Oraib Toukan

Oraib Toukan’s first solo exhibition, at the Jordanian arts foundation Darat al-Funun, delved into a dialectic between memory and amnesia that has become almost overbearing in contemporary art practice from the Arab world. But Toukan’s depiction of memory as process, and her tethering of memory to the body, marked a promising change from the now ubiquitous strategies involving imaginary archives and historical documents.

In the split-screen, single-channel video Remind Me to Remember to Forget, 2006, the tip of a makeshift pen is seen on the left side spitting out and sucking in a seemingly endless supply of gold glitter. Held by a hand that remains offscreen, the pen repeatedly writes and erases the work’s title in Arabic script. On the right, the hollow at the center of a woman’s clavicle, the artist’s own, is seen retreating and returning as she deeply inhales and exhales. The implication is that the gold text is being expelled and reclaimed—blown and snorted, as it were—by breath. History, whether fractured into myriad lived experiences or ordered into an overarching grand narrative, is constantly written and eradicated. The vicious cycle of remembering and forgetting—in particular, with regard to moments of political trauma—has become as natural as breathing. And yet, Toukan’s piece includes a request that doubles as a command: “Remind me.” Remind me that this will never end, remind me that I’ve seen this all before, the video seems to suggest, remind me to keep breathing, remind me to keep living.

Two sources anchor Toukan’s artistic investigation of the ways in which the mind holds past and present together. The first is Mahmoud Darwish’s book-length sequence of prose poems, Memory for Forgetfulness: August, Beirut, 1982, a line from which—“Please stop me from laughing, I cannot hold my memories any longer”—is evoked by the title of Toukan’s two-channel video Trying to Count Memories without Laughter’s Disruption, 2007, which pairs more footage of text with an eerie, unblinking eye. The second is a famous drawing by the late cartoonist Naji Al Ali called “Good Morning Beirut,” first printed in 1982 in the Arabic-language newspaper As-Safir, and featured in Toukan’s haunting installation of the same name from 2006. In a room, the artist has placed a monumental roll of paper that unfurls to reveal ink transfers of all the artist’s e-mail correspondence during the 2006 war in Lebanon.

What is significant about Toukan’s retrieval of these two sources is that they both date back to 1982 rather than to the other, more commonly recycled historical milestones in the Middle East, 1948 and 1967. After all, Toukan, a Jordanian of Palestinian descent who divides her time between Amman and New York, was born in 1977. Lurking behind all of Toukan’s pieces for this show—including her two series of sumptuously colored, enigmatically composed photographs, “Man with a Tattoo,” 2007, and “Icon Series,” 2006–2007—is a determination to dissect and consider, rather than obediently assume, the transmission of memories from one generation to the next.

Toukan casts a cool eye over emblems associated with national identity—such as portraits of King Abdullah II of Jordan and old photographs of Jerusalem adorning drab interiors in the “Icon Series”—and lends humor to geopolitical representations of the region. Her interactive installation, The New(er) Middle East, 2007, for example, is a stylized map in the form of a jigsaw puzzle where only the most problematic piece, Israel/Palestine, is secured in fact—its shape is exactly as one would find it on a real map—while none of the other puzzle pieces matches the shape of any known country, and all borders have been smoothed into aesthetically pleasing, biomorphic lines. By provoking viewers to reconfigure a highly contested topography that the artist has “falsified,” Toukan pushes memory into the realm of performance and allows for its willful suspension in the imagination as fantasy and, quite possibly, as future.

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie