Jordan’s National Gallery of Fine Arts exhibits antique photos of Jerusalem and the Levant showing t
AMMAN, Jordan –
While the media has depicted the Middle East as roiling in violence since last month’s decision by American President Donald Trump recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, an exhibit of 60 B&W antique photos of the Holy City and the Levant at Jordan’s National Gallery of Fine Arts on Hosni Fareez Street here has mounted a temporary exhibit documenting that people of various faiths and nationalities shared the region in peace until European colonial powers stirred up the hornets’ nest a century ago. The implication? Hope still exists that the people of the Middle East will again live in harmony and co-existence.
Called “Remembrance: a dialogue with the past”, the exhibition is a collaboration between the JNGFA and the Palestine International Institute. Inaugurated on November 22 by Princess Wijdan Ali al-Hashemi, the founder of Jordan’s Royal Society of Fine Arts, the exhibition was recently extended until January 25.
Kelvin Bown, the British-born artist who selected and digitally restored the images on display, was careful to be nonpolitical and emphasized to In Jerusalem the exhibit does not represent Jordanian government. “The gallery didn't instigate the exhibition. I did, together with Palestine International Institute as supporting organization. It was my concept and theme, and ideas expressed.
Bown sourced the photographs from private collections and various archives including the American Colony Collection at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. They depict traditional domestic life as well as scenes of Jerusalem, Damascus and other Middle East cities when their skylines were defined by minarets, church steeples and synagogue domes rather than skyscrapers.
“‘Remembrance’ aims to create a path for discussion and dialogue like the one which has been present in this region for thousands of years,” Bown – who has lived in Amman for the last seven years, and before that for a decade in Sinai, Egypt – told The Jordan Times.
“We are living in an era when traditional values are getting lost; these pictures make the attendees rethink about the way we are living today.”
The sepia photographs are accompanied by texts from tribal leaders and significant figures, including a comment by King Abdullah II.
“Where there is conflict, dialog can bring peace. Where there is peace, dialogue can bring harmony. Where there is harmony, dialog can bring friendship. And where there is friendship, dialog can bring joint beneficial action,” commented the king about the exhibit.
Again Bown stressed that His Majesty’s words, which had previously been published in Rula Samain’s book Fortress of Peace, not be taken as government policy but as a general expression of the longing for peace.
“‘Remembrance’ aims to create a path for discussion and dialog like the one which has been present in this region for thousands of years,” explained Bown.
“We are living in an era when traditional values are getting lost; these pictures will hopefully inspire the attendees rethink about the way we are living today.”
“Another [older gentleman] told me that in the Holy City of Jerusalem at the beginning of the 20th century no one asked the other’s religion for fear of being seen as someone who would treat them differently,” reads a text displayed between a picture of Jaffa in the 1930s and a panorama of Amman in 1940.
Another text reads: “The faith and aspirations of three great religions center on Jerusalem the Golden. And one day it may be in fact what it is in name – the city of peace.”
Bown’s oeuvre is to digitally re-master antique photographs to create an original image. In effect, he utilizes computer graphics to enhance the photos’ accuracy to show what the original photographers would have seen but which their camera equipment couldn’t capture. In some cases, he melds different photos of the same historic scene to reveal rich details that no single negative has. Bown’s technique allows the creation of a single image where early photographers had taken several shots to create a panorama.
"I apply modern techniques to antique images which were unavailable at the time to bring out clarity, depth and historical detail which cannot be seen in simple reproduction of the surviving material," he explained.
In some cases, Bown melds different photos of the same historic scene thus combining rich details that no single negative captured. He notes the scene at Mary’s Well in Nazareth was created from two photos taken from the same vantage point 20 minutes apart. He prints his images on Canson InfinityBaryta Photographique fine art paper.
The exhibit includes Bown’s masterful high resolution rendering of the Dome of the Rock's interior, which he compiled from nine images snapped by American Colony photographers between 1900 and 1920. That people fork over 2,500 Jordanian dinars (NIS 20,000) for a 107 cm X 107 cm B&W photo printed in a limited edition of 25, says a lot about what Jerusalem means to them, Bown noted. He devoted more than 300 hours to crafting the composite, which is arguably the most detailed image of the Dome of the Rock in the world.
Poignantly, as a non-Muslim he is not allowed to visit the Waqf-controlled shrine.
“Our current way of living is not sustainable in long term; we are not aware of the dangers of the globalized psychology we are being imposed,” the artist warned, noting that “people used to live in peace and simplicity when the basic sense of community was based on an inherited faith.”
Established in 1980, the JNGFA is Jordan’s leading museum of contemporary art. In 2007 the building was renovated and expanded by Amman architect Mohamed al-Asad, and that year received the Aga Khan Award for Architecture. Located in Jabal al-Lweibdeh – a charming neighborhood west of the city center, the JNGFA is at the heart of Amman’s dynamic contemporary arts scene. Many of Jordan’s best galleries are within walking distance.