Culture and Art in 21st Century Amman

By Miri - 

Travel guides to Middle Eastern countries tend to either reduce local artistic expression to antique artefacts, usually found at historical or archaeological sites, thereby situating the apex of creation in the past, or, to emphasise what is commonly referred to as “authentic” or “folkloric” culture, such as Bedouin tents and belly dance. Artistic and cultural forms of expression that do not fit those categories are commonly relegated as “Western”, or as “influenced by the West”. This attitude obviously ignores the fact that Western culture is and has always been influenced by Eastern culture and vice versa. It furthermore simply omits the richness of works of contemporary Middle Eastern artists, architects, musicians etc. who, just as creative people in the West, strive to find their own voices and their personal ways of expressing themselves. 

Amman's Citadel, one of the main tourist sites of the capital.
An Amman tour is very illustrative of that argument. Jordan's capital unquestionably features a big number of unique historical sites which are definitely worth a visit. Focussing only on its past, however, will make you miss out on a whole dimension of Amman, which contributes to its relevance within the greater Middle Eastern cultural and art scene.

The city offers quite a few art galleries and museums, displaying a great variety of contemporary art that originated from all over the Arab World. The most institutionalised of these museums is probably the Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts, which showcases more than 2000 works, including paintings, prints, sculptures, photographs and installations by more than 500 artists from 59 countries, mainly in Asia and Africa. 

Sculpture in the garden of Darat al Funun
Similarly, Darat al Funun aspires to provide a space for contemporary Arab art, especially for young upcoming artsist and presents itself as “a home for the arts and the artists of Jordan and the Arab world”. It's ambition to point out the continuity of local artistic expression from antiquity up until the present is already illustrated in its choice of location in three traditional buildings situated next to the ruins of a Byzantine church from the sixth century, which itself was built over a Roman temple. Other than its exhibition space, Darat al Funun also operates open studios, which can be used free of charge by local and resident artists and where regularly workshops are being held. During its respective temporary exhibitions, Darat al Funun organises thematically related programmes, such as lectures and other events from the realm of performing arts. Every summer the institution organises “a multi-disciplinary annual celebration of the visual and performing arts”, a festival featuring the work produced in its studios and by the students of its annual summer academy. 

Any lover of contemporary visual arts will thus surely not be disappointed by the variety offered in the galleries of Jordan's capital, but also for those music fans, who want to listen beyond the traditional oud player and belly dance music, Amman has a lot to offer. 
One of Amman's most impressive archaeological sites, the Citadel, is frequently turned into an open air concert venue where internationally renowned artists, such as jazz singer Diana Krall, hit the stage. Probably even more memorable to the local audience are however those concerts featuring musicians from the Arab World, such as the Lebanese indie band Mashrou3 Leila which conquered the Middle Eastern audience in a storm and has already established itself a solid fan base in the West. 

Within the capital, musicians of all creeds have been working hard to create their own musical identity and Amman's music scene is growing and flourishing and spans across a great variety of genres, including heavy metal, indie rock, pop and more. The band Autostrad which fuses Reggae, Funk, and Rock with elements of more classical Arabic music, complemented by lyrics sung in the local street slang, has a lot of followers that reach far beyond the Jordanian borders. 

Amman's DJ Shadia
Amman's female musicians are just as creative and successful as their male counterparts. In 2007, singer-songwriter Ruba Saqr won the UNESCO prize for Best Innovative Performance for Bridging Traditional and Contemporary Traditions. Amman's DJ Shadia is reportedly the first female DJ of the Arab World. Starting her career at local radio stations, Shadia greatly contributed to popularising Hip Hop and electronic music in Jordan. Very soon she also became a celebrated live DJ and has toured clubs and venues in nearly all Middle Eastern countries, opening for international superstars, such as 50 Cent and Sean Paul. 

The list of what to hear, see and do can be extended endlessly, suffice it to say, that it is definitely worthwhile to look beyond what your tour guide suggests you, and to think beyond the dichotomies of East and West, authentic and imported culture and to go on a search for all the treasures that contemporary Amman has to offer.

Green Olive Tours is organising tours in Jordan, including an Amman tour. Contact the Tours Coordinator for details.


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