Born in the capital of Amman in 1938, Mohanna Durra is a pioneer in Jordan's modern art movement. Well known for his portraits, Durra is also recognized as one of the first painters in Jordan to experiment with abstract compositions during the early sixties.
Durra's artistic interests began during childhood, when the artist recalls being reprimanded at school for drawing during religion lessons. Fascinated by faces and figures, Durra showed an early interest in figurative work, suggesting the artist's later passion for portraiture. At the age of nine, his father sent the aspiring artist to study at the studio of George Allief, a former officer in the Tsarist army and traditional painter who lived in Amman at the time. Later, in the fifties, Durra met another foreign artist living in the Jordanian capital: A Dutch artist listed in art historical narratives by the name, William Hallowin. This relationship led to Durra's longstanding fascination with Dutch painting, and particularly the use of light to infuse a composition with movement and dramatic energy. A third influence on Durra's aesthetic sensibility can be traced back to 1954, when he enrolled at the Academy of Fine Arts in Rome and dedicated himself to the study of Italian Renaissance and Baroque artists.
After graduating from the Academy of Fine Arts in Rome in 1958, Durra returned to Amman, where he taught art, first in an elementary school and later at the Teacher's College. At the latter institution, Durra formed a formative friendship with the Italian violinist and self-taught painter Armando Pron. The comradery was influential to Durra's understanding of the connection between music and visual abstraction, a formal relationship often noted by his international and local critics.
After a few short years in Amman, Durra returned to Rome in 1961 after receiving a post at the Jordanian embassy under the Ministry of Culture and Information. The position launched a long career in government service, including posts as the Director General of the Department of Culture and Art in Amman (1977 - 1983) and the Director for Cultural Affairs of the League of Arab States in Tunis (1980 - 1981), in addition to residencies in Rome, Cairo, and Moscow.
Despite nearly four decades of government service, Durra continued to practice and contribute to the establishment of an infrastructure for the visual arts in Jordan. As a child interested in art in Amman during the forties, there were few opportunities for formal training with the exception of individual artists who held informal classes in their home studios. Durra is considered to be a member of the first generation of Jordanian artists to receive formal training after being awarded government scholarships to study abroad. Upon their return, most of these artists worked as art teachers in elementary schools, and later headed the newly emerging art departments in Jordan's universities. Durra himself established the Jordan Institute of Arts and Music in 1970 and served as its director from 1970 - 1980, after which time it closed.
Durra's greatest accomplishment, however, is in the breadth of his work. Early in his career, Durra established himself as a portrait painter. Working in oil, watercolor, and ink, Durra captured a range of subjects from anonymous peasants and Bedouins to Amman's society personalities. He is perhaps most well known for his portraits of clowns. Depicted in an expressionist style, these works on paper are characterized by the use of bright, saturated colors and visible, fluid brushstrokes.
Alongside his portraits is an equally fascinating body of abstract compositions. Dating to the early sixties, and representing some of the earliest examples in Jordan of abstract painting, Durra's compositions document a range of technique and method—from fragmented geometric color blocks to the more fluid drip paintings. This body of work is united by a sustained exploration of light and dynamism. Often directing movement diagonally across the canvas, Durra overlays color—at times, incorporating fabric material—to produce depth and texture. These planes of transparent color in turn generate a sense of motion. Whether working with a monochromatic palette or one combining bold, primary colors, Durra infuses his canvases with a penetrating light so that line and color engage in a dynamic dance across the canvas.
Mohanna Durra's artistic achievements have been recognized by numerous prestigious awards, including the following: the first State Appreciation Award for contributions to cultural developments in Jordan (1977); the Gold Medal of Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage (1978); and the Golden Pioneer Medal and Appreciation Award of the Union of Arab Artists (1980). Previous to these, in 1965, Durra became a decorated knight of the Holy Order of San Silvestro by His Holiness Pope Paul VI. In 2002, the Postal Authorities of Jordan issued a 200- fils postage stamp printed with one of his paintings in honor of Durra. He has held numerous group and solo exhibitions throughout the Arab world, Europe, the former U.S.S.R. and the U.S. His work is held in collections worldwide, including the Vatican, the Imperial Court of Japan, the Jordan National Gallery of Fine Art, and Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. He lives and works in Amman.
|2006 ||Solo show at Lines Gallery, Amman, Jordan|
|2000||"Muhanna Forever: Pioneer of Modern Art in Jordan," Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts|
|1981 - 1989||Exhibitions in Palazzo Venezia, Venice Biennial, Italy (1988); and Fine Arts National Museum in Valletta, Malta (1988)|
|1970 - 1980 ||Exhibitions throughout Europe and U.S.A., including Georgetown University, Washington, D.C., United Stated of America|
|1960 - 1970||Exhibitions in Florence, Rome, former U.S.S.R. and the Arab world|
Awards and Honors
|2008||Distinction of Al-Hussein Decoration from his Majesty King Abdullah II of Jordan (First Order)|
|2006 ||Order of the Star of Italian Solidarity|
|2002 ||200-fils stamp issued in Durra's honor by Postal Authorities of Jordan|
|1980 ||Golden Pioneer Medal and Appreciation Award of the Union of Arab Artists|
|1978 ||Gold Medal of Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage|
|1977 ||State Appreciation Award, Jordan|
|1970 ||Order of the Star of Jordan by H. M. King Hussein|
|1965 ||Decorated knight of the Holy Order of San Silvestro by His Holiness Pope Paul VI|
Modern art in Jordan, pioneer, Abstraction, portraiture, clowns.
Wijdan, Ali. Modern Art in Jordan. (Amman: The Royal Society of Fine Arts, 1997), 27-42, 63-65.
Zbinovsky, Alla, ed. Mohanna Durra. Moscow: Taversa Libris, 1998.
Seventy Years of Contemporary Jordanian Art. Amman: Royal Society of Fine Arts, 2013.