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25 Years of Darat al Funun in Amman

Interview with Suha Shoman, Founder and Chair of the Khalid Shoman Foundation and of Darat al Funun.
By Pat Binder & Gerhard Haupt | Jan 2014

Darat al Funun is a home for the arts and artists from the Arab world. It traces its beginnings to the opening of a non-profit gallery in Amman in 1988, and is now housed in six renovated historical buildings with a restored archaeological site in the garden. Darat al Funun organizes exhibitions, talks, film screenings and educational programs, hosts performances and concerts, offers a PhD fellowship and artist residencies, and publishes books and catalogues.

Pat Binder & Gerhard Haupt: What led you to establish Darat al Funun, being an artist yourself and what was the context in Jordan at that time?

Suha Shoman: Back in 1988, I initiated activities in the field of the visual arts at The Scientific and Cultural Center of The Abdul Hameed Shoman Foundation, one of the first private foundations in the region established in 1978 to promote research in the fields of sciences and humanities. Khalid Shoman, my husband, was the deputy chairman of the Foundation. Being an artist myself --my teacher and mentor was Fahrelnissa Zeid, the Turkish-Jordanian artist-- it was only natural that I would take the lead in directing these activities.

At that time, there was little interest in Arab art in the global art world, little knowledge on contemporary Arab art and little support for Arab artists. Artists in Jordan are also not as privileged as artists in other Arab countries. The situation in Jordan is most difficult. Waves of refugees from neighboring countries had it's toll on the infrastructure of the country at crucial periods of nation building, and considering the scarcity of resources, art is not a priority. We therefore recognized the importance of patronage of art by private foundations. There were no private foundations in the region dedicated to art.
We first started by organizing exhibitions for Jordanian and Arab artists and instigating regional exchange among Arab artists. Group and solo exhibitions for both established and emerging artists were mounted and brought artists together. Lectures on art were conducted and published in the book Dialogues on Art. Exhibitions were organized for Palestinians during the first Intifada and for Iraqis and Lebanese who took shelter in Jordan from the Gulf war and the civil war. The Center became a meeting place for artists from the region.

It became clear that there was a great need for a specialized space that is not a museum nor a commercial gallery, a space that provides a platform for the artists where they could feel at home, work and exhibit, learn and exchange ideas, experiment and express themselves. The concept of Darat al Funun, which means in Arabic a home for the arts, developed and progressively materialized. Restoration on a site overlooking downtown Amman started in 1992.

B & H: Was it already called Darat al Funun? What kind of exhibitions did you do?

Shoman: No, the first 5 years at The Center were the years of experience that led to the establishment of our home for the arts. Darat al Funun opened its doors in 1993 with an exhibition in the Main Building for 50 contemporary Arab artists and with a concert in the archeological site, setting the tone for our vision of a home for the arts that brings together the visual arts with other forms of artistic expression, hosting innovative exhibitions and performances, film screenings, concerts and cultural events.

From the very beginning we played a pivotal role in hosting, presenting and supporting artists from the Arab world, from modern masters such as as Fahrelnissa Zeid, Adam Henein, Marwan, Belkahia, Rachid Koraïchi to contemporaries such as Amal Kenawy, Adel Abidin, Ahlam Shibli, Saba Innab and Mona Hatoum. Our exhibition program included retrospective and solo shows as well as thematic exhibitions. Many artists had their first solo in the region at Darat al Funun.

The Main Building of Darat al Funun was restored to offer exhibition spaces, an art library was added onto the roof, and workshops studios were equipped in the basement. This house is one of the oldest houses in Amman, built in the 1920s. It served until 1938 as the official residence of the British commander of The Arab Legion, Colonel F.G. Peake. When Glubb Pasha became commander of the Arab Legion, the house became a Club for the British officers until 1956, date of the Arabization of the Arab Legion. This is to say the Main Building holds the rich historical and political story of modern Jordan, while the archeological site in the garden of a Byzantine church built over a Roman Temple, tells the story of Ancient Jordan. By dedicating the site to the contemporary arts, our artists tell the story of Jordan and the Arab world of today.

A second building, named the Blue House for its Circassian wooden porch was restored in 1994 to offer additional exhibition spaces and a café in the garden. It was built by the governor of Akka in Palestine.

