First international watercolour exhibition in the Middle East taking place in Jordan

Artists tell us how the medium brings their countries alive and deserves more prominence

Mohamed Abdelwahab - Sudan. Courtesy Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts
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The 100 artists taking part in Jordan's first international watercolour exhibition come from 26 different countries across the world, but despite their differences in background, style and technique, they all agree on one thing.

Watercolour paintings, they say, are not appreciated in the Arab world and not given the importance and respect that oil or acrylic paintings are often afforded. 

"I wanted to change that," says Jordanian artist and graphic designer Islam Allboun, 28. She joined the International Watercolour Society after exhibiting her artwork with the group in Italy, India and Albania over the past four years and then created a Jordanian chapter.

"I wanted to give Jordanian and Arab artists the opportunity to showcase their work and receive the recognition they deserve, while also showing the beauty of watercolours. Why not put our Arab artists on the map and help the artistic community in my country? It's been a mission of mine for years," says Allboun.

Sheikha Al Riyami - Oman. Courtesy Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts
Oman by Sheikha Al Riyami. Courtesy Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts

The IWS, a non-profit society established in 2012 to support watercolour artists from 80 countries, has often held exhibitions of paintings in Europe, Asia and North America. For the first time, however, an exhibition was set up in the Middle East, and Jordan was picked as the first venue.

Throughout August, 120 watercolour paintings by 100 artists from 26 countries will be displayed at the beautiful, newly renovated grounds of the Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts, in Amman's historic Weibdeh district.

Six months from now in February, the UAE chapter of IWS intends to host the second exhibition to be held in an Arab country, in Dubai.

In Amman, representing the Gulf, four artists from Oman are taking part, including Fahad Al Mamari, Sheikha Al Riyami and Salim Al Salami.

"There is a beauty to creating art through using watercolours," says Al Mamari, 33, whose painting Rural Life at the exhibition depicts a scene from Oman's countryside.

"It's the closest to sketching and drawing; the closest to reality. Most artists feel that they can express themselves best using watercolours."

Despite the difficulty in perfection using watercolours, and the fact that there is little room for error because an artist has to work fast and with precision, the region places greater store in artists who use oil or acrylic paints, says Sudanese artist Mohammed Abdelwahab, 48, who has two paintings on show at the exhibition.

Salim Al Salami - Oman. Courtesy Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts
Oman by Salim Al Salami. Courtesy Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts

Both show scenes of vibrant, everyday life in the country's capital, Khartoum: crowds in the street; vendors calling out to the pedestrians; paintings that are teeming with life and layers of colour.

"An artist cannot stick to just one medium when creating art, but he can have a preference; he can fall in love with a particular medium, and for us, it's watercolour," he explains.

"As an art student, we used to head out on art field trips, and bring our watercolours with us. It's how we learnt and how I continue to work."

Watercolours, says Abdelwahab, are the closest to reality because "they are the colours of life".

Quoting from the Quran, he elaborates: "A verse in the Quran says: 'And We have created from water every living thing.' Water gives life to our paintings. Using oils makes paintings seem a bit more subdued; stiff. Watercolours open a door to nature, even if you're working indoors. You are transported. There is comfort in using them."

Al Mamari agrees. "Water is the vein of life and the soul of art, that's how artists describe watercolours. There is emotion in the painting depending on how much or how little water an artist chooses to use when mixing colours.

"We can play with the proportions; there is transparency and layering, and everything complements each other – from the organic colours to the delicate brushes made from animal hair to the natural Fabriano paper used. It's all organic; from life."

This is what makes paintings feel alive, explains Allboun, and this is what she hopes visitors will realise when they stroll through the exhibition.



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Jordanian artist Amal Hejeh, who lives in Saudi Arabia, reiterates that there isn't enough  support for watercolour painting in the Arab world.

"Even though it's harder to master, for some reason it is also oil and acrylic paintings that are exhibited in galleries in the Middle East," she says.

Hejeh's untitled work of a woman from Salt, turning her back, is a part of a series of paintings in watercolours depicting women from different areas of Jordan.

"I used to look at these women in Salt as a child, when they got ready for their festivities and dressed in their traditional clothes, with a 14-metre red scarf wrapped around their heads; I loved watching them get ready," Hejeh says.

Ze Ze Lai - Hong Kong. Courtesy Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts
Hong Kong by Ze Ze Lai. Courtesy Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts

"Every piece is different; we have artists from Russia and Malaysia and Indonesia and Iran and Iraq and Ecuador and Hong Kong and Turkey and Egypt, and so many more countries, but they have one thing in common: using a medium that is most expressive, appealing and challenging.

"And they are all chosen because of a message of peace and love, which is the message of our exhibition and an important message to come out of the Middle East."

Allboun hopes that once the second event makes it way to the UAE, Emirati watercolour artists will take part.

"As far as we understand, only Indian artists are part of the UAE chapter of the IWS, which is strange considering how many celebrated Emirati artists paint using watercolours," she says.

Al Mamari adds: "Take Emirati artist Abdul Qader Al Rais, who recently sold a watercolour painting for Dh1 million. He should be part of this society. Artists in the UAE need to know that they have a chance to exhibit their watercolour paintings in Dubai next year."

The First International Watercolour Jordan Forum, in Amman, continues until August 31. For further details on the exhibition go to