Graffiti murals shed light, color on social, political woes

Partly inspired by camp life, Laila Ajjawi’s murals intended to provoke thinking

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Laila Ajjawi poses with one of her murals, in Irbid, during February 2020. (Photo: JNews)
AMMAN — In the heat of Israel’s 2014 war on Gaza, a 24-year-old Laila Ajjawi grabbed some spray cans and took to the streets of Irbid’s refugee camp, hoping to paint a message of support across its walls, amid high public sentiment against the Israeli aggression.اضافة اعلان
“I had a vision when I first started doing graffiti. I found that graffiti is a cultural weapon; it can be used in campaigns and can be used to provoke (the average person’s) thinking on the streets,” Ajjawi told Jordan News.

Seven years later, the painter-turned-graffitist believes more than ever in the power of art to bring attention to issues that matter through a process that she dubs “energy transfer”, Ajjawi said over the phone.

“I believe that the artwork can transfer energy to people. … They will interact with it, then they will go around and talk about it with other people, transferring the same energy yet again to others,” she explained.

Beyond battling oppression through her art, the muralist said she also finds inspiration in the experiences of those around her, often telling their stories through her work, to shed light on broader social issues.

“I did at least two murals that were inspired by our neighbors back in the camp. They had a girl that I used to tutor and she was doing great in school, but her family were very poor,” Ajjawi began.

“She was around 15 and we tried to talk to the mother to convince her not to let the child get married, but unfortunately, all efforts were in vain and she got married and dropped out of school,” she continued.

Her reaction was to take to a nearby alley and paint a young woman, as if rising from a grave, and reaching out to a motto reading: “Right to education.”

According to the artist, what happened to her neighbour is not uncommon. Many of her acquaintances, including distant family members, she said, have been through similar experiences.

Ajjawi pointed to the stark contrast between her experience and that of her neighbor’s, noting that she and all three of her sisters have graduated from university despite having also been raised in a refugee camp by poverty-stricken families.

As a mother herself, Ajjawi has had to wrestle with the pressures of balancing full-time motherhood and having a day job, and when pressed to make a choice, she chose the former.

“Sanad, my three-year-old son, is basically my top priority.”

“I stopped volunteering since I became a mother to spend time with him. It is different now because I have a lot of things to consider when I am going to do something. For example, if I am (going to be) away from my son, who is going to babysit him?” Ajjawi questioned.

Ajjawi is among only a few women in her field but she believes that viewers seldom care about that.

“People love art by nature. They look at the art before looking at the gender of the artist,” Ajjawi said.

But it is not only passersby and commuters who enjoy Ajjawi’s gift for expression. The local police are among her fans as well, she joked, adding that they often stop to ask if she needs anything and, on occasion, they take photos of her work.

Laila Ajjawi poses with one of her murals, in Irbid, during February 2020. (Photo: JNews)

Speaking on her “dearest” mural, aptly named “Peace and Tolerance”, Ajjawi said that the municipality initially expressed concerns about the piece, which was set to depict two women and a man across a large wall, worrying that it would be on the receiving end of complaints from some of Irbid’s more “conservative” members of the community.

“Many elderly men stopped me to ask why I was painting an image of a woman in the street,” she said, recalling that when she would confront them by saying, “‘I am a woman (too),’ they felt a little bit ashamed of themselves because they were shaming a woman on the wall and I am a woman myself.”

“I originally used three models for that painting, two girls and a guy, but I ended up adding an elderly man with the same features as the people who stopped me while painting,” she added.

Elaborating on the struggles that come with the territory of being an artist, Ajjawi explained that the pandemic has taken a toll on her prospects, as it has for many of her peers.

“Graffiti, and art in general, are now my main sources of income. COVID-19 has changed a lot of things for me. Many projects were cancelled because the people in charge of these projects had to invest money in something else — more basic — like rent,” she explained.

“I would love, as an artist, to get good support, to the point where I could reflect my own ideas in the streets. Without having to work for someone else; to have my own freedom, so that I can send good messages that we really need in our community, while supporting myself financially,” Ajjawi said, hoping to remain true to her purpose as continues the pursuit of her dream.