An Artist Curating Islamic Heritage: Ali Jabri and the Jordan Museum of Popular Traditions

By Elizabeth Rauh
Submitted to Session P5004 (Making the Modern: the Politics of Heritage, 2017 Annual Meeting
Art/Art Hist
The Levant;
19th-21st Centuries; Cultural Studies; Diaspora/Refugee Studies; Folklore/Folklife; Identity/Representation; Islamic Studies; Middle East/Near East Studies; Modern; Modernization; Nationalism;
LCD Projector without Audio;
Officially opened in 1972, the Jordan Museum of Popular Traditions was the first public Jordanian museum to exhibit modern artifacts. With objects amassed from across the Levant, including Jordanian, Palestinian, Syrian, and Ottoman dress, jewelry, amulets, and devotional objects, the collection represents the lived practices of people from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century. In making the museum, the founder Saadiya al-Tel and her nephew, the artist Ali Jabri (1942-2002), sought to preserve and promote regional cultural heritage beyond the claimed nationalist narratives of ancient artifacts and archaeological remains, and into an expression of everyday material and religious life from the not-so-distant past. The museum thus transports visitors into the living cultural and religious traditions of Jordan, facilitated by the curation, design, and research of Jabri who joined as director in 1980.

Jabri’s work in the museum offers an example of an artist engaging with his local Islamic traditions and heritage as the creative laboratory for modern art making. Jabri was known as a “neo-realist” painter whose work was fueled by his desire to document and represent both past and present cultural heritage of the Arab world, mixing “ancient beauty and modern Warholian junk.” Such examples include collages composed from 1980s popular Egyptian magazines and watercolor sketches of Cairo’s Fatimid and Mamluk architectural remains. He also worked with archaeological survey teams, drawing and painting landscapes of Jordan’s ancient and medieval Islamic sites with archaeologists’ contemporary pottery charts, measuring sticks, candy wrappers, and bags depicted in situ. His work in the museum extended this documentary drive beyond his paintings and visual diaries into the realm of art historical engagement through his extensive research on the historic objects and devotional materials in the museum. Jabri’s artistic hand is omnipresent in the museum, from its hand-calligraphed labels, carved shelves and wooden ceiling, evocatively designed displays, to even a few small drawings carefully inserted into the museum didactics themselves. The museum thus operates as an extension of Ali Jabri’s lifelong practice to represent modern Arab life in all its entanglements with surviving cultural and religious heritage. Working with Jabri’s personal artist sketchbooks, research notes, and archival documents, along with the museum’s own collection and archive, my presentation examines Ali Jabri’s work in the museum as a key and unstudied instance of a modern artist historicizing, preserving, and disseminating the Levant’s historic traditions.