As cultural institutions go, Jordan’s National Gallery may not seem immediately imposing. Situated in two refurbished villas that sit on either side of a quiet, leafy garden tucked among Jabal Weibdeh’s small residential streets, it would be easy to overlook. However, this modest façade hides what is by far Jordan’s most impressive and complete collection of art. Such is the acclaim of the collection, not to mention the accompanying activities employed to showcase it, that internationally renowned artists continue to donate their artworks for posterity.
Trendesign delves into this rich seam of art, history and culture…
The Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts (JNGFA) was established in 1980 by the Royal Society of Fine Arts (RSFA), which had been created a year prior with the aim of promoting the visual arts in Jordan and across the Arab, Islamic and developing worlds. It was Jordan’s first art museum, and at the time of inception its collection consisted of just 77 works that had been privately donated. Since then, this has swelled to over 2,500 works by 858 artists from 70 countries. These vary from paintings to sculptures, installations, photographs, ceramics, textiles and video art. According to the Jordan National Gallery director general Dr Khalid Khreis, “At the National Gallery, our role is bipartite: firstly, to conserve and provide a platform for works by artists in Arab and developing countries, and at the same time to bring people to see the artworks and appreciate them through all the different programmes we have.”
The gallery and the RSFA strive to showcase Middle Eastern, and particularly Jordanian talent to the wider world. They have collaborated with numerous cultural institutions from the United States, Turkey, Poland, Italy, the UK, France, Spain and Greece and organised more than 40 group shows across Asia, Europe, North America and Australia. Notable among these was the 1989 exhibition Contemporary Art from the Islamic World at London’s Barbican Centre. Held in partnership with the Islamic Arts Foundation, this event showcased the work of 104 artists from the JNGFA’s permanent collection. In 2003, the JNGFA and the Mediterranean Women Artists Network F.A.M (Femme-Art-Méditerranée) organised Breaking the Veils: Women Artists from the Islamic World, a travelling exhibition on an unprecedented scale that showed work by 50 women from 22 Islamic countries. It toured Europe, America and Australia for more than two years, where it was seen by thousands of people who may previously have had little knowledge of Middle Eastern art, especially by women. “I definitely think this was one of our most successful exhibitions ever,” comments HRH Princess Wijdan Al Hashemi, president of the RSFA. “It’s hard to exaggerate the importance of the message it gave about women in the Arab and Islamic world.”
However, Princess Wijdan and Dr Khreis are both quick to emphasise that the National Gallery has no wish to patronise women or minority artists. “A good artist is a good artist, whether it is a woman or a man or a third gender, I don’t care,” insists Princess Wijdan. “Good art imposes itself on you. Women in Jordan, especially artists, have wonderful facilities to prove themselves. I hate it when people use my gender to promote my art,” she adds.
Within Jordan, the National Gallery has held more than 200 exhibitions across a huge variety of themes. With so many works from such talented artists, it can be difficult to ensure that these are all taken out of their specialist, on-site storage to be seen on a regular basis. Dr Khreis explains this arduous process, saying “First we try to represent all of the countries, or as many as possible. Within that we need to show the pioneers, but also young people, different styles or schools and various mediums; we try to do our best to showcase the collection’s diversity.” This variety allows for a certain amount of freedom, however, to mix and match with unusual combinations of artworks that complement each other in new and exciting ways, both visually and thematically.
One of the most interesting and unique aspects of the collection is the decision not to limit it either culturally or geographically to Islamic or Middle Eastern countries. This, according to Princess Wijdan, stems from an experience she had when exhibiting in the United States in 1978, where she met with an art dealer of international acclaim. He was impressed with her work and promised to support her, promote her work and make her celebrated the world over. However, this came at a steep price: if she sold any pieces other than through him, he would destroy her reputation and ensure she never worked in art again. Furthermore, if he told her to alter her style or change specific aspects of her work, she was to do as he bid. She agreed to think over his offer and get in touch, then left, never to return. “When I came back to Jordan I realised how unfair it was for artists from the Arab world, Islamic world and developing world. I realised we had to have our own forum, and to be judged according to our own aesthetics. I don’t need the likes of him; none of us artists from the Third Word need that. This is how the JNGFA came about, and until today it remains the only forum for Arab, Islamic and third-world artists to show their work without preconditions, except that the art is of a certain standard.”
