|'Unclassified Amman' tussles with public space
|Offshoot of the contemporary arts festival Meeting Points 5 ventures out into the streets of the Jordanian capital to explore the city's spirit|
"We always used to complain that Amman is very small, that you go out and you know everyone," says Ola Khalidi. "Now it's growing and we don't know everyone anymore." With the Jordanian capital in the midst of dramatic shifts in size, scale, construction activity and demographic composition, the reasons have changed but the complaints continue.
"It's in your face every day, in your daily life, the traffic, the attitude, even the air is changing. Amman is turning into a city." After a pause, Khalidi laughs. "It's funny. We don't know what we want. I like Amman. It's a strange place."
Four years ago Khalidi opened the experimental art space Makan on the upper floor of a beautiful old building that sinks below street level and slides down the side of a steep hill in Jabal Weibdeh. Dubbed "The House of Expression," Makan hosts a casual program of exhibitions, film screenings and other projects that often diverge from the arts proper to enter any terrain of interest to young people with fresh ideas and intriguing obsessions.
Past an office and a spacious living room that is currently packed with slouchy chairs and two television sets - the viewing stations for the mobile film library that is an integral part of the roving contemporary arts festival Meeting Points 5 - Makan's balcony opens out to views of breathtaking urban density, with dust colored houses stacked on top of one another like a child's wooden building blocks. The pace of change may be slower in Jabal Weibdeh than it is in other, newer enclaves of Amman, but it is an interesting vantage point from which to consider the city, and the contemporary art scene that is taking root there.
For years, contemporary arts initiatives in Amman have been handsomely overshadowed by those in Cairo and Beirut, where a critical mass of artists, venues and independent associations has cohered into scenes of note and weight. But things are moving and Amman is staking a claim for a scene to call its own.
Next to Makan is the arts foundation Darat al-Funun on one side, the gallery Dar al-Anda on the other. Further along are the two buildings of the Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts, which straddle a garden and sculpture park, capped at one end by Canvas, a relatively new and unabashedly chic lounge that doubles as an exhibition venue. Not far is Masrah al-Balad, a few years old and situated in a restored cinema near the first circle in Jabal Amman.
Darat al-Funun, arguably one of the most gorgeous art spaces in the region with three early 20th-century buildings cascading down to the remains of a Byzantine church, has been putting on a relentlessly contemporary program since 2004. The Dara, as it is known, incorporates lectures, workshops, performances and screenings into exhibitions highlighting additions to the foundation's permanent collection, which includes important works by Mona Hatoum, Moataz Nasr, Wael Shawky, Amal Kenawy, Oraib Toukan, Akram Zaatari and Walid Raad.
Makan, the Dara, Masrah al-Balad and the Terra Santa Theater are the core sites for Meeting Points 5, with each hosting performances, screenings and exhibitions that are part of the festival's touring program. But equally - and arguably more - compelling is "Unclassified Amman," an offshoot of Meeting Points 5 curated by Khalidi and Samah Hijawi, an artist who is also part of Makan's team.
For all its development, Amman remains an intensely conservative city, so Khalidi and Hijawi's decision to interpret the "Unclassified" project as an occasion to create urban interventions and bring social practices to the street is nothing if not gutsy. It also makes a great deal of sense. Given the real estate boom, the influx of foreign capital, the presence of a million Iraqi refugees (the latest in a long wave of migrations carefully, if somewhat sternly, manhandled by the monarchy), Amman has been shaken up enough to start poking around in its urban fabric.
As Khalidi and Hijawi note in their introduction to the project, Amman is one of the youngest capitals in the region and one of the fastest growing cities in the Arab world. Yet "identity" remains as vague a notion as "place." Add to that the always beguiling concept of "public space" and "Unclassified Amman" has set for itself some curious objectives indeed.
Khalidi and Hijawi commissioned three artists to address their city using public space as site and medium. From there, Oraib Toukan, Maha Abu Ayash and Leena Saoub mapped out their own trajectories (Hijawi is executing a fourth project).
Into the overwhelming ochre of Jabal Weibdeh, Jabal Qalah and Downtown Amman, Toukan and Abu Ayash have injected shocks of color. Abu Ayash's "Reclaiming Footpaths" consists of enormous, fluorescent footprints strategically placed on the steep, winding, black asphalt streets that rise from the central ravine of the downtown district.
An attempt to both "underscore Amman's pedestrian spirit," according to Abu Ayash's accompanying text, and highlight the fact that pavement has become Amman's dominant vertical axis, "Reclaiming Footpaths" is, like stencil projects everywhere, a stealth exercise in phenomenology, calling attention to the often unconsidered experiences of urban life, namely, the daily battle between pedestrians and vehicular traffic.
"I will jaywalk at leisure by night," Abu Ayash writes, "leaving behind on the asphalt ... prints of colorful, larger than life, fluorescent footsteps against the grain of the upward automotive track." That crossing of walkers heading down and drivers heading up is the one in which pedestrians are most empowered.
Toukan, meanwhile, has peppered the landscape with equally enormous orange arrows, randomly paced in a labyrinth of indicated directions atop buildings standing on the seams of three neighborhoods.
Inspired by the rumbling sounds of aircraft arriving to and departing from the Marka military air base, located just over a hill and beyond the Citadel that faces the artist's studio in Jabal Weibdeh, Toukan has made a map for the unknown, unseen pilots, who often fly low enough to set off car alarms on her street.
"Can You See Me: Monologues in Air" contemplates the meaning of public space, air rights and land use. One layer of subtext, of course, is that these planes have become a notable audiovisual element of living in Amman since 2003, the year the US-led invasion and subsequent destruction of Iraq began. Another is the extent to which the discourse on the war has itself been sidelined to the better left unsaid.
"I got interested in talking about prerogative in using air space, and I got interested in critiquing public art, spectacle, the whole issue of art in public space at a time when the idea of public and private space is changing all over the world," says Toukan, whose research for "Can You See Me" put her in touch not only with pilots but also with downtown merchants who took an interest in her work.
Toukan placed seven arrows on rooftops. She initially planned 15, then scaled back to 10. Obtaining permission to place her bright orange vinyl missives proved both difficult and illuminating.
"There are a lot of paranoid people around," she jokes. Though Toukan initially drew a map of her skyward intervention, she found herself yielding, productively, to the architecture of the buildings themselves.
Leena Saoub's intervention, "Crossroad of Societies," tackles identity more squarely, with billboards interrupting the glut of elevated advertising campaigns to consider the word "Ammani," the term for residents born and raised in the city, the use of which is somewhat tenuous given the diversity of the population. Saoub's work also critiques ever ubiquitous acts of branding.
The least material of all the "Unclassified" interventions is also the most heavily invested in practice. Hijawi's "Disorientation" involves the artist visiting different parts of the city to explore the transient mental states of its residents. Armed with a table, white boards, pens and push pins and a cache of pictures clipped from magazines, Hijawi is setting up shop and interacting with those curious enough to check out what she's doing.
In popular parts of the city, residents are likely to either come from someplace else or dream of being someplace else - yet either way few have the means to get there. Hijawi is offering her magazine clips as collage material to visualize - and make manifest through a street-side art project - those other worlds.
"Unclassified Amman" may be confounding to most of the city's unsuspecting residents, but it is a promising start for a city on the move and an art scene in the making. The fact that all of the artists involved consider their current interventions the first of several phases suggests a compelling body of works to come.
"Unclassified Amman" continues through Sunday. For more information, please call +962 6 463 1969 or check out www.makanhouse.net
The Daily Star