Times of peace

Jordan’s National Gallery of Fine Arts exhibits antique photos of Jerusalem and the Levant.

Church of Mary Magdalene (photo credit: JORDAN’S NATIONAL GALLERY OF FINE ARTS)
Church of Mary Magdalene
While the media have depicted the Middle East as steeped in violence since last month’s decision by US President Donald Trump recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, a temporary exhibit of 60 black-and-white antique photos of the Holy City and the Levant at Jordan’s National Gallery of Fine Arts in Amman documents that people of various faiths and nationalities shared the region in peace until European colonial powers stirred up the hornets’ nest a century ago. The implication? Hope still exists that the people of the Middle East will again live in harmony and co-existence.
Called “Remembrance: A Dialogue with the Past,” the exhibition is a collaboration between the JNGFA and the Palestine International Institute. Inaugurated on November 22 by Princess Wijdan Ali al-Hashemi, the founder of Jordan’s Royal Society of Fine Arts, the exhibition was recently extended until the end of January.
Kelvin Bown, the British-born artist who selected and digitally restored the images on display, was careful to be nonpolitical and emphasized to In Jerusalem that the exhibit does not represent Jordanian government policy. “The [National] Gallery didn’t instigate the exhibition. I did, together with the Palestine International Institute as a supporting organization. It was my concept, theme and ideas that are expressed.”
 Interior of the Dome of the Rock. Interior of the Dome of the Rock.
Bown sourced the photographs from private collections and various archives, including the American Colony Collection at the Library of Congress in Washington.
They depict traditional domestic life as well as scenes of Jerusalem, Damascus and other Middle Eastern cities when their skylines were defined by minarets, church steeples and synagogue domes rather than skyscrapers.
The sepia photographs are accompanied by texts from tribal leaders and significant figures, including a comment by King Abdullah II.
“Where there is conflict, dialogue can bring peace.
Where there is peace, dialogue can bring harmony.
Where there is harmony, dialogue can bring friendship.
And where there is friendship, dialogue can bring joint beneficial action,” wrote the king.
Again Bown stressed that His Majesty’s words not be taken as government policy but as a general expression of the longing for peace.
“‘Remembrance’ aims to create a path for discussion and dialogue like the one that has been present in this region for thousands of years,” Bown – who has lived in Amman for the last seven years, and before that for a decade in Sinai, Egypt – told The Jordan Times.
“We are living in an era when traditional values are getting lost; these pictures will hopefully inspire the attendees to rethink the way we are living today.
“An [older gentleman] told me that in the Holy City of Jerusalem at the beginning of the 20th century no one asked the other’s religion for fear of being seen as someone who would treat them differently,” reads a text displayed between a picture of Jaffa in the 1930s and a panorama of Amman in 1940.
Another text reads: “The faith and aspirations of three great religions center on Jerusalem the Golden.
And one day it may be in fact what it is in name – the city of peace.”
Bown’s oeuvre is to digitally re-master antique photographs to create an original image. In effect, he utilizes computer graphics to enhance the photos’ accuracy to reveal details the original photographers would have seen but which their camera equipment couldn’t capture. In some cases, he melds different photos of the same historic scene to reveal texture that no single negative has. Bown’s technique allows the creation of a single image where early photographers had taken several shots to create a panorama.
“I apply modern techniques to antique images which were unavailable at the time to bring out clarity, depth and historical detail that cannot be seen in simple reproduction of the surviving material,” he explained.
His photo of Mary’s Well in Nazareth was created from two photos taken from the same vantage point 20 minutes apart, he said. He prints his images on Canson Infinity Baryta Photographique fine art paper.
The exhibition includes Bown’s masterful high-resolution rendering of the Dome of the Rock’s interior, which he compiled from nine images snapped by American Colony photographers between 1900 and 1920. Bown’s 107 cm. by 107 cm. black-and-white photo, printed in a limited edition of 25, sells for 2,500 Jordanian dinars (NIS 12,250). Bown devoted more than 300 hours to crafting the composite, which is arguably the most detailed image of the Dome of the Rock in the world. Poignantly, as a non-Muslim, he has never visited the Wakf-controlled shrine.
“Our current way of living is not sustainable in the long term; we are not aware of the dangers of the globalized psychology that are being imposed on us,” the artist warned, noting that “People used to live in peace and simplicity when the basic sense of community was based on an inherited faith.”
Established in 1980, the JNGFA is Jordan’s leading museum of contemporary art. In 2007, the building was renovated and expanded by Amman architect Mohamed al-Asad, and that year received the Aga Khan Award for Architecture. Located in Jabal al-Lweibdeh – a charming neighborhood west of the city center, the JNGFA is at the heart of Amman’s dynamic contemporary arts scene. Many of Jordan’s best galleries are within walking distance.
For more information about “Remembrance: A Dialogue with the Past”: +962 6 463 0128 or www.nationalgallery.org
Amman’s twin towers topped out
As an artist devoted to life a century ago, Kelvin Bown may rue the rampant development that has transformed once-sleepy Amman. Today the city has become a boom town, housing many of the 657,000 registered Syrian refugees in Jordan and 200,000 displaced Iraqis, not to mention Palestinians that came in 1948 and 1967. But there is no denying the dynamic change resulting in the Jordanian capital’s getting-uppity skyline.
Today the tallest buildings in the kingdom are the twin skyscrapers of the Jordan Gate Towers nearing completion in west Amman near the Sixth Circle. The northern office tower stands 44 floors high while its sister reaches 37 floors and features a 531-room five-star hotel operated by Hilton. The two towers are linked by a multi-story shopping mall.
King Abdullah II laid the project’s foundation stone in 2005. Construction of the $400m. project was frozen between 2012 and 2016 due to financial problems. Work is scheduled to be completed in 2018.
At night, the towers’ lights will be visible from Jerusalem.
– G.Z.