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Celebrating 30 Years of the Arab Art World’s ‘Sleeping Giant’

Footnotes to a regional art history: On Darat Al Funun’s anniversary exhibition in Amman

Darat al Funun in Amman is something of a sleeping giant in the Arab arts scene. The Darat grew out of the efforts of the Khalid Shoman Foundation, which began investing in contemporary Arab art in the early 1980s. The Darat opened in 1988 after the artist Suha Shoman sought to establish a ‘home for the arts’, focussing on artistic networks as an alternative to commercial gallery and museum models in the region. ‘Truth is black, write over it with a mirage’s light’ is the second of three shows celebrating its thirtieth anniversary and pioneering support of arts in the region. Taking its title from Mahmoud Darwish’s posthumous poem ‘To A Young Poet’ (2010), the show considers art’s role in overwriting narratives that narrowly frame the region through its discontents.

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Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme, And yet my mask is powerful,  2016, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Darat al Funun-The Khalid Shoman Foundation

The exhibition brings together works by over 30 artists, including new commissions. Several works speculate on art’s potential to imagine new political outcomes. Yazan Khalili’s I, the artwork (2016), for example, is a large-scale photographic print of a three-page legal contract. The work draws on recent debates around cultural boycotts to consider the legal and ethical limits of safeguarding artistic production from complicity with violence and oppression. The contract stipulates how it should circulate and who cannot buy it, such as states occupying other states. Similar concerns inform Basel Abbas and Rouanne Abu Rahme’s five-screen video installation, And yet my mask is powerful, part 1 (2016), which documents a group of Palestinian youths retuning to their indigenous villages. As they travel across overgrown landscapes, their faces covered by copies of Neolithic masks – the originals of which were found in the West Bank, and now held in private Israeli museums – the ritualistic journey is punctuated with text taken from Adrienne Rich’s 1972 poem Diving into the Wreck, which comes to stand for Israel’s depopulation and dispossession of these sites. The overlapping projections are soaked in a horror-show green light, alluding to the untamed layers of fragmented histories, myth-making and temporal dissonances that disrupt narratives about Palestine.

A reflection on buried material histories, Al Ani’s video Shadow Sites II (2011), presents an aerial journey that reveals archaeological sites and contemporary human constructions. In a nearby bunker space, Rayyane Tabet’s new sculptural installation, Sugar Cane/ Salt Flats (2018) looks to historical links between Jordan and Palestine. Large-scale and pungent, the composition is made of large sugarcane stocks atop large salt compounds, looking to the contemporary economic production of these materials through their historic trade routes across the Dead Sea.

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Rayyane Tabet, Sugar Cane/ Salt Flats, 2018, one ton of sugarcane and one ton of carnallite. Courtesy: the artist and Darat al Funun-The Khalid Shoman Foundation

The Darat’s rich archival collection comes together in Beit al-Beiruti, a 1930s former residence where a display of printed exhibition banners charts the Darat’s artistic and regional institutional partnerships, such as a 2004 photography exhibition produced in collaboration with the Anti-Apartheid Wall campaign. These reference points inform Ala Younis’s ongoing work, The past of a temporal universe (2018-ongoing). Composed of hung sketches and small-scale sculptural pieces, the installation maps Younis’s personal relationship to the Darat through the affective resonances of notable events on her artistic practice: the audience’s response to Amal Kenawy’s video installation The Purple Artificial Forest (2005) or the animated film Stop – You Will Be Killed (2006) which left several visitors ‘too scared’ to enter. The focus on personal histories as they converge with artistic production is at the heart of the Darat’s artistic endeavour.

In today’s hyper-eventified art world, which sees the region increasingly abiding by a go-big-or-go-home logic, the Darat’s institutional approach points to a less-trodden path. The show adds poignancy to Darwish’s opening lines in ‘To a Young Poet’: ‘Don’t believe our outlines / forget them and begin from your own words.’

Truth is black, write over it with a mirage’s light runs at Darat Al Funun, Amman, from 23 October 2018 until 24 January 2019. 

Main image: AnneMarie van Splunter, A Day Such as This (detail), 2018, video still. Courtesy: the artist

Reema Salha Fadda is a writer and editor based in London.

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