With support from an ACOR-CAORC Predoctoral Fellowship, I conducted dissertation fieldwork on Amman’s graffiti/street art scene from May to August 2021. During this period of on-site fieldwork, I attended art exhibitions, observed graffiti/street art painting sessions, participated in walking tours of Amman’s public art scene, and conducted semiformal interviews with artists, curators, NGO employees, and figures within the Greater Amman Municipality (GAM).
My proposed project set out to understand how young graffiti/street artists use art to construct and mobilize imaginations of the ideal future of Amman while working within and outside networks of state and institutional patronage of public art. Much of the current literature describes youth cultural production as inherently anti-government or status quo. This framing of youth art practices is particularly prevalent in scholarship on the Middle East and North Africa region, since such practices helped energize the massive protest movements of 2010–2011. During the initial stages of my research, I was intrigued by how, in contrast to this scholarship, Amman graffiti/street artists almost exclusively reject any association of their work with “politics.” They instead attempt to build a robust arts scene and pursue careers while not crossing any of the country’s “red lines” of expression and by working closely with state and non-state institutions such as GAM, corporations, NGOs, and humanitarian organizations on public art initiatives. Beyond rigid definitions of graffiti/street art as either resistant to or complicit with dominant institutions and norms, my work aims to better understand how graffiti/street art practices both reflect and reconstitute prominent narratives, experiences, and power relations of and in Amman, particularly with regard to youth and young adults.
My work contributes to a growing body of scholarship on color politics and aims to draw attention to the crucial role of color for activating people’s relationships with one another and their environments. Throughout my fieldwork, graffiti/street artists and arts practitioners regularly mentioned the distinct value of public art in the city through negative aesthetic judgments of Amman’s monochromatic beige cityscape (Fig. 1). Artists often invoked Amman’s “lack of color” (Fig. 2) as a starting point for sharing their views on a wide range of the city’s perceived inadequacies—such as, in their view, its small arts and cultural scene, its lack of water and green spaces, or its poor infrastructure. Through references to monochromaticity, my interlocutors also linked urban aesthetics with narratives of Amman as an “empty” or “boring” city (Fig. 3) lacking economic opportunity (Jordan’s youth unemployment rate is around 50%) and spaces for youth leisure and creative expression.
Conversely, my interlocutors would describe multichromatic public art as a key component of not only building a more visually pleasing Amman but also for enhancing positive communal relations and affects and for creating more economic opportunities for young cultural producers. In other words, ideas about the positive value and potential of multichromatic art help shape utopian visions of artist-built futures and social orders. Furthermore, young cultural producers often thought that colorful graffiti/street art production would help give a distinct identity to Amman while challenging longstanding stereotypes of the city as a cultural backwater. These views show that graffiti/street art is centrally linked to young people’s frustrations as well as their deep affections for the city. Furthermore, my observations echo the insights of anthropologist and former ACOR-CAORC fellow Aseel Sawalha, who describes how art and cultural production is a primary context shaping peoples’ identifications with Amman as Ammanis rather than as members of communities rooted to other locations throughout Jordan and the MENA region.
My dissertation research also pivots from visual-centric studies of art and examines how the experiences of producing graffiti/street art bolster ideas about the potential of art for constructing an ideal future Amman. I focus on daylong painting sessions among groups of artists as periods in which a confluence of artists’ intimate relations with urban material, positive interactions with passersby, and improvised rap and breakdancing performances temporarily transform Amman from what my interlocutors claim is a boring and routine space into a lively, unpredictable place. On the one hand, group painting sessions accentuate feelings of liminality and an acutely felt discord between the daily struggles of present Amman and an imagined future city where colorful art and the collective joy associated with producing it abound. On the other hand, these painting sessions underscore the ways young cultural producers understand their work as expressions of love and care for Amman that strengthen communal bonds. By focusing on the motivating qualities of Amman’s “slow” and “boring” temporality, I underscore how artists’ desire for open spaces of leisure and creativity free from controversy or problems with state authorities play an important role in their adherence to limits on public artistic expression.
As commonly happens to anthropologists, during fieldwork my research scope and scale expanded somewhat. First, while in Amman I became interested in public art in the refugee camps built in response to the forced displacement of Palestinians in 1948 and 1967. Public murals are ubiquitous in some of these camps, yet this art is not widely considered part of Amman’s graffiti/street art “scene.” Furthermore, this wall art is unlike the colorful blue, orange, purple, and turquoise artworks in non-camp spaces that are typically devoid of any overt sociopolitical message and often receive funding from municipal authorities and NGOs. Through murals consisting primarily of the colors green, brown, red, and black, residents of Palestinian camp spaces in Jordan emphasize Palestinians’ “rootedness” to historic Palestine, express hope in the right of return, show solidarity with Palestinians struggling against Israel’s military occupation and settler-colonial project, and explicitly establish the camp as a camp (as opposed to a de facto or future Palestinian state). My dissertation compares public art worlds in camp and non-camp spaces to highlight how various relationships to color, space, and time produce, maintain, or render porous symbolic and material borders throughout the city.
My fieldwork also revealed critical intersections of humanitarian intervention and public art in Jordan. One of my research activities involved observing projects from the NGO Artolution and their partner organizations such as the International Rescue Committee and UNICEF. Artolution primarily works with groups of children who are experiencing economic marginalization or have had traumatic experiences, such as Syrian refugees. For these projects, teams of artists who reside in the Azraq camp for displaced Syrians or other locales in Jordan run workshops with children about mixing colors and expressing one’s hopes, fears, and traumas. The teams then collectively paint a mural representing the ideas expressed by the group. For this dissertation, I explore how initiatives by groups such as Artolution are crucial sites in which young Jordan-based artists develop their views about art’s value and capacity for positively intervening in the lives of those closely impacted by issues such as economic inequality and the regional refugee crisis. I intend to draw on insights from this fieldwork to develop my next research project investigating the impact of arts and cultural initiatives in Jordan’s refugee camp spaces.
Data collection for this dissertation is complete and I am in the early stages of analyzing my data and writing up my findings. I intend to defend my dissertation in spring 2023.
 Such discussions echoed insights from scholars such as Seteney Shami (2007), who note that residents and visitors alike often describe Amman as a site of absence and dislocation, particularly in relation to regional capitals such as Cairo, Beirut, and Damascus.
Shami, Seteney. 2007. “Amman Is Not a City: Middle Eastern Cities in Question.” In Urban Imaginaries: Locating the Modern City, edited by Alev Çinar and Thomas Bender, 208–236. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Kyle Benedict Craig is a doctoral candidate studying anthropology and Middle East and North African Studies at Northwestern University. Before coming to Northwestern, Kyle earned a BA in anthropology from the University of Washington and an MA in sociocultural anthropology from Michigan State University. Kyle has published writing in outlets such as Artmejo, the Arab Image Foundation, The Islamic Monthly, and Ibraaz. In addition to writing his dissertation on the graffiti/street art scene in Amman, Kyle is currently curating an open-access series on political aesthetics within right-wing, authoritarian, and populist movements as a digital editorial fellow with Political and Legal Anthropology Review (PoLAR).