NEH Fellow Dr. Aseel Sawalha researches “Amman’s Art Scene”

Reality shifts under an artist’s brush. Are urban communities also transformed by the presence of artists?

This is one of the research questions pursued by Dr. Aseel Sawalha, a professor of anthropology at Fordham University in New York City. She is ACOR’s 2016-2017 NEH Fellow, supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), pursuing her research in Amman, Jordan during the Fall semester of 2016.

Dr. Aseel Sawalha in Amman above the Nymphaeum, photo by B.A. Porter (2016)

Her research project is titled “Amman’s Art Scene and the Changing Urban Landscape.” This Fall, she will build on earlier research completed over the summers of 2011, 2012 and 2014 when she spent time interviewing artists, gallery owners and art collectors in Amman.  Her research explores several dimensions of Amman’s developing and vibrant art and culture sector.

Her focus is not on the art itself, but on the social and economic impact of a growing art culture on the surrounding communities. In Amman, and in many urban spaces, artists migrate toward low-rent neighborhoods. Dr. Sawalha has noted that influxes of artistic communities parallel gentrification of specific sections of Amman. This phenomenon is particularly clear in Jebel Amman and Jebel Webdeh, but can also be seen downtown, and in Jebel al-Hussein. In all of these neighborhoods gentrification has been accompanied by a proliferation of new art galleries, and public art.  

Dr. Sawalha’s research intersects urban anthropology, Middle East studies, and gender studies. She argues that educated middle and upper class women in Amman are active in the art scene as gallery owners, as art collectors, and sometimes also as artists. Sawalha is interested in the role that women play in Amman’s artistic spaces and in reshaping the public sphere in these emerging neighborhoods.  She is also interested in refugee communities crossing into art circles in Amman. For example, many well-known artists, art collectors, and gallery owners emerged from the wave of Iraqis who moved into Jordan in the late 1990s and early 2000s.  Artists emerging from Syrian refugee communities are also starting to enter the artistic and cultural scene in Amman.

Sawalha is interested in how art galleries may amplify gentrification, and in the ways they respond to community concerns.  She is also interested in how the public sector (government) supports art and culture through, for example, national museums and national art galleries and other publicly supported art and culture events.

Aseel Sawalha was born in Palestine and completed her primary and secondary schooling there.  She earned a B.A. in English Literature (1987) and an M.A. in Anthropology (1991) from Yarmouk University in Irbid, Jordan.  She earned a Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology from the City University of New York (2002).

Sawalha_S10While a graduate student of anthropology at Yarmouk University, Sawalha performed field research in Amman with impoverished communities living squatter areas in East Amman. At that time she was interested in women and their survival strategies.  Later, she turned to Lebanon and did her Ph.D. research on the rebuilding of downtown Beirut in 1997-1998.  That research informed her book Reconstructing Beirut: Memory and Space in a Postwar Arab City (2010). We look forward to future publications from Dr. Sawalha, and are proud to have helped support her exciting research.



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