Oraib Toukan, Untitled # 46 from Saeed (is no longer an ass), 2012, google mail, 11” x 8”

In 1963 Jordanian and US bureaucrats strolled around Jerash looking for the perfect column. Together they chose a 30-foot high marble column from one of the twelve complete columns that make up the temple of Artemis. Artemis was the goddess of hunting, and was known to assist women in procreation.  The pillar was to be mounted in the Jordanian Pavilion for the 1964-65 World Trade Fair that was designed by Arab American architect Victor Bisharat and that sat nestled among the architectural extravaganza’s of Kodak, Sinclair, General Electric and others. The column still stands today on the grounds of the Queens Museum of Art- what was once the home of the United Nations General Assembly, and where Palestine got partitioned in 1947.

I first stumbled on the column while in Corona Park looking for public transport. Though the column seemed to be a pissing spot for Sunday footballers and car-toy racers, I was astonished at how an object weighing 7 tons (13'728 lbs) got physically dismantled, crated, and shipped to New York, and at a time that was starkly anti-colonial. Equally, how a column that size could have such a silent presence and be so out-of-context.  Saeed is a research-based body of work that uses printed matter, performance, video and photography to deconstruct various anecdotes behind the pavilion and that came to be represented through this column. In the same vein as some of my other works, Saeed toys with mimicry as a method to unpack institutional and art-historical absurdities. The title borrows from the tragi-comical sagas of ‘Saeed’, the anti-hero in Emile Habiby’s 1974 novel ‘The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist’, and more specifically, his incredible chapter headings.

The pavilion was built three years before Jordan lost its share of Palestine to Israel in the 1967 war. Landscape photos of Jericho, Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Petra where displayed along the walls, along with a fancy installation of Jordan’s own Dead Sea Scrolls loaned from the Smithsonian Museum. Holy Water was sold in small bottles, and a few Jordan River baptisms were conducted right there in the pavilion, including that of the commissioner’s daughter.  Hung up high was a large mural by artist Mohanna Durra, painted on wood. The mural was of a mother holding her young daughter set against a cityscape reminiscent of Jerusalem. The mother’s head was cropped off and drawn in strokes typical of Durra’s style. The text of a long poem was written across the mural with versus that read: ‘Strangers from abroad, professing one thing, but underneath, another, began buying up land and stirring up the people…Strangers, once thought terror's victims, became terror's fierce practitioners… The blinded world, in solemn council, split the land in two, tossing to one side, the right of self-determination… And who's to stop them? The world seems not to care…’.

Untitled # 19 from Saeed (is no longer an ass), 2012, found printed-matter at the New York Public Library, 11” x 8”; courtesy the Manuscripts and Archives Division

Huge controversy broke out over the mural. Zionist picketers clashed with Arab students, sit ins took place, the Jordanian flag was stolen and replaced with the Israeli flag, (hilarious) terror threats were mailed in, cash tills were stolen, and hundreds of the same post card was sent from different addresses all over the US demanding the removal of this one mural. ‘Thank you, the exhibit stays, cordially, Robert Moses’ the president of the fair would reply.  By May 12th a New York City Council Resolution orchestrated by Mayor Wagner demanded the immediate removal of the mural on the bases that it’s ‘a constant irritant and source of insult to millions of people in the City, State, Country, and the World’. Robert Moses refused again, and on May 15 his office began to divert the pour of petition letters back, and deemed the matter closed. 

Oraib Toukan, Untitled # 4 from Saeed (changes into a Cat that Meows), 2012, mnemonic sketch of ‘mural to a refugee (1963)’ by Muhanna Durra, 11” x 8”

The mother of artist Emily Jacir was working as a guide in the pavilion distributing pamphlets that detailed elements of the pavilion, including Durra’s mural. For the 2001 Queens International Jacir intended to reproduce her mothers pamphlet in her exhibition of a collectively stitched tent commemorating the ‘418 Palestinian Villages Occupied and Depopulated by Israel in 1948’ and archival photographs of the 1947 Partition Plan negotiations.  In spite of the whole history that Jacir unearthed through these gestures, a wave of opposition ensued over the pamphlet alone, until she and the curator re-contextualized it as a historical relic object behind a vitrine. 

