In 2014, there were not many creative practitioners in the UAE specialised in community outreach. Education, community and supporting public programmes produced by art institutions were in their very early stages of development.
That was the time I left Jordan to move to the UAE.
When I was assigned to care for and activate the Sharjah Art Foundation’s community urban garden in 2014, I knew my life-long journey of knowledge around community projects would shape my approach. The six-month-old garden was built by the team and volunteers, on the foundations of an old house, nestled within the Sharjah Art Foundation’s art spaces.
Below, are the lessons that I learnt that throughout my life that have shaped my worldview, helped me created a strategy for SAF Urban Garden, and have impacted the decisions and pillars of my career:
Where I learnt about the cycles, ecosystems and ‘nature’ of nature
Growing up in the countryside, our house was divided into four gardens. The first was a farm with fruit trees, chickpeas, fava beans and herbs. Whatever we cultivated, though small, was used in cooking, preserving and distributing to friends and family. I learnt that the same soils could yield different possibilities, I patiently and excitedly anticipated seasonal produce, and appreciated eating raw vegetables straight from the ground- without intervention from the kitchen.
Our second garden was a rock garden, home to slabs of rocks reclaimed from construction sites and neighbouring desert plants. This garden gave me conviction about the beauty of site-specificity and resourcefulness. Jordan at the time was undergoing a fashionable phase: the more affluent homes were importing problematic and impractical flora and fauna, such as water guzzling grass, and exotic plants.
We also had a wild garden, left free to bloom and grow as it desired. This was where I spent most of my time. It had a magical, mystical and independent spirit.
My father also built a fishpond, using a pool-building manual. I was his construction assistant: we laid the waterproof layers, cement and stones together.
Once the pond was created, we then picked up another manual on how to rear fish, read water PHs and carefully maintain the pond. It was incredible to watch an ecosystem grow, where fish multiplied, plants grew and other animals made the pond a home: frogs, toads, turtles and insects.
And finally, my parents built a flower bed for my seven- year-old self, putting me in charge of curating and cultivating it for the next decade. This taught me individuality, gave weight to my decisions and perhaps even gave me a little sprinkle of motivational competitiveness, since my little sister also had one.
These gardens taught me how to love site-specificity, context and the importance of parasitic relationships and how every site, large or small, is in itself an ecosystem with its own set of politics and rules.
When I learnt that community and collaboration is the essence of how I want to navigate projects and relationships.
During my MA in Curatorial Practice, my thesis was largely project based. I created an artist residency programme in the neighbourhood of Jabal Al Qalaa, in Amman. Ten artists were invited to collaborate, celebrate and work within the context of this hilltop in collaboration with its residents. After thoroughly researching and visiting community and socially engaged Biennials in the UK, I developed a long-term vision of what Jordan’s art scene needed. I was certain that my emerging art community could play a fundamental role in the socio-political and societal development of the country.
One of the artists, Reham Sharbaji, responded to an abandoned bakery which had become a dumping ground for rubbish. After a performance where she wore a protective suit and served bread out of its window, it was finally cleared and restored after by the government. This gesture pressured the Amman Municipality to finally take action, particularly when her performance was broadcast on the news. A local plant nursery swooped in, offering to donate plants that could thrive in this house, given that they would be cared for by the local community. In our naivety, a community garden seemed very befitting as a way of empowering and educating the youth to care for it and nurture it. What we overlooked was the fact that the youth gardeners came from families who could not afford plentiful water for reasons that were considered frivolous. And unfortunately, there was no free public water source, despite our requests for the local mosque or municipality .The garden quickly perished.
The residency itself inspired the idea of collaboration, cross-pollination and learning. It opened my eyes to the capabilities of a few artists outside the regular funding spectrums. Although ministries, councils, and the municipality, and even Her Majesty herself offered support (with a price of course), this project was proudly crowdsourced and relied on working solely within the means of the neighborhood and greater community. This project also revealed to us hardships of lives outside of our own, and taught us to prioritise being citizens, before being artists.
None of the artworks were ever signed by the artists. Instead, the works and projects felt like the products of an entire neighborhood.
Most of all, the project taught us that solidarity, warmth and love resonates in a community, and that the relationships between the breadth of residents, practitioners, stakeholders, institutions and the government needed to be honed and organised to ensure sustained positive collaboration.
When I learnt how to trust in self-sufficiency systems and socially engaged projects.
In 2013, I was a project coordinator at Makan Art Space. One of my roles was to maintain the region’s first rooftop aquaponics greenhouse experiment designed by Meezan Arabia.
The symbiotic relationship between the water that fed the watermelons and basil, the fish that fertilised the water, and the plants that then fed the fish was inspiring to observe. My responsibility was so simple: all I had to do was feed the fish every six months, test the Ph of the water, gather the fruits and vegetables and distribute them across the neighbourhood. Beyond this, greenhouse was self-sufficient. I was honored to be given the responsibility of caring for such a system, which was already so familiar to me due to the gardens and ponds I was assigned to care for in my youth.
The qualities that I have developed throughout my life are ones that I practice daily, both behaviorally and through all my career trajectories.
I engage with people and environments in a generative way, bringing them to realise that they are capable of producing and growing their own projects or finding their own way. I do this by displaying a nurturing character, a pedagogical lens, and patience. In addition, I tread with a sense of subtlety: I don’t claim ownership over a project, but ensure that everyone involved feels the same loyalty and responsibility towards a project.
With my approach to every project- working resourcefully and industriously is paramount. I always work within the local context, from supporting local businesses to involving residents, but with an eye still fixed on a wider outreach, or more global outlook. I cherish this in all aspects of my life. I tend to zoom in on the micro detail of a project and ensure that it is met with careful attention, but at the same time zoom out to a macro perspective and meet that with the same amount of meticulousness. Throughout my life, I’ve conducted my projects with so much sensitivity that it almost feels like method acting: I immerse myself in the role wholeheartedly.
The qualities that I have developed throughout my life are ones that I practice daily, both behaviorally and through all my career trajectories. This working ‘spirit’ has seeped into all my practices; art, pedagogy, urban research and food.
Photo Courtesy Kathleen Hoare, (2020).