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Female graffiti artists show their colors on Amman's walls

Suha Sultan is one of the few female graffiti artists in Jordan, but she is inspired to dismantle stereotypes and revitalize the city walls of Jordan's capital with colorful artwork.
Suha Sultan, a 20-year-old graffiti artist and student, uses a brush to draw a mural on a wall in the Jordanian capital Amman on December 16, 2017.
A tiny group of graffiti artists are on a mission -- daubing flowers, faces and patterns across the capital Amman to bring more colour to the lives of its four million inhabitants.
In a conservative society like Jordan's, the graffiti artists have constantly had to challenge convention to carve out a niche for their works, though still with limits as they steer

AMMAN, Jordan  — Suha Sultan was only 18 when she started her first graffiti artwork on the outside wall of her parent’s apartment in Amman. Her neighbors only had one condition: that she would create something beautiful with her spray paint and brushes.

The young artist, now 20, has since brightened up several of Amman's drab city walls coated with soot, sand and car exhaust.

“I’ve been drawing forever,” she told Al-Monitor. “But when I entered the School of Arts and Design at the University of Jordan, I decided I should try to go big and make sure that my artwork can be seen by the whole city.”

When she wanted to work with other female graffiti artists, she discovered that there were only a few. “So I set out to build a women graffiti network,” she explained. “You know how Jordan is, it is more of a patriarchal society.”

Sultan, however, is not the only female street artist in Jordan. Yara Hindawi, who grew up in Dubai, created a mural in Mafraq, a city 80 kilometers (50 miles) north of Amman, in May 2015. Hindawi’s iconic artworks combine geometric shapes and fantasy figures, where cartoon-like creatures pose alongside colorful flowers.

Other well-known female artists include graphic designer and illustrator Dina Fawakhiri, muralists Sara Allan and Miramar Mohd, and writer/street stencil letterer Amanee Hasan. These graffiti artists have recently participated in a local art in pizza boxes exhibition and their artwork is often featured on the Instagram page Amman Street Art — most of which can be spotted while strolling around the capital.

“I moved here from the United States five years ago. One of the reasons I started appreciating Amman more was because of the unusual amount of street art,” said Hasan, who began tracking these street murals and stenciling her own English-language quotes next to them after obtaining permission from the artists. “We come from two different worlds and together we can make our own,” she stenciled in between murals of a robot by street artist Mike Derderian and a watercolor textured self-representation by Mohd near the C-Town supermarket in Amman’s seventh circle.

However, many female artists find it a struggle to get accepted in this job. “If you are a woman you should work in a bank or teach in a school so you can go home early and make dinner for your husband. … An artist with no commitment, going out in the streets and painting in our community, that is not really acceptable,” said Rand Tarifi, a sculpture student at the School of Arts and Design at the University of Jordan.

“My father was initially against the idea of me participating in graffiti art projects because I would be surrounded by predominantly men,” Sultan said. “We are a society that doesn’t accept differences; we love our tradition, our own culture and homogeneity.”

However, Sultan, with her grit and passion, is dedicated to shaking society from these patriarchal chains with provocative street art. When she participated in the 2016 Baladk Street Art Project, which started in 2013, Sultan drew several similar female characters around Jordan. In one mural, on a parking lot wall next to Jameeda Khanum restaurant in the city center, she drew a punk rock girl smoking a cigarette with a mohawk and an ear gauge. This was particularly provocative because Jordan, which leads the region in prevalence of smoking among males, frowns upon women who smoke in public. Moreover, the woman was shown without a headscarf, which many conservatives disapprove of.

Currently, Jordan also ranks 135th out of 144 in the 2017 Global Gender Gap Report of the World Economic Forum. Despite the patriarchal attitude toward women, female graffiti artists can overcome prejudices, as the community has been very receptive to street art in recent years. “Reports about graffiti being outlawed by the municipality, or being under pressure, are false because artists know not to cross certain boundaries of religion, the royal family or sexuality,” Derderian, who participated in the Baladk Street Art Project, told Al-Monitor. “When Suha tags her portraits or street artist Wisam creates his Afroed ladies, there is no political message; it is a statement in itself, altering misconceptions about the country.”

He related one of his favorite memories of a group of elderly bearded men who found him working on a graffiti artwork when returning from Friday prayers at a local mosque. Once he explained to them that the bunnies he had drawn were not a political message but an attempt to bring color to the walls they applauded. “My experience is, adding colors to walls always brings a smile,” he said.

Every street artist has developed a set of street-smart codes to avoid trouble: paint in broad daylight, be respectful and sensitive to the area where you are painting, and always be able to explain yourself and your work to both the police and passersby. Sultan reiterated how encouraging her fellow male graffiti artists are, such as Suhaib Attar, and how she receives far more applause than discouragement from the public. Now, even her father is proud of her work.

“She’s delivering the message, 'I am a female Jordanian artist,'” said Tarifi, who regards Sultan as an inspiration. “Despite all the things people say about her — whether good or bad — she believes in Amman and wants to showcase its beauty. She could have a private page or her own exhibition to display her artwork, but she chooses to share it with the public, improving Jordanian culture, one wall at a time.”

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