Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Contemporary Art and Culture in Amman

by Miri

the Mosques of Amman
Travel guides to Middle Eastern countries have a tendency to reduce local artistic and cultural expression to either antique artefacts featured in historical or archaeological sites, thereby situating the heyday of creation in the past, or to point to what is commonly referred to as “authentic” or “folklore”, such as Bedouin tents and belly dance. Artistic and cultural forms of expression that don't fit into those categories are usually described as “Western”, or “Western influenced”. This notion obviously obfuscates the fact that Western culture is and has always been as much influenced by Eastern culture as the other way around.

Furthermore, it ignores the myriads of contemporary artists, architects, musicians etc. in the Middle East who, just like any other creator in the rest of the world, strive to find their own voices, their own ways of expressing themselves. The city of Amman is a good example. It obviously features a great number of unique historical sites which are definitely worth a visit. Yet reducing your stay to these sites will make you miss out on a lot of things that constitute Amman in the 21st century and as an important part of the greater Middle Eastern art and cultural scene.

There are a number of museums and art galleries showcasing a huge variety of contemporary art from the Arab World and beyond. The collection of the Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts features more than 2000 works, including paintings, prints, sculptures, photographs and installations by more than 500 artists stemming from 59 countries, mainly in Asia and Africa. Similarly, Darat al Funun proudly self-identifies as “a home for the arts and the artists of Jordan and the Arab world”.

Sculpture - Darat al Funun
Located in three traditional buildings adjacent to the remains of a sixth century Byzantine church built over a Roman temple, Darat al Funun's ambition is to draw a connection between the past and the present of artistic expression of the area. Just like the National Gallery, Darat al Funun aims to provide space for contemporary Arab art, and especially for upcoming young artists. Apart from its exhibition spaces, Darat al Funun also runs open studios and workshops which can be used at no charge by local and residents artists. Its temporary exhibitions are usually complemented by lectures and thematically related programmes in the realm of performing arts.

Every summer, Darat al Funun holds a festival, “a multi-disciplinary annual celebration of the visual and performing arts”, showcasing the art generated at its own studios, as well as works by students of its annual summer academy. So obviously in terms of visual arts Amman has a lot to offer to its visitors, but also when it comes to audible pleasures, the city brings forward a musical variety that transcends the traditional oud player or belly dance music.

And again, there's a direct connection between past and present: one of Amman's most famous archaeological sites, the Citadel, which beautifully overlooks down town Amman, frequently becomes the site of musical performances by internationally renowned artists, such as jazz singer Diana Krall, but has also seen some of the most popular bands the Arab world has brought forward in recent years, such as the celebrated Lebanese indie band Mashrou3 Leila.

In recent years Amman's very own musicians have also been busy in creating their very own musical identity and its scene, which cross cuts genres as diverse as heavy metal, pop and indie rock, has managed to built itself a fine reputation throughout the Middle East. One of the most successful bands at the moment, is probably Autostrad, which has gathered some of Amman's most innovative musicians and established for itself a broad base of fans that reach far beyond the borders of the kingdom. Their music is usually described as a blend of Reggae, Funk and Rock, with references to more traditional Arabic music, and lyrics sung in the street slang of the Jordanian capital.

DJ Shadia
Also on the female front, Amman's music scene has a lot to offer; take for instance singer-songwriter Ruba Saqr who won the UNESCO prize for Best Innovative Performance for Bridging Traditional and Contemporary Traditions in 2007. DJ Shadia is celebrated as one of the first female DJs in the Arab world and has greatly aided to the increasing popularity of Hip Hop and electronic music in Jordan. DJ Shadia started her career by hosting radio shows, but soon also came to be an acclaimed live DJ and has by now toured clubs and venues in nearly the whole of the Middle East and opened for international superstars, such as 50 Cent and Sean Paul.

The list of what to see, what to hear and to do in Amman is endless, suffice it to say, that it is definitely worthwhile to look beyond the usual tourist sites, and to think beyond the dichotomies of East and West, authentic and imported culture and to go on a search for what contemporary Amman has to offer.