It is startling as to why Moses on the other hand, New Yorks most notoriously corrupt bureaucrat withstood censoring the mural, and succeeded, and why the hefty Pulitzer Prize biography of Robert Caro on Moses never covered this case. Durra’s case might actually be the heaviest dossier on censoring a single painting in New York so far. Ultimately, Moses knew that in return for this headache he is getting a permanent Roman fixture in New York’s desolate meadow, and for free. Sure enough, by November 9, 1964 King Hussein granted Robert Moses and (former) Governer Poletti a Royal Decree, each a Star of the First Order. For Moses it was never about the principles of censorship, and defending the right of the artist. It was quite the opposite; he simply did not want his fair to turn into a ‘political matter’, as he would put it. 

In fact the artist never gets mentioned anywhere in this uproar: not in the petitions, or the Pavilions press release, or King Hussein’s statement to journalists at JFK airport, not even in the City level written decree demanding the removal of the work. The irony is Mohanna Durra was and continues to be one of Jordan’s key abstract expressionist painters, and one of its oldest art historians and academics who spent a good part of his life as a diplomat painting in studios behind embassy offices- including the position of Ambassador to the Arab League in Moscow.  His mural was commissioned by Victor Bisharat for only $100- in the end he received $30, as the accountant at the Ministry of Tourism deemed that he in fact only painted with $30 worth of oil.

Oraib Toukan, Untitled # 1 from Saeed (changes into a Cat that Meows), 2010, found image printed on paper, 5” x 7”

For the River Has Two Banks I invited the co-curator of the program Samah Hijawi to perform Saeed takes refuge in a footnote (2012) in a public space in Amman. The work is a non-chronological reading of bureaucratic correspondences negotiating the making of the exhibition using archival letters, faxes and telegrams. A bill of lading is performed, as are letters from the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET) looking to acquire the column.  The script is equally a translation gesture. The correspondences were very simply disclosed, re-arranged, and translated to Arabic.  The setting of Café Auberj in downtown Amman seemed like a good option to casually perform this outside of a black box or white cube- not because these spaces have been exhausted in anyway in Amman, but because one of the perks of working here is perhaps the thrill of occupying new spaces, spontaneously.

Oraib Toukan, Saeed (takes refuge in a footnote), 2012, lecture performance, performance still from Café Auberj, Amman

Throughout the course of the program, the video Saeed relates how crocodiles once lived in the river Zarqa (2011) was also playing at the Ministry of Tourism.  It played on a 32-inch promotional screen that is usually hung up in the lobby to showcase the wonders and antiquities of Jordan.  The video is a wide-angle shot of a woman filming the column in a slow vertical pan with her camera. The result slightly feels like a tabluex vivant and is in fact based on two of the same archival photographs I owned of a man photographing a ruin in Jerash. I only noticed a few years later that the ruin this man was photographing was coincidentally the same one that the Pavilion’s column was extracted from, and that the image was, incidentally, taken before the column was plucked, and had a Ministry of Tourism stamp on the back. The photograph and the high definition video were to be displayed together as indexical and self-reflexive of each other, very much like pointing paintings. 

Oraib Toukan, Saeed (relates how crocodiles once lived in the river Zarqa), 2011, Colour High Definition Video, 00:59

The column now stands as a monument to that pavilion. A monument can impressively outlive infinite representations of itself, constantly withstanding recursive diffusions of its own image within itself. For example, in 2006, I took a photograph, of a framed photograph at the MET of Annie Liebowitz taking a picture of Susan Sontag taking a picture of the Siq in Petra, Jordan. Similarly in 2011, I took a photograph of Edward Steichan’s 1908 photograph of Auguste Rodin’s monument to the novelist Balzac, again at the MET. Rodin’s monument to Balzac never actually happened. He sent it in as a proposal to the Societe des Gens de Lettres in 1891 but it was rejected, until it was finally cast in Bronze 41 years later. Before that, Rodin’s sculpture was considered a ‘failed project’ by the institution; it was included in a 1937 exhibition entitled Monumental Errors and a whole saga erupted on which public square could possibly accept it. The saga of the Jordanian Pavilion is not dissimilar. Aside from the blessing of coming out un-censored, the pavilion, and the monument that stayed behind to perpetually represent it, was an incredibly beautiful failure.

Oraib Toukan, Untitled #3 from Saeed (changes into a Cat that Meows) 2011, found image printed on paper, 6” x 9”

* Thank you to Samah Hijawi, the archives of the New York public Library, Tan Nadan at the Manusrcipts and Archives Division, Sofía Hernández Chong Cuy for casually mentioning the Fair records, and most of all to Mohanna Durra for maintaining our fabulous conversations over the years.

* written statement for The River Has Two Banks project blog