Nahla Tabbaa – Curator
Nahla studied sculpture at Saint Martin’s College because she was influenced by ‘Common People’ by Pulp. She then felt the need to understand how art, people and the urban space are all connected so she went back to do her masters in Curatorial Practice- a fancy word for setting up exhibitions. Her spiritual pilgrimage is the Liverpool Biennial, and the pillar of all she is inspired to create.
(<Picture left: Nahla glids along the gold fish in Al Qala'a Waterfall, an art work by Shamekh El Bluwi - A resident artist. A cat's attempt to steal the light by it's cat-walking, but Nahla knows how to shine on her own, posing back!)
“The ancestor of every action is a thought” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson. Explain to us the birth of the thought of ‘Urban Reflection’. What intrigued it?
An Urban Reflection has been brewing in my mind for almost a decade. I set foot in London in 2005 where I did my Foundation and BA in Fine Arts. Our curriculum had heavy roots in site-specific, spatial interventions and urban references. Before that I don’t particularly recall having much exposure, but I was always one who was introverted, so less concerned with human interaction vs. an interaction with my environment. I grew up in the country side and adjusting to city life was incredibly difficult, so perhaps in my earlier years I developed some kind of survival insite on how to make minor changes to my urban environment in order to live in it.
Life in London was hectic, driven and I was exposed to this increasing trend in abandoned spaces turning into art platforms, warehouse conversions, dockland residencies for creatives and artists taking matters into their own hands. The urban environment was their canvas, and it wasn’t until I attended the Liverpool Biennial did I realise that this kind of art- this movement can draw you into falling madly in love with a city, as you embark on an offbeaten path that responds to the gaps that architects, engineers, dwellers left behind.
I never imagined I would return to study Curatorial Practice. But this stemmed from my experience moving back to Amman. I saw potential in the fact that young emerging artists were in need of exposure- but were not satisfied with the audiences attending their exhibits, I saw potential in the fact that their works could echo beyond a gallery framework, and as the country’s stability began to waver, I saw that artists too wanted to play a more prominent role in their society. I was also never completely satisfied working in Amman. It just seemed that I had very strong beliefs about contemporary art and was not ready to commit to anybody else’s vision but my own.
Amman was not a walkable city, and the increase of construction sites put on hold, not being used really tainted the city’s scape. I felt restricted, it was difficult to mix and integrate with all walks of life, and although I was alone in London- somehow you would feel less alone. So perhaps this project was an attempt for me to settle back into this urban life, and enabling artists to do so as well.
So you see, putting together An Urban Reflection was combining all my forces and beliefs, conducting plenty of counter research and blindly pacing forwards. There is nothing more liberating than your own creation, but also, being able to share and develop it with others.
How did you come across Jabal Al Qala’a. And why did you pick this location out of Amman’s areas?
I’d had a chat with Raghda Butrous, founder of Hamzet Wasel back in February where I presented the idea of AUR. I wasn’t location specific at the time, however I was looking for an area that was once full of commercial life, but was now abandoned as well as an area of lower income. Seeing as Hamzet Wasel had done plenty of work in Jabal Al Qala’a, Raghda was very complimentary of its people and their entrepreneurial minds. She was confident that they would embrace our project. Seeing as this was the first time I was going to be integrating with a community on such an intimate level that I wasn’t familiar with, we really needed the incubation and support of Hamzet Wasel- there was also a time factor. This project was part of my thesis and was originally intended to last one month- it ended up expanding to 6!
What were the main obstacles/challenges you were faced with, and what tools did you use to overcome them?
Obstacles and challenges have completely left my memory. I have to think long and hard to remember just how difficult it was. Raising money, getting used to having 70 kids around, liaising between Ramadan, Eid, heat-waves, a 10000 word thesis, managing the artists and a team was my life, and I’m sure it was hellish at times- but I honestly cannot remember, thankfully, because I’m crazy enough to go through the whole thing again- a bit like childbirth really.
Having your vision being portrayed before your eyes, describe to us your emotions and feelings on such a selfless yet fulfilling accomplishment.
Luckily for me (or not) I’m an extremely self critical person. So any sense of accomplishment was very short lived. When creating a work of art, I’m besotted with it for a moment, then I grow agitated, impatient and move on to try to produce something better. I know that the stress took its toll on me, and my sense of humour and lightness sharply declined, but the biggest rush was realizing that we did fulfill our objectives and beyond. Growing to become emotionally attached to a community who were once strangers, watching the artists personally develop as they witnessed their own works impacting and echoing and feeling very confident that despite us leaving, there is a little group of urban reflectioners at the Qala’a trying hard to positively address their urban environment together. I also just took a look at my thesis grade and am very shocked to say that I got a Distinction!! So although I should be feeling all those wonderful sensations, I’m actually evaluating our progress to see how we can improve on the next one.
Where do you want to take ‘Urban Reflection’ from here? What lies in the future of this developing project?
