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You and I – Encounter with a Jordanian Artist

By Mathis Gann – Photography, Street-Art, Top-Stories, Travel

„On the bottom left corner, there is still a glimmer of red,“ Mohammed says, looking at me as if he was expecting my approval. I examine the mural. „He is right,“ I say to Miramar. She looks at the small printed photo, which serves as a template, taps her color roller into the dark blue acrylic mixture and goes back to her work.

Miramar is 20 years old and a freelance artist. More precisely, she is a painter. Mostly she paints on canvas. But on this dry, hot day she is beautifying one of the many sandy-colored house walls in her hometown of Amman, Jordan’s capital.

For most of her projects, she works independently, carrying out to her own ideas. Today, however, she is implementing a project for the Jordanian artist collective Baladk Project. With annual street art events the group brings some color to the city of four million people.

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Miramar chose a very special motif for this year’s edition of the event, which takes place under the motto „You and I“. As inspiration, she uses a fashion photo of the artist Dominik Tarabanski. It shows a man and a woman, close, intimate, and at the same time somewhat distant and cold. They touch each other, with the woman resting her head on the man’s shoulder – but they’re not hugging.

With great patience, Miramar paints on the wall high above her head, line by line. Her shoes are covered in paint, just like her hands with which she brushes dark curls from her face. Mohammed, a good friend of hers, helps her. He tirelessly mixes colors, passes brushes, holds the template or secures the ladder.

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The square where Miramar and Mohammed work, can be seen from a small, lively  square in the center of Amman. On the opposite side is a school for religious studies. Teaching has just ended, pupils are pouring out, parents are looking for their children, cars are honking. The whole city seems to be in a hectic commute.

From time to time people passing by stop to observe Miramar, ask her questions or discuss the mural. I am very happy when the young Jordanian with Iraqi roots tells me that she is approached by many people. This changes when Mohammed adds that today most of the reactions were negative.

However, that does not seem to disturb or discourage the two. „Many people do not like this modern art,“ Mohammed explains. And Miramar says, „Perhaps they are bothered by the fact that the characters in the painting have a dark skin. You know, there is a racism issue here.“

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Jordan is actually a modern, open and safe country compared to many other countries in the Middle East. Arab Christians and Jews mostly coexist peacefully with the Sunni Muslim population. Abdullah II, who has been the king of the country since 1999, is popular with many parts of the population, and is regarded as a reformer who does much to promote his country’s prestige.

Nevertheless, the progressive image that Jordan enjoys (particularly with tourists) does not always seem to be true. Even before the Arab Spring, there were complaints of inequality and injustice. Frequently, personal freedoms are restricted. One can be punished for criticizing the King, for example. Political opposition, representation of unpopular positions — all this remains difficult in Amman. Censorship by state authorities is a huge problem for people working in the art scene.

The work of artists such as Miramar seems all the more interesting in this suspenseful environment, and in a country dominated by conservative Islamic attitudes.

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I observe the slow but steady progress of the mural. In addition to the skin color of the two figures Miramar is drawing, there might be something else that will likely cause tension. There is a crucial difference between the original photo and her work: in the mural, both figures are men.

Two men, so intimate? For many people in Jordan the thought of a gay couple is probably so far away from their minds that they might not make that association at the sight of the mural. Moreover, in the Arab cultures, physical proximity or even affection between friends is nothing extraordinary or automatically associated with homosexuality. Men walking hand in hand or arm in arm are  a regular sight on the street.

Homosexuality, however, though not illegal like it is in many neighboring countries, has so far hardly been socially accepted in Jordan. But anyone who is openly fighting for more acceptance and LGBT*Q rights may be confronted with hostility, exclusion, or even physical violence.

I ask Miramar whether she would describe her artwork as political. As with most of my questions, I have to wait for an answer. Not because the artist does not know what to say. Rather, she seems to try and sort out her thoughts first, and carefully formulates her answers. Of course, her political opinions influence the work, she finally says. But still, she insists, „I would not describe my art as political.“ And with regard to her current project, she adds: „The motif has a lot more personal meaning for me.“ What that means in concrete terms, I will find out later.

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The next day I return to the small  square where the mural is. A lot has changed. The contours on the painting have become clearer: it can be recognized that both figures are male.  The interest in Miramar’s work has also increased. She patiently answers the questions of passersby.

Most of the time, Mohammed is approached first. Most people cannot imagine that the woman in this group is the artist. Miramar tries to ignore that kind of sexism. „But at least the reactions have turned out to be more positive today,“ she says. People are interested in the mural and want to learn more about Miaramar’s work and her life as a freelance artist.

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I observe the faces of the taxi drivers who are taking a break at the nearby intersection. They have parked their cars and are only a few meters away from Miramar. Apparently, they are in a discussion, and some point to the mural. To return to our conversation of the previous day, I point out again to Miramar that her picture now shows two men. “What does this motif mean to you?” I ask her.  She looks at me from the ladder. „You know,“ she replies, after some silence, „I am also attracted to women.“ And after another pause she adds „actually I feel more attracted to women.“

So this is what makes this work “personal” for Miramar. Sure, it is a fine line between personal motifs and political statements, and they do not exclude each other. But the 20-year-old Miramar wants to put a sign here, she wants to provoke thought. It is a mission that is deeply motivated. This work of art, here in the heart of the Jordanian capital, is a personal statement.

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Addendum: Ten days have passed since Miramar painted the last stroke of her mural. Once more I come to the square where I first met the artist, this time alone. It is Friday, the quietest weekday. The sun is low. A man with a shopping bag walks past Miramar’s work. He stops briefly, looks at the two men. I would like to know what he thinks. Does he like it? Is he annoyed? I can neither see his face, nor recognize what emotions he feels at this sight. Only one thing becomes clear: the painting attracts attention and encourages its onlookers to stop and think. Is that not the most important thing..?

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Here you can find Miramar on Instagram.

Text and pictures © Mathis Gann

Mathis Gann
Content Curator
Mathis lebt seit 2015 in Istanbul und ist Teil des dortigen KuKü–Teams. Er ist viel unterwegs - zur Zeit besonders gerne in der MENA-Region - und teilt seine Reise-Eindrücke in Form von Texten oder Fotografien mit uns.