I finally had to type the whole thing down cause it's too hard to explain it in snatches...I mean the history of how I became the most villified person in Assyrian modern history by making Public Assyrian Art. This is for one of the lawyers who just joined now and who couldn't make any sense out of it either. Reading over it I find it idiotic as well...but it happened.
My Legal Woes and Opportunities
Ever been involved in something that began to sound increasingly fantastic and unbelievable the more you tried to explain it, so that soon you began to doubt it had ever happened, or happened the way you remembered it? That’s what I’m feeling as I try to explain the peculiar set of circumstances over the last few years and months which caused me to sue an ex State Senator, for one, or gave me the reason to sue him in the first place and win. But there’s more than that and no simple way to tell the story unless I tell the whole story, and do it once and for all.
In 1977 I moved to New York determined to make it as a sculptor. I had no idea what that meant. It tuned out to mean, among other things, having to lie about my experience so I could get a job at an Art Foundry where I hoped to earn enough to keep my young son and I going and learn all I could about how you go about being a sculptor. At the Metropolitan Museum I discovered the Assyrian and Babylonian Art of my ancestors for the first time, coming under their sway to such an extent that I lost all interest in the European tradition and over the next four years made reproductions of the pieces displayed at the Met, usually by standing there whenever I had the time and copying directly.
In 1978 I displayed and sold my first piece at the Assyrian American National Federation, held that year in Los Angeles. In succeeding years I went to other annual AANF conventions in Chicago, New Jersey , Detroit and New York displaying an ever increasing number of Assyrian and Babylonian reproductions. I also managed to sell some to the gift shop at the Oriental Institute in Chicago, and I came very close to getting the Met to break its long standing rule against selling artist’s reproduction of antiquities when they almost took my first Lamasu (Winged Bull).
In 1981 I moved back to the Bay Area and hit on the idea of creating a bronze Assyrian public monument. I was able to interest a fellow Assyrian, Narsai David, who formed the “Assyrian Foundation For The Arts”. Over the next three years we traveled across the country to other conventions and meetings to raise the $150.000.00 we needed to complete a monumental statue of King Ashurbanipal which was installed at the Main Public Library building in Civic Center, downtown San Francisco in 1988. That same year I began work on a monument of Queen Shumirum, known to scholars as Summuramat and to the Greeks as Semiramis. That project took 13 years to complete as Narsai had moved on to become president of the Assyrian Aid Society among other things and raising the funds while creating the monument myself proved more difficult and time consuming. Having raised nearly $90,000.00, the project stalled until 1995 when a wonderful and well- to- do Assyrian woman from Chicago, Helen Nimrod Schwarten, stepped in and offered to sponsor the project for installation in the city of Chicago. Helen was president of her own foundation, the Assyrian Universal Alliance Foundation, and gave her brother, ex State Senator John Nimrod, the task of gathering funds to complete the monument. It should be pointed out that Helen provided much of the financial backing for the Assyrian Universal Alliance, of which her brother John was the Secretary General.
In 1996, I approached the city of Chicago to present them with our Shumirrum Monument as a gift from the Assyrian American community in this country and from Assyrians around the world. Though Michael Lash, director of Public Art for the city of Chicago warned me that Chicago had very stringent requirements where such donations were concerned, we were pleased when they accepted our monument and gave us a most prestigious site to install it, on the campus of the University of Chicago, a short walk from the Oriental Institute, one of the premier centers for Assyriology in the world and housing the largest collection of Assyrian antiquities in America. This coming year a three year renovation and expansion of their museum will end with the opening of the Assyrian Wing where several pieces never before seen by the public will be displayed. The city offered to cover the installation costs and build the concrete pedestal for the sculpture as well as advertise the unveiling of the Shumirum as a part of festivities at the Oriental Institute.
And this is where the story begins to unravel and the unsavory underbelly of our community here in America is exposed. We have a handful of people who have elected themselves leaders of our community, with the disastrous result that each has formed an organization or club which attempts to speak for all of us. They struggle mightily to be recognized as the one legitimate, or the “best”, voice for the Assyrian American community and in their efforts to outdo one another have so divided our community that we are all of us set at odds with one another by region or city and state. These organizations support themselves either through Bingo parlors, as two large ones in the Turlock, California do (one of which has just had its license revoked, owing millions in back taxes, its confiscated records revealing that several hundred thousand dollars have disappeared etc.) or through large donations such as Helen made to her brother’s organization, the AUA.
