In Jordan, a Painter Forges Artful Collaborations

SMFA graduate Khaldoun Hijazin is appointed executive director of the Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts in Amman
portrait of Khaldoun Hijazin in his studio
Khaldoun Hijazin, shown in his studio in Jordan, has developed collaborative exhibitions to bring attention to contemporary visual arts. Photo: Ahmad Salameh
January 19, 2021

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When Khaldoun Hijazin returned to his native Jordan in 2014 after earning his M.F.A. from Tufts, his immediate future was mapped out: teaching at the University of Jordan’s School of Arts and Design and building a career as a visual artist and cultural practitioner.

But he also yearned to share the inspiration he’d found at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts (SMFA), where his originality flourished amid a steady and lively exchange of ideas. Not long after returning home, he was developing collaborative projects that brought new attention to the contemporary visual arts, fostering Jordanian artists and underscoring how they respond to the complex cultural and sociopolitical challenges facing their homeland and the wider Middle East. 

Lending momentum from the start were SMFA faculty Ethan Murrow, chair of painting and drawing, and Hijazin’s former academic advisor, Patte Loper, SMFA professor of the practice. Both contributed to two workshops that led to shows in Amman, first at the University of Jordan’s art gallery and then in the experimental space at the National Gallery of Fine Arts. The fearless, evocative character of those multimedia group exhibitions—the first examined Jordan’s Syrian refugee crisis, while the second explored the relationship between empathy and craft in the 21st century—“marked a huge success,” said Hijazin, who was gratified by generous media coverage. “It was truly inspiring to see how fervently our audience responded to these exhibitions.”

For Murrow, that success reflected Hijazin’s gift for envisioning “powerful and affirming experiences” that reinforce the idea of art as social practice and take on big questions.

“I was honored to be able to help,” he said. “Khaldoun has real skills at inspiring others to speak and pursue pressing questions. In essence, he’s a great teacher.”

Hijazin’s positive influence recently widened even more; this fall he was named executive director of the Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts in Amman, joining his efforts with those of the

As executive director of the Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts in Amman,  ​​​​​​​Khaldoun Hijazin hopes to “democratize the appreciation of art.” Photo: Ahmad Salameh

gallery’s director general, Khalid Khreis, and his colleagues. Founded in 1980, the gallery is a pacesetter for modern and contemporary art in the Middle East, holding more than 3,000 works spanning drawing, painting, sculpture, ceramics, video art, installation, graphic art, and photography. It also features new music, theater, literature, contemporary dance, and performing arts in an experimental program called Factory.

In his new role, Hijazin is eager to continue to champion emerging artists and broaden audiences for their work. “There is a lot we can do to further democratize the appreciation of art, and there is a lot I can learn about how to achieve that,” he said.

Hijazin credits his time at the SMFA for guiding his larger vision for contemporary art in Jordan and the region. “I owe a big thanks to Ethan and Patte and the community of peers and mentors I had back in Boston,” he said on a recent Zoom call. “Through their generosity I could show other artists tangible and real significance of the work that I had seen and experienced. I wanted to facilitate this international scope, and Ethan and Patte never doubted that it could happen.”

Murrow said Hijazin’s ability to make others feel comfortable, encourage collaboration, and promote fairness, equity, and kindness make him a strong leader. “Khaldoun is single-handedly changing the nature of contemporary art in Jordan,” he said. “The position [of executive director of the gallery] is further evidence of how he wants to advance contemporary art dialogue across the region, with a focus on underrepresented artists and art forms.” 

Finding His Voice

Hijazin first learned about the role of art in society from his parents. His mother worked in an archeological museum, and his father is the popular Jordanian comic and actor Musa Hijazin.

Hijazin studied drawing and painting at the University of Jordan’s School of Arts and Design and, encouraged by a faculty member, looked to America for graduate school.

He was drawn to the SMFA largely because of its faculty and interdisciplinary breadth, but also because of Boston’s cultural richness and connections to the Arab poet and philosopher Khalil Gibran, an icon from his school days. (Gibran’s memorial in the Boston Literary District acknowledges his bequest to the Boston Public Library.)

If Boston made Hijazin feel at home by honoring Gibran’s humanitarian values, then the SMFA gave Hijazin the encouragement he needed to grow as an artist. In Loper and Murrow, he found exceptional mentors. “As an artist, you are thinking: Am I original enough? Is my cause, or statement, good enough for the world?” he said. “They told me, ‘You know, Khaldoun, you have a particular voice, and you have to work on getting your voice in your art. Make art an extension of who you are and your ideas.’”

Loper recalls how the talented young painter had “exquisite rendering capabilities and a really strong sense of color,” and, while his main focus was painting, “he was insatiably curious about all types of art,” she said. “I remember being really impressed with his commitment to experimentation and openness to having deep conversations about media that were pretty far afield from painting.”

Hijazin knew he would soon be back in Jordan, teaching art, because his undergraduate scholarship was granted on the condition that he teach at the University of Jordan. So he tried to soak up all he could about the SMFA environment, and, even before he graduated, he told Murrow about his desire to share the same inspiration that his teachers there had given him with his future students.

