Desert cultures connect through art

Georgia Hill at her Inverse Exhibition. Photo: Jacaranda Images.
A small gallery in Amman offers locals and tourists a glimpse into contemporary Australian and Jordanian art. Thomas Cunningham reports.

The wall of glass at the front of Amman’s Jacaranda Gallery is deliberate.

It’s designed to draw passers-by into the space’s rich collection of contemporary art.

Australian owner, Barbara Rowell, says she hopes it will give people a glimpse of a culture not widely on display in Jordan.

Jacaranda [], in the busy nightlife district of Amman, is one of only 10 or so galleries in Jordan that features an eclectic mix of works by artists from all over the world.

The gallery has a large collection of Jordanian art, but also specialises in modern Australian works, ranging from watercolours by the former Australian Ambassador, Heidi Venamore, to prints and photos by up-and-coming street artists.

Jacaranda is the only gallery in Jordan where you can find Australian Aboriginal art, although today there is just one piece on display; a large colourful painting called Women’s Dreaming by Anmatyerre artist Betty Mbitjana [] from Utopia in the Northern Territory.

Barbara, who came to Jordan 15 years ago from Sydney, says she wanted to encourage comparisons between the cultures of Aboriginal people and the traditional Bedouin tribes of Jordan.

“I wanted to show something completely different to what was being seen. If you can’t travel you have to bring the culture to you, and in a small way we can do that,” she says.
Exposing the local people to new and different styles of artwork has always been the mission of the gallery. Barbara’s strategy is to ensure contemporary art from Jordan and abroad is the focus.

Twenty-eight-year old Sydney-based “typographical” artist Georgia Hill was recently invited to exhibit her “Inverse” show as part of Amman’s 2016 Design Week. She was also invited to paint a mural on one of the walls of the well-known Books@Cafe [], only a few doors up from the gallery.

Georgia says Jacaranda is a really good space for young artists. It exhibits a lot of people’s work and the displays are never static. She says this takes a lot of pressure off artists who are worried about filling an entire gallery with solely their own work.

Experiencing another culture through art has also helped Georgia find common ground with cultures that had been foreign to her.

“We all want to have a reason to be working and living, but we also want to have company, a sense of place, and belonging wherever we are…I was a complete stranger in a city, and then felt really at home within 48 hours.”

Jacaranda almost finished before it started. Barbara had been a hotel manager and was working for the Hyatt in Amman at the time of the 2005 bombings. The attacks, which involved two other hotels, killed 60 people and wounded more than 100. This only strengthened her tie with Jordan, because, she says, she had gone through it alongside her Jordanian friends and colleagues.

“Just their strength and resolve, and watching them pull together, made me feel even closer to Jordan,” she says.

Nine years after the opening of Jacaranda, it is still a “labour of love” for Barbara. The country’s struggling economy, mixed with the lack of tourism, due to war in the region and the fear of terrorism, has meant funding for the arts has not been a priority for the Jordanian government.

“There are no guarantees in art; it’s a tough, tough market…everything here is a tough market,” she says.

But it is not all about money for Barbara.

“We just want this to be an accessible place… If you don’t know art, come in. We want to tell you who the artist is, what technique they are using, and the story behind it.”