AMMAN — When Rana Snober Al Sharif used to host exhibitions at the Orfali Art Center in the 1990s, she says, “people did not appreciate art.”
Most treated the events as little more than a social outing, paying limited attention to the art. Of the few people willing to buy a painting, she says, most tried to wrestle her and the artist down to the bare bottom price.
“Now after 10 or 11 years, this has definitely changed,” said Al Sharif, now the chief executive of the center. Though exhibitions were still a highlight on many social calendars, visitors often came back after the opening to spend time privately examining the art, and many paintings were selling at full price even before they went on display.
Jordan, long thought of as a quiet, backwoods corner of the Middle East, has begun transforming into a formidable center for the arts. And while it may not compare to, say, Paris, London or New York, Amman is emerging as a noteworthy destination for many creative professionals from around the world.
The kingdom's stability has made it a magnet for refugee artists from Iraq, Palestine and other regional conflicts. These artists, combined with an increasingly art hungry culture, have helped fuel a creative burst here.
Most galleries in Amman are booked solid with exhibitions for the next two years. Local collectors are buying painting for more than $50,000 today, whereas 15 years ago they topped out at $1,000.
In September, Jordan opened the Red Sea Institute of Cinematic Arts, a graduate-level film school partnered with the world-renowned University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts.
As a student just six years ago, Asma Beseiso said Jordan had little to offer her and her creative classmates. Schools focused almost exclusively on classical art and outside the classroom she says the arts community was “very limited.”
Now a documentary maker and arts aficionado, Beseiso, a Palestinian who has lived in Jordan her whole life, said “people are getting exposed to all different things, not only the classical styles.”
She pointed out that Jordan has even seen the rise of a small hip hop and break dancing scene. “The people here are trying to be more open to new ideas, to new types of art,” she said.
While there’s debate over when exactly Amman’s art scene began to blossom – some say the early '90s, others says around the start of the most recent Iraq war – Iraqis have had an undeniable effect on the art community here.
“When the [Iraqis] came there was a boom,” Al Sharif said. Although there were a number of exhibitions in Jordan at the time, she says they were mostly low profile. Iraqi artists brought with them a taste for larger exhibitions and edgier art. “When [they were] exposed to good exhibitions, this made the Jordanians think I need to do that too.”
Meanwhile, Iraqi artists say Jordan has helped play a critical role in their development as well.
“Before the war in Iraq, we were closed off from world, but here in Jordan we can get in touch with the world with the Internet, news, and traveling with exhibitions,” said Ghassan Ghaib, an Iraqi artist who has lived in Amman for nearly five years. “The culture is very free and open for artists.”
Haidar al-Mhrabi said that in Iraq he felt he was improving as an artist, but when he arrived in Jordan for the first time in 2006 he realized there was a world of art he’d never seen. More than interacting with Jordanian artists, he says, meeting artists from all over the world and seeing new styles helped him to rethink his approach to art.
“I found my chance here,” al-Mhrabi said. “I saw more artists, and more paintings, and so I told myself that I must find a new style if I want to be an artist.”
Ola El-Khalidi, director of the Makan House of Expression, a small, private art house in Amman, acknowledged the role of Iraqis in helping to get the art market moving.
More than anything, she said, El-Khalidi said, Amman’s reputation as a calm city in a tumultuous region had helped it develop as a place for the arts. For many Arab artists, in places like Lebanon or Israel and Palestine, meeting in person is made difficult by a variety of travel restrictions. As a relatively open country, Jordan serves as the ideal place for creative gatherings, whether a tiny collaborative meeting or a large workshop.
While many are hoping that the arts in Jordan are attaining a critical mass strong enough to keep the momentum going regardless of world events, in some regards its future may depend on the continuing regional instability that makes it an attractive and easy place for artists to meet and work.
“Economically and politically speaking, we’re not sure what’s going to happen in 10 years, but if the situation stays as it is in the region, then Amman has a very good potential of standing up and people coming here and wanting to do stuff,” El-Khalidi said.
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