Home” by Samira Badran, Palestinian, Libyan
Samira Badran was born in Libya to a Palestinian family who now lives in Spain. Her father, Jamal Badran, was another prominent artist who encouraged Samira to attended both the Academies of Fine Art in Cairo and Florence. Her work often explores loss, resistance and the changing dynamic of Palestinians.
I was drawn into this painting by it vivid colors; however, the artistic representation of loss, violence and trauma captivated me — I returned to this painting at least twice. What moved me most were the man and women sitting to the left. Their surroundings are engulfed in chaos; however, they sit there, slightly nightmarishly, calmly and solemnly. Their appearance gives off a feeling of helplessness, acceptance, strength and anger all in one.
3. “Ties” by Leila Kawash, Iraqi, Swiss, American
Leila Kubba Kawash is the daughter of a Swiss-American mother and an Iraqi father. She grew up in Baghdad and studied design at the Manchester School of Art and Architecture. Today, she owns and manages the contemporary art gallery Art Space Hamra in Beirut, Lebanon.
Kawash’s painting are whimsical, bright, colorful and appear fading, almost like memories. Which is fitting given she often paints the Baghdad and Iraq she knew before it was torn apart. She describes her work as a way to make painful memories beautiful and as a way to make sense of her present.
Kawash said on her website’s blog that, “A painting should hold the viewers attention, and offer him the sense of discovery every time he looks at the painting.” I was drawn to ties “Ties” because of its beautiful colors, but there were many moments of rmieagination and discovery. Originally, I thought it was named “tiles” which made me think of all of the beautiful Middle Eastern tiling. However, once I re-read it as “Ties”, the painting looked completely different: I saw the ties hanging down on the paining and the diamond in the center like the knot at the top or point at the bottom. The painting made me think of watching my father tie his tie when I was young, and maybe Kawash had a similar memory that prompted this painting. I’m not sure what “Ties” was supposed to represent, but as Kawash wanted, there were many moments of discovery every time I looked at it.
4. “The Walls of Gaza” by Laila Shawa, Palestinian
Shawa was born in Gaza in 1940, before the state of Israel. Her work, Like many Palestinians, highlights the politics, injustices, and violence of the region. Shawa also illustrates children’s books and in the 1960s worked for the United Nations children’s art programs in Gaza.
This was the work I saw by Laila Shawa, but after looking at her other work for this post, she is definitely one of my absolute favorites. “The Walls of Gaza” is a series she did highlighting the messages written on, you guessed it, the walls surrounding Gaza. All of her work is extremely vibrant and is heavily ironic when expressing oppression and violence.
5. “The Expectation Maybe for Tomorrow” by Houria Niati, Algerian
Houria Niati was born and raised in French-occupied Algeria which greatly influenced her artwork. At the age of 12 she was arrested for anti-occupation graffiti. In the late 1970s, Niati moved to London. There, she witnessed orientalist depictions of Algerian women which shaped how she countered those images and represented cultures. She studied at Camden Arts Centre and Croydon College of Art.
Niati says she wants the interpretation of her art to change according to the viewer. Her art, like with this piece, is not fixed but rather fluid and welcoming multiple interpretations. Niati says on her website that her work is, “a visual explosion of the mind, an interaction of ideas in space and time. This particular work made me feel as if we were floating between memories and fears filled with anger, solitude and objectification. Niati’s work is very personal and emotional with deep reflection.
6. “The Witness” by Hilda Hiary, Jordanian
Hilda Hiary was born in Amman Jordan. She received a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Jordan and later, once she Fine Arts programs were available, she got a B.A. in Fine Arts from Zitouna University.
All of Hiary’s works are colorful collages of different patterns, shapes and even letters that are effortless combined to showcase the emotions and relationships of her subjects. Looking at her work makes you feel like you’re looking at a surreal picture of someone in mid-action — the paintings feel alive because of this. The mouths or other body parts are often represented with an Arabic letter, which I always said out loud because it felt like adding a new sensory element to her work. Her work showcases people’s relationships and emotions: the relationship between a mother and child; the relationship between men an women; the impression Syrian refugees left on Hiary; the relationship of humans with religion, etc. I love Hiary’s work because of her ability to express emotions, actions and relationships through abstract ways. Her work gives the viewer a new, colorful way to see people and the dynamics between them.
