“It Is Actually My Students Who Repeatedly Explain My Research to Me” – 5in10 with Oraib Toukan

Oraib Toukan is an artist and scholar. She holds a PhD in Fine Arts from Oxford University, Ruskin School of Art. Until Fall 2015, she was head of the Arts Division and Media Studies program at Bard College at Al Quds University, Palestine and was visiting faculty at the International Academy of Fine Arts in Ramallah. In the 2019/2020 academic year, Oraib is a Fellow of Europe in the Middle East—The Middle East in Europe (EUME), a research program of the Forum Transregionale Studien, where she is working on her project, entitled “Decruelling Images: The Micro Visual Field of Violence”.


What was intriguing to you when you were a child? What is it that you always wanted to know about the world?

Family photographs taken before I was born were most intriguing to me as a child. I enjoyed touching, handling and looking in to worlds found in unframed, loose, mishandled photographs that would show up in baskets belonging to my grandmother. There were photos that would stick out between the mirror and the frame of my other grandmothers’ oval vanity or below the glass of her dining room buffet, or prints in drawers that would appear fragmented by the lucid plastic of empty medicine blister packs. While rummaging through documents labelled “important” in my father’s filing cabinets, I would find large Manila folders of loose family photographs stacked in piles like a roughly sorted deck of cards. It was only later in life that I noticed some of these packets were original studio print-enlargement envelopes from former photo studios in Jerusalem, Cairo, and Amman. But I remember playing with pictures too: filling in figures and moustaches with green Bic.

How do you explain your current research project to your students?

I feel it is the other way around – it is actually my students who repeatedly explain my research to me. It was in the way that former students at Bard College at Al Quds University in Palestine, in particular, would share their reflections with me on what it means to grow up more and more desensitised to images; on what it feels like to see an image of a Palestinian body in pain that feels like “you’ve always, always seen it” – as a former student, Fadi Abu Nimeh once put it. Their musings along the years helped me begin to understand what it means for a certain generation to be dulled by images of one’s self, all the while having gained a fountain of vital experience from a collective history of image-taking in Palestine.

Which stations of your academic journey were particularly formative to you?

In retrospect, my parent’s living room was probably the first “station” of questions I returned to when I was doing my PhD. It was there that I first learned how ‘outcry’ over tragic events can sound out – how they become socially transmitted and politically transformative. During the First Intifada, four Israeli soldiers were caught by a CBS camera in 1988 beating two Palestinian teenagers with heavy stones in what seemed (at the time) like a serene green landscape outside of Nablus. I remember being gripped by this footage, but more than that, I remember observing how my parents and their friends were horrified, passionately exchanging notes on which global newspaper said what to Yitzhak Rabin’s “Break Their Bones” order. It was from that TV room in Amman in the 1980s, where I first understood that images can make the world more accountable. But there were also many other ‘stations’, as you nicely put it, such as seeing a latent image reveal itself to me for the first time on the surface of a paper shimmering under the red lights of a make-shift dark room in Amman. Equally mind-blowing were a few conversations in my studio during my Masters in Fine Arts in upstate New York with people like the late composer Maryanne Amacher or the composer George Lewis on sound that helped me begin to think about images differently. Similarly formative were conversations with my PhD advisor Anthony Gardener on how Fine Art and scholarship can form and inform each other – which at times can feel like immiscible elements.

Which publications or academic events (workshops, conferences, lecture series…) did inspire you recently?

I find the symposiums organized by the Arab Fund for Art and Culture in Berlin so very interesting. Berlin is starting to feel like one more cultural capital to the Arab world. Though the discourse will always differ from momentous movements emanating from the Arabic-speaking world, AFACs consortiums, for me, really draw on inspiring and critical theories, characters, and narratives. I am especially thinking of the last two or three events that Rasha Salti and Khaled Saghieh curated at Archive Books, and HKW with EUME, that have been relevant to questions being asked across cultural practices from Marrakech to Haifa and Beirut. The latter two, in particular, are cities that would not have direct physical dialogue and exchange if it were not for such opportunities.

How is it to do research in Germany?

It is still early for me to answer this question as I am still just starting to understand the academic landscape in Germany. All I can say is I feel very privileged, stirred and motivated to have a research opportunity with EUME. I also feel very privileged to access this many open, understated, unstressed, and unstressful museum and archive infrastructures like those in Berlin. Working and moving within certain architectural gems in Berlin has only added to this experience­ ­– and in fact partly inspired my last book Sundry Modernism on Palestinian modernism. With this said, the academic impetus in Germany seems quite different to Anglo-American contexts. I am looking forward to understanding why.


Citation: “It Is Actually My Students Who Repeatedly Explain My Research to Me” – 5in10 with Oraib Toukan, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 02.04.2020, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/23594.


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