A third building was renovated and opened in 1995 to serve as quarters for the artists in residence. The house was the home for a time of the poet of the Great Arab Revolt, Sheikh Fouad al Khateeb and Prime minister Suleiman Nabulsi. In 2002 it was dedicated to the memory of Khalid Shoman, the patron of Darat al Funun and named Dar Khalid. The Khalid Shoman Foundation was established that same year and Darat al Funun came under its umbrella.

B & H: Your Summer Academy, that Marwan Kassab Bachi directed, had a strong impact on young artists. Please tell us about it.

Shoman: From 1999 to 2003, Berlin based Syrian artist Marwan, directed Darat al Funun's Summer Academy. He conducted intensive painting courses for emerging artists from Jordan, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. Over the course of four years, more than 60 young artists from the region attended the Academy. We had a close collaboration with The Khalil Sakakini Center's director, Adila Laïdi-Hanieh, for the selection of the applicants from Palestine and particularly for the artists from Gaza. The Summer Academy was a launching pod for some of the artists who went on successfully pursuing their carrier. It was the first initiative of its kind in the region.

B & H: When did you do the large extension of Darat al Funun that you inaugurated with the cooperation project with the The Tate Modern?

Shoman: In 2011, a new expansion across the compound of Darat al Funun was inaugurated. A 4th traditional building dating back to the 1930s was restored to house the Headquarters of the Khalid Shoman Foundation. Art works from the Khalid Shoman collection are on permanent display in the building and working spaces are offered for researchers studying Arab art.

In keeping with our mission to support, research and document Arab art, a yearly doctoral dissertation fellowship was instated that same year. Three old warehouses were also renovated to house The Lab, an experimental space and a hub for emerging artists and innovative projects. We celebrated the inauguration of this new addition with the opening of the exhibition Out of a Place organized in collaboration and exchange with Tate Modern.

B & H: And with the Beit al Beiruti and the new artists residency building that you have just restored and inaugurated with HIWAR, do you feel that you are now somehow completing your vision and projecting it to the future?

Shoman: Yes, I feel we have. The buildings that house Darat al Funun were built by a Jordanian, Palestinian, Syrian and Lebanese families. They are a living memory of the history of the city of Amman and the shared history of the region. Darat al Funun is now an oasis for the arts in the midst of the crowded city center. Along with visiting our contemporary art exhibitions, many come to enjoy Amman's traditional architecture, attend events at the archeological site, read a book in our library or take a walk around the gardens. By saving and restoring abandoned historic buildings and antiquities, Darat al Funun contributed to preserving Jordan's architectural and cultural heritage. Long forgotten buildings in the area have been converted into art spaces giving the neighborhood a new lease on life. By rehabilitating the site to serve the contemporary arts, Darat al Funun brought together the old and new, past and present, tradition and modernity. Darat al Funun is today a living place celebrating the arts at the heart of our culture.

B & H: Does it follow this kind of inner logic of development that you celebrate the 25th anniversary with a Brazilian curator and with artists from the Arab world and from Asia, Africa and Latin America?

Shoman: We aim to provide a platform for contemporary artists, to support art practices and critical discourse, to stimulate artistic exchange and research. We initiated from the beginning regional exchange among artists in the region. Now by inviting Adriano Pedrosa to curate HIWAR we go one step further, we promote exchange between artists from the margins, South - South, not only by juxtaposing their work in an exhibition but also by giving them through the residency and talk programs the possibility to learn and be inspired from each other's practices and experiences. For a period of two months, Darat al Funun was a a home for 14 young creative minds and inspiring projects.

B & H: Can you reveal some of the highlights of Darat al Funun in 2014?

Shoman: Our upcoming major exhibitions will be the opening in May of a solo for Nida Sinnokrot and in November for Emily Jacir.


Pat Binder & Gerhard Haupt

Publishers of Universes in Universe - Worlds of Art and of Nafas Art Magazine. Based in Berlin, Germany.

Darat al Funun

13 Nadeem al Mallah St.
Jabal al Weibdeh

Founder and Chair: Suha Shoman

Artistic Director: Eline van der Vlist

To celebrate 25 years of support for the arts Darat al Funun presents:
HIWAR - Conversations in Amman
An exhibition, residencies, and talks program
9 November 2013 - 30 April 2014
Artists from the Arab world, Africa, Asia, and Latin America
Curator: Adriano Pedrosa

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