7. Abdul Hay Mosallam Zarara, Palestinian
Abdul Hay Mosallam Zarara was born in 1933 in a town near present-day Hebron, but currently lives in Amman, Jordan. He was expelled from his village in 1948 and later joined the PLO which sent him to Libya for a period of time. He also lived and worked in Palestinian refugees camps/quarters in Lebanon and Syria which he depicts in his work. Though he was not formally trained, he created a very distinct style of glue/sawdust painted reliefs that he uses to showcase history, memories and hopes.
For me, Abdul Hay Mosallam Zarara’s work was jarring as it depicts his experiences with conflict, violence, loss and hope. It’s extremely political, but it also serves as a preservation of culture in a way through the intricacy of the embroidery or through scenes of celebration or mourning. I also loved how women were portrayed in his work. Often time, they were central, larger-than-life subjects that often were giving the scene life or hope. Even when they weren’t, they were always represented equally in each painting.
8. Karimeh Abbud, Palestinian
Karimeh Abbud, often known as the “lady photographer” was the first woman professional photographer in mandatory Palestine and Lebanon, and most likely the Arab world. She was born to a Protestant family in 1893 in Shefa-’Amr. Her father’s work as a pastor took her to many cities within Palestine, but she grew up mostly between Bethlehem and Beit Jala.
After receiving a camera from her father as a gift for her 17th birthday, she took interest in photography. She began pursuing it professionally while studying at the American University of Beirut. She opened her studio in Beirut and took pictures of women, children, weddings and other events. She also took pictures of places in Haifa, Nazareth, Bethlehem, and other spots. by the 1930s, she was a prominent professional photographer in Nazareth. After her mother’s death in 1940, she moved to Jerusalem then to Bethlehem, and eventually returned to Nazareth where she died in 1955.
Abbud’s work is important and interesting because it preserved the history of people’s lives in Palestine before 1948. She also had more access to photograph women’s lives in the region. Her style was unique because while most photographers set up studios, Abbud began taking pictures in her client’s homes where they were more at ease. Abbud’s portraits, landscapes and other pictures were a fascinating experience that seemed to take your back in time.
9. “Allah” by Etel Adnan, Lebanese
Etel Adnan is a Lebanese writer and visual artists who was born in Beirut in 1925. She was educated in French schools, later studied philosophy in Paris, and then came to the U.S. to study philosophy at U.C. Berkeley. In solidarity with the Algerian war of independence, she resisted writing in French and turned to painting for creative expression. In her words, she became an “American poet” when she turned to poetry as part of the poet’s movement against the Vietnam War. She moved back to Beirut and eventually back to California where she resides today. She has authored numerous books and is one of America’s most celebrated Arab-American authors, but her visual art does not disappoint either.
“Allah” is a reiteration of the word “God” in Arabic painted on Japanese paper — a style she’s known for especially with landscapes. It reminded me almost of an Arabic form of pop art.
10. “Peach Farms on the Outskirts of Amman” by Riham Ghassib, Jordanian
Riham Ghassib was born in Amman and studied Art in the United States. Her work originally focused on social satire, but between the mid 90s and 2000s, her art shifted to a new focus. As she puts it, her “openness to the magic of nature” was a turning point for her work where she was able to “to penetrate the beauty and appropriate the aesthetic secrets of nature.” Today, her work focuses on the beauty of the Jordan’s countryside, cities and villages. As the Nabad gallery writes, “Her unique vision of the Jordanian countryside, its cities and villages, and her intense passion for nature, allow her to create canvases brimming with harmony and optimism.”
Ghassib’s was one of my favorites for the same reason Nabad and the galleries praised her for: her unique vision of Nature and of Jordan. The colorful, bright image above is not what people think of Jordan, and I loved it because it gave a magical image to Jordan that I find emotionally very accurate.