I have a fear of setting something up permanently. An office, art space or a registered brand scare me a little. Our organic and more transient way of working really suited all of us, and I would much rather allow An Urban Reflection to evolve, adapt and change with time as it has been. We will launch into other projects elsewhere, at it seems that many of our first artists are here to stay which is really exciting because at this stage we ultimately no longer feel alone, but more like a community. More than that though, I really hope that we inspired individuals to also take matters into their own hands, to consider how they can engage in dialogues with their community and enjoy more collaborative approaches to creative practice and realize that they can do this on their own!
A 28-year old Marketing Communication Specialist / Graphic Art Designer . Mike is a cartoon character who ran away from its movie into reality. “Wish I could change the world with one simple smile” he says.
Taking part in Urban Reflection, a project that feeds on human potential, where artists and their mediums are giving and receiving. What was your roll in this unfolding yet incomplete story?
Like every Superhero group, at An Urban Reflection I was that person in charge of but not limited to managing things around more like the caretaker; I was responsible of many things starting from paper works, email, promotions and marketing, sponsorships to social media, follow-ups with the artists, catering their needs, keeping the curator updated…etc, this all done with an added fun aspect (the formality of such role was not the main objective as much as we cared about the result)
Describe to us your contribution in terms of growing out of experience and helping in the process of turning ideas and visions into reality.
I somehow got involved at a later stage (a month later), but I grasped the idea in no time and through talking to Nahla and Laila Demashqieh (workshop facilitator) I managed to learn more about An Urban Reflection. Throughout the project I always thought that there are many possible ways of getting things done collaboratively through linking our project with other initiatives of some sort, and my main objective was closely related to the kids and how to benefit them and the artists and their projects in general.
I got in contact with Kitabi Kitabak Initiative and Mrs. Hanaa Al Ramli to help provide books for Shermine’s (another resident artist) Totem project, managed to spread awareness on keeping your place or the surrounding clean in collaboration with Mlabbas and the stenciling they do by starting a campaign with the help of Nahla, furthermore I held weekly Origami workshops with instructor Phil Essaber and the kids. All this and more created a sense of belonging within, it was a collaborative effort that we all worked on to get to where we are now.
The kids, talk to us more about the kids, who are/were they? How has the project caused impact on them?
The kids, what can I tell you about these kids is that at first they were little bit of trouble to handle and deal with, I remember at the launch event I had to deal with 82 and more when it all started with 30, after that day I thought I would never go back to dealing with these kids, but honestly this all changed through time, they’ve become like family 82 young siblings of mine or should I call them an army?
These kids have potentials they’re mostly talented and they can bring out such talent with a little of attention from within their environment. Some of the kids that worked with us were Saeed, Farah, Marah, Bilal, Issa, Abdallah, Amani and everyone else that I apologize for not mentioning – 82 names would need a page of their own- were amazing .
I don’t think that we had an impact on them as much as they did on us, maybe we opened a door to a new set of skills?! But they were already exposed to ideas as ours; all they needed was a direction or an inspiration.
They’ve all been inspired by either imitating things we’ve done or starting things on their own, two incidents that have taken place. Saeed was a major help in this project, he was inspired to learn and teach others, he was more like a curator with his little team of “reflectioners” from within the community, he painted murals on the walls of his ally way and managed to get the kids to help in drawing some characters on walls of his neighbors with their help. They all grasped the idea of making change and how possible it is even with little capabilities and supplies but it was possible. This was one of the great impacts we did and it touched our hearts.
It’s a dangerous thought, to be able to implement ideas into some else’s head. In a way that’s what it’s all about, changing mindsets. What kind of approach did you use to effect a radical change on the kids of Jabal Al Qala’a?
Through the workshops (along with Origami workshop that Phil Essaber and I held weekly at the Qalaa), we managed to understand through discussion with the kids the problems they face within the community they live in, at every workshop we asked them a certain question that they all answered individually while doing some shapes. These answers opened up a lot to our understanding of what we’ll be doing in the coming weeks’ workshop. Some of the issues we talked about were art and how it affected them, the school role in providing the right mindset for kids, awareness on general issues they have. The result feedback was tremendous and saw some acceptance and added some value to what they had in mind.
Given the provided environment, frankly speaking, where do you see those kids going in the future?
From what I’ve witnessed, these kids are strong willed and have the potential of becoming artists, lawyers, businessmen and much more. All they need as I mentioned earlier a little guidance on how to utilize the talents they have within what they dream of becoming in the future.
I guess from an experience, if we all had someone guidance in our life we would have been more than what we are now and these kids still have a chance to build their own future. They don’t need Ben10, SpongeBob or some superhero to bring out their potential skills they need role models and achievers. The exposure they get from the outside world helps shape what they’re willing to become. Most of them are strongly willing to bring back to their community and help pave the way to the younger generation the way Saeed and the older kids are doing now.