In creating a level playing field for artists from such broadly varying backgrounds, the National Gallery helps to play a role in fostering international understanding. This is a particular passion of Princess Wijdan’s, given her extensive work in Jordan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (including a five-year stint as Jordan’s Ambassador to Italy). “What agreements fail to do, art does,” she explains. “I believe that countries can sign scores of agreements among themselves, but how far will they be followed? If people don’t understand each other, how can they follow the agreements? Art it very important because it teaches you about culture and this helps you to understand other people. But if there isn’t this appreciation of the other, and of the differences between us, there will never be peace.”
At home too the National Gallery strives to utilise their impressive collection for educational purposes. Dr Khreis, who originally trained in art education in Egypt, explains that given the limited art education available in public schools in Jordan, especially outside the capital, this role falls to cultural institutions such as the JNGFA. “We don’t want to create artists, necessarily, but we have to instil in youth a sensibility for art, which will reflect in their manners and life outlook,” he adds. One of the gallery’s most successful educational initiatives is the Touring Museum, which to date has made over 300 visits to hundreds of locations across Jordan. A specially repurposed van carrying a selection of works by Jordanian artists makes weekly visits, accompanied by artist Suheil Baqaeen who presents these paintings to local children and youths, along with a brief discussion. A hands-on art session is also included to offer experimentation with drawing and painting: a new experience for many of the participants.
The JNGFA’s collection has changed considerably over the years, reflecting changing tides in political and artistic thought. In early years, it included a modest collection of donated Orientalist paintings from the likes of Jean-Léon Gérôme, Rudolf Ernst and Eugène Delacroix. However, in 1993 it was decided that these pieces did not fit with the overall theme of the collection, and they were auctioned off to pay for extensions of the gallery’s space. In recent years acclaimed artists such as Hussein Madi and Hachmi Azza have generously donated numerous works (115 and 135 respectively). According to Princess Wijdan, “[Hussein Madi] told me that ‘you are the only national gallery that I can trust with my work after I die,’” – high praise indeed from an artist whose work has been shown at the Venice Biennale, the British Museum and Tokyo’s Ueno Museum. Other items in the collection show the National Gallery’s savviness in spotting emerging talent. Princess Wijdan tells the story of her visit to Istanbul in 1982. This was before the city had any dedicated art galleries, so she went to a department store, the only place to buy art at the time. Having done her homework, she spotted the work of Fikret Mualla, and purchased it for around JOD200. Now the very same piece is valued at over JOD14 million.
Dr Khreis and Princess Wijdan are cautiously positive about the future of the JNGFA. As a non-profit, non-governmental organisation, money is always a concern. In recent years demand for Middle Eastern art has soared on the international market, causing prices to inflate rapidly. As such, even works by relatively up-and-coming artists are suddenly outside of the gallery’s price range.
Despite two expansions, the JNGFA is already growing short of space to store and display their prestigious collection. Nevertheless, the gallery continues to expand its collection and its activities. A few years ago a grant from USAID allowed for the purchase of a printing press, which now resides in the second building for use by artists-in-residence. More recently, the gallery purchased a new building in the area, which it plans to renovate and turn into a training centre for young artists, once funds are secured. “Even if we had the money though, I wouldn’t build a big new building for the gallery, all modern architecture and glass walls. I prefer these traditional houses which suit the area and are filled with their own history,” Princess Wijdan maintains. “I believe in our projects; I believe that they are for the good for the young, the old – everyone. This is a place where anyone can come to relax, enjoy themselves and experience beauty and culture.”
Photography: Amer Sweidan