“Ethan opened his arms to the idea of a cross-cultural exchange,” he said. “We started to work with Tufts to help that idea unfold. The moment I got home in June 2014, from day one, emails were going back and forth about logistics and planning.”

Workshops and Exhibitions

Their first joint project, in November 2016, encompassed workshops and an exhibition that examined Jordan as a home community for refugees. “This gave a framework for discussing transience and the pursuit of home and shelter, the psychological toll of migration, and the ways in which art can act as a proactive and reactive force in simple economic and productive ways,” Hijazin said.

Murrow said the workshops were filled with young, dedicated artists “who faced odds and barriers that were hard for me to even imagine,” making their successes even more inspiring.

The cross-cultural experience demonstrated to both SMFA faculty how art-making can create a bridge between cultures. “We spent a week locked in intense conversation, learning, and material experimentation,” said Loper. “Expressing personal, cultural, and political experiences through art created deep understanding between artists of different belief systems, languages, and life experiences. I see this happening all the time at the SMFA, but witnessing it in a totally different space cultivated a deeper awareness on my part—and, I hope, that of the other artists as well—about the intrinsic value and potential uses of art-making.”

For another exhibition, hosted by the Jordan National Gallery in March and April of 2017, Hijazin and SMFA classmate Suje Garcia invited a group of emerging local artists to reflect on metaphorical and literal manifestations of landscape and public space. Three weeks of workshops, lectures, and discussions resulted in installation art, video, sound, and paintings displayed at the gallery. 

In the summer of 2017, Hijazin coordinated an exhibition curated with Murrow, Loper, and Jordanian artist Diran Malatjalian in which local and international artists converged to investigate the theme of intersectionality, “or the idea that we all inhabit multiple identities at once, and are affected by related systems of social injustice and discrimination,” as expressed in a curatorial statement prepared by Hijazin, Murrow, and Loper. The statement challenged viewers to ponder how art-making can foster empathy and connection, and, as such, “liberate ourselves from old ideas and forms.” 

In 2017 Hijazin also initiated a project at the Jordan National Gallery that carries on the spirit of that challenge today. Hiwar Art Club, taking its name from the Arabic word for dialogue, gathers artists and audiences on Saturday evenings for seminars that explore artistic and philosophical readings and screenings; programming also includes artist talks, lectures, and panel discussions.

As it cultivates contemporary cultural awareness and art appreciation, Hiwar Art Club has become a lively, ongoing conversation, he said. “We’re maintaining great momentum, even when we had to switch to Zoom meetups this year. We’re as dynamic and interactive as ever.”

An Expansive View

As a visual artist primarily working in painting, Hijazin expresses his own freedom from old forms with masterful technique and a distinctive style that might be described as intriguing, satirical, and even witty. His most recent solo show in 2018, for example, demonstrated his confident blending of classicism and pop culture to put a critical twist on the deep-seated social and political questions of the 21st century. One painting, Majestic Rejoice, is indeed a kind of celebration, but of a secular order. He exquisitely contrasts the rolling flesh of cherubs with realistic fluid mechanics—a jubilant upward splash of milk. Traditionally heavenly custodians, here the winged angels are stewards of a more contemporary and worldly object: a massive M&M cookie.

Hijazin said he’s drawn to traditions that are ripe for reinterpretation. As a painter, he seeks to challenge those that “echo an imperial past”—a timely quest, he added, “as we move toward a newIn his paintings, Khaldoun Hijazin blends classicism and pop culture to put a critical twist on social and political questions. Photo: Courtesy of Khaldoun Hijazin globalizing perspective.” Tinged with a sense of skepticism and playfulness, his art, he said, “seeks to put in action and tension the play of our different sets of collective values, desires, and attitudes in relation to our present and inherited ideologies.”

Looking ahead, Hijazin hopes to keep advancing his work as an artist while having the opportunity to be immersed in and inspired by the diversity of the permanent collection at the National Gallery, which houses pioneering modern and contemporary art from the global south and beyond. He plans to embrace complexity and set new standards of excellence in his new role.

“There is much more I can achieve from this position,” he said. Challenging cultural and sociopolitical issues “press the need to create this dialogue between cultures and empathy with others—to live the idea of accepting and celebrating otherness,” he said.

His expansive view of the role of the art gallery is reflected in a recent collaboration with contemporary local artists and colleagues Ala Younis and Raed Ibrahim. They invited art practitioners from diverse backgrounds and experiences to join a four-week program of readings, discussions, and technical experimentation, followed by an exhibition, About Archives in Jordan, in August and September 2019.

Each of the artists selected one or more artworks from the gallery as a starting point for investigating art museums and exhibition-making. The project asked: “What does it mean to be a national gallery?” Hijazin said. “What do we ask of art, and who is art for?”

As executive director of the National Gallery, he hopes to continue such conversations and help more Jordanians participate. “Once you are in a public service role, you are called into service for the empowerment of people,” he said. “So, for me, it’s good to start by listening. By absorbing differences and learning from them. I think research and collaboration with people who have varying perspectives are key assets for any productive and progressive endeavor.”

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