Jordanian sculptor laments country's fading heritage of public art

Ghassan Mafadleh is on a mission to make artworks part of the kingdom's landscape

Eight years ago Jordanian artist Ghassan Mafadleh set out to restore public art in Jordan with a sculpture outside each major city. Today, only two remain.

Art in public spaces is rare in the country, although some of humankind's earliest sculptures were discovered here. A few modernist sculptures from the 1980s were removed long ago as Jordan became more religiously conservative. Instead, roundabouts and public parks were filled with nationalistic symbols, mainly large flags.

Mafadleh says the lack of public art is damaging to the country’s development and to official efforts to portray Jordan as a centre of moderation in the Middle East.

“Public space breaks the barrier of displaying work in galleries. But it is dominated by fanatics,” says Mafadleh from his home in Jabal Al Weibdeh, one of Amman’s original seven hills.

Undaunted by his previous lack of success, he is now proposing to set up new works in Irbid, Jordan’s third largest city, which was recently named the Arab Capital of Culture for 2022.

“It is a struggle,” he says. “If the mentality remains the same, art will not develop in Jordan, neither will life."

Unrealised project

In 2013, Mafadleh obtained funding from the Ministry of Culture for a project he called "the human being and the place".

It envisaged putting a sculpture at the entrance of each of Jordan's 12 provincial capitals, inspired by their heritage and surrounding nature.

But he still needed municipal approval; only three cities gave him the go-ahead: Jerash and Ajloun in the north and Tafileh in the south.

Four months after putting up an 8-metre high work by Mafadleh in 2014, the Jerash municipality removed it, without giving a reason.

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I discovered that modern art can be closer to people, especially if you use material that people are familiar with and reproduce it in a contemporary vision
Ghassan Mafadleh

The work was composed of three pipes and rusted metal sheets, twisted and cut into shapes inspired by nature in the area. Jerash, Mafadleh's home region, is where the Romans built one of their main cities in the Levant.

The two other works from the project are still standing, in a way.

The one in Tafileh, also of metal, was painted gold by the municipality without informing Mafadleh.

His sculpture in the mountain city of Ajloun was designed to be interactive, but no longer works after parts of it were stolen.

Mafadleh says he was pleased with the work because it appealed to people’s tastes, “however instinctive and spontaneous”, and intends to repair it.

“It was interactive. It moved and bounced with the wind and people could climb on to it.

“I discovered that modern art can be closer to people, especially if you use material that people are familiar with and reproduce it in a contemporary vision.”

The mixed reaction to his works has also shown that some parts of Jordan are more open to art than others, he says.

Rust as a medium

The garden of Mafadleh’s ground-floor flat is full of his works, and street cats.

He re-forms used metal or wood, including parts of discarded machines and tools, to make his sculptures.

The works are bare, reflecting the parched landscape of Jordan. The brutalist appearance masks flowing forms, and the sculptures often have moving parts.

One work hanging on a wall in his flat is made from a large metal mesh used for sifting stones from sand, which Mafadleh has bent and placed against a painted blue background.

His work table is made from a large wooden reel used for power cables.

Another artwork is a piece of unaltered salt rock from the Dead Sea that Mafadleh placed on stand in such a way as to appear like a sculpture.

He likes to use rusted components because they “take new colours and shapes”.

“Rusted material is expressionist. It has a relation to time,” says the bearded sculptor, who also paints and publishes frequently on art.

During coronavirus lockdowns he made a sculpture from old tools that resembles a chemical warfare mask, with a rolled saw blade looking like its outlet valve.

“It is a new age with the coronavirus. The rhythm of life is different,” he says.

Failing a legacy

Now in his late 50s, Mafadleh developed interest in art while studying mathematics and computer science at the University of Jordan in the 1980s. The country's main university did not have an arts college until 2004.

He says neglect of art by the government as well as the broader society is a disservice to national heritage.

He recalls how statues and busts from 7,000BC to 8,000BC were discovered while building a motorway from Amman to Jordan's second city of Zarqa in the 1970s.

The 30 or so statues of Ain Ghazal are among the oldest sculptures in the world of the full human figure. One of them is on display at the Louvre in Abu Dhabi.

Today there are only half a dozen modern sculptures in public spaces in Jordan, including the two by Mafadleh in Ajloun and Tafileh.

It is an underwhelming output, he says.

"Jordan is 100 years old but its heritage is 10,000 years old," he says of the country created during Europe's 20th-century scramble for territorial control of the Middle East.

In recent years large graffiti works have appeared on the facades of about 30 buildings in Amman, funded by European countries as part of expanded aid packages to Jordan.

The art form has been spreading in the Middle East, mainly since the Arab uprisings that began in Tunisia in 2010, but Mafadleh is unimpressed.

"There is an element of showmanship to it. But it is better than nothing," he says.

“There needs to be a real platform to help bring people closer to beauty and lessen extremism and exclusion.”

Updated: January 11th 2022, 4:23 AM