How the Singapore Biennial is helping the children of Jordan through play

A playground conceptualised for the art exhibition by Jordan collective Malaeb aims to show how art can serve communities

The villagers and Malaeb team members who installed the playground in Umm Sayhoun, in rural Jordan. Photo: Malaeb
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The Singapore Biennial has unexpectedly left its mark on a village on the other side of Asia. Children in Umm Sayhoun, overlooking Petra in rural Jordan, are climbing over frames and shooting down slides as a direct result of a permanent project commissioned by the international art event.

The work, named Malaeb 1.0 Playground, was conceptualised by the Malaeb collective — a group from Jordan who view play areas as a form of applied arts. It opened in September, just before the biennial, which runs until March next year.

“How can we use people's knowledge — of the aesthetics of the landscape, of indigenous plants, and their experience in building play elements — as a collective resource?” asks Ayah Younis, a childhood-education specialist and founding member of the group. “And how do we bring these out and activate art in a way that it serves the people?”

Over the past year, Malaeb have been running workshops with children and caregivers in Umm Sayhoun to understand what the village needs. The coronavirus, and the restrictions it brought in Jordan, made it painfully apparent how few public spaces exist in the country for children to play in. Especially in poorer areas, children were severely disadvantaged when unable to attend school during periods of restrictions, because many households had only a limited number of devices.

Malaeb came together as a loose assortment of specialists, activists, playground designers and fabricators who wanted to build spaces for play in areas of Jordan often overlooked by developers. Umm Sayhoun, with its largely Bedouin population, was a prime example: the town has a girls’ school and a military school for boys, but no playground safe for children.

The village is also significant because its inhabitants used to live among the caves of Petra. When the site was put on the Unesco World Heritage list in 1985, its residents were moved into a quickly constructed village on the hill. Now, they peer out over their previous homes in the valley, where many of them work selling trinkets and donkey rides to tourists.

A stroke of luck

However, local residents had a stroke of luck when Ayah's sister, Ala Younis, the well-known artist, was invited to curate the Singapore Biennial with Binna Choi, Nida Ghouse and June Yap.

Ala says that aside from the final exhibition of the work, the curators were interested in looking at the process of creation. "We also chose works that would show the space that the artist works or thinks in," such as Kanitha Tith's Hut Tep Soda Chan (2011-2017), a mock-up of her parents' home in Cambodia, which is on display at the biennial.

Malaeb’s project squared neatly with these ideas around process, because it posed the question of how having several parties involved in a work might change its final outcome. The only problem was that what the children and caregivers of Umm Sayhoun wanted was rather less radical than an art project might command.

“We were thinking, oh, we want to design these avant-garde play elements,” Ayah says. “But people wanted swings. They wanted plants, trees, they wanted greenery and they wanted slides. It felt like such a dilemma, because it was an art project, but then it's not about us. It's again about the community that we're working with. And so how do we strike that balance of them wanting swings and slides, and also bring new things that they haven't imagined before?”

In the end Malaeb brought both: slides and new kinds of climbing frames, all of which were met with enthusiasm. Ala says on the day the playground was installed, the children climbed over the fence to explore it before some of the elements were fully fixed to the ground.

“They were so eager in part because they did not really believe that it was going to happen,” she says.

Malaeb had initially planned to build a playground in Singapore, too, but the logistics around finding a suitable space proved too difficult. Instead, they will host workshops that explore the notion of play across cultures, bringing games from Jordan to the children there. Malaeb will also devise a new game with the children in Singapore.

Biennial planning and the pandemic

Malaeb 1.0 Playground was one of several works that Ala brought from the Arab region to the biennial.

It wasn’t part of the art show's plan for each of the curators, all from different backgrounds and cultures, to bring works from regions they were familiar with. But because the group began organising the biennial during the pandemic, some projects naturally emerged from close to the curators’ homes, Ala says.

Other artists in the biennial include Doa Aly from Egypt, who suggests that the Pharaoh Semenkh-Ka Re has been mislabelled in the Egyptian Museum as male, and in a series of drawings, sculptures and a painting, reimagines the pharaoh as feminine.

The curators are also showing Samia Halaby’s kinetic paintings for the first time in an art space since they were programmed in the 1980s. The Palestinian artist taught herself to code in order to create moving images, bringing her paintings to life.

In Singapore, they are exhibited alongside sketches that give an intimate glimpse into the artist’s process of creating a painting.

Ultimately, Singapore's biennial has opened up to become much more than a show. In Umm Sayhoun, it means children have a safe place to play after school.

The Singapore Biennial runs until March 19

Updated: November 25, 2022, 6:02 PM