In five years of fund raising efforts, John Nimrod was not able to raise a cent so that his sister Helen, eager to present the monument to Chicago, stepped in and provided the $120,000.00 remaining . Helen had commissioned a series of sculptures from me for a few years totaling another couple of hundred thousand dollars, all of which are displayed in the museum the AUA runs at its office. Before her death in 1998, Helen had asked me to create portraits of her and her first husband Jerry to be placed at a building to which her family had donated one million dollars on the campus of Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. In addition she’d asked for some other sculptures and had sent a deposit of $20,000.00 of a total of $90,000.00 of sculpture. She also wanted me to make portraits of her two sons and her brother John as well. She and her sons sent me family photos as did John Nimrod’s wife Inga and work began. When the deposit money ran out I contacted Helen only to learn she was in the hospital. There was hope of her recovery. She had expressed the desire to go along with my plan of having an unveiling of the completed monument of Shumirum along with the rest of her bronze collection, at a gallery the city agreed to make available to us, on short notice, as her health was failing. It was to be a tribute to her efforts on behalf of our people.
One of the staff at the Public Art Department had done us this favor and a date had been set. I didn’t want to ask Helen for any money under the circumstances, but as several of the pieces were in clay, and would deteriorate quickly if molds were not made, I called her brother John to see if he could get some funds to me so I could at least make the molds. I felt I had to complete the work because if Helen recuperated, I could not then tell her I had done no work for lack of money when time was so short.
Just the year before, when the city selected a site for the Shumirum Monument, John Nimrod had complained that the site was unacceptable, though Helen, at first, and I both thought it was ideal. He refused to allow the city to proceed with installation and at a meeting I attended, told the director, Michael Lash, that he wanted time to find a better site himself. He was informed by Mr. Lash that his staff had come to select that sight after much debate as to where the sculpture would not only look good, but fit in with their general plan. However, they agreed to allow Mr. Nimrod the chance to offer alternatives and for the next three years he came up with not a single one. It was because the installation had been halted by John that I’d suggested having an unveiling of the monument and show at an indoor location to Helen, for she looked forward to unveiling the monument.
When I asked John for some financial assistance as the date for the gallery showing was rapidly approaching, he replied that I was rushing things, why not wait till Helen got well again. When I pressed him about all the sculptures I had which were in clay and couldn’t be kept that way for long, he replied that Helen would be better soon enough and I should just wait.
Some more weeks passed and Helen died. I called John to ask if we could have the show still as a tribute to Helen, for no one had ever spent so much to create an Art Collection for us (She asked that it be given to Northwestern University, and though officials viewed it and accepted it for placement on campus, John refused to hand it over for they would only place the artist’s name on the pedestals, not his own…and the collection has not been turned over to this day). John, now become the new president of his sister’s AUA Foundation as well as Secretary General of his own AUA, said there had been no agreement with Helen for me to proceed with the sculptures, that I had made the whole thing up, that the deposit was payment in full for two pieces and I had better send them. He continued to make these claims for several months until the work I’d done was ruined as I’d only had enough to bring one piece to completion in bronze.
At that time, 1999, I had begun work on a monument of Hammurabi for Detroit. A group had formed there to spread the word and secure donations. I had gone back myself with a maquette of the proposed monument and spoken to the Chaldean Federation as well as individuals. Several people had donated already and we were on our way. When I subsequently sued John for his refusal to pay, he wrote letters to leaders in the community in Detroit, as he’d threatened to do, telling them to beware, that I was not to be trusted, that I was out to get money any way I could, and he accompanied these letters with loud and repeated declarations that his sister had never commissioned me to make any sculpture before her death. Even though her family had all sent photos, including John’s own wife. It was a letter from his wife Inga to me telling how the “Senator” knew all about the project and approved of it, that he had forgotten about which finally convinced him to settle my terms.
The effort to place Shumirum, which had been stalled for almost four years while John was supposedly looking for an alternate site, was revived in 2000 when the city decided they’d waited long enough on one man and would go ahead. I flew back for a meeting to finalize plans for installation and the city once again offered to pay for the pedestal and installation costs, an offer they’d made before but rescinded when John had balked at the original site. I rushed back to California elated to think we could install in time for that year’s Federation convention which was to be held in Chicago. No sooner did John learn of this than he fired off a letter to Michael Lash at the Public Art Program saying that the suit I’d brought against him and which was still pending , might force him to sue the city, or involve the city in a counter suit and he suggested they hold off on their plans to go ahead and install the Shumirum.(There was never any counter suit and absolutely no grounds for one, as he well knew) As Michael regretfully wrote to me, they had been advised to shelve the whole project until such time as John would write another letter removing his veiled threat of a lawsuit. I’m sure they must have thought we were a rather strange bunch to have allowed one man to use his own personal whim to halt something so eagerly anticipated by the city and many segments of our own community. I have both his letter to Michael, and Michael’s response. I also have a letter from John telling me that it was up to me, that if I dropped the suit, he would write the letter. Needless to say there was no connection between my suit against Helen’s estate, for her son’s believed what John told them, and the Shumirum Monument, which had been given to the city on behalf of all Assyrians. When John settled the suit, he continued to refuse to write the letter the Art Program asked of him and there the Shumirum has remained for the last six years.
When pressed as to why the site chosen by the curators of Public Art for Chicago, a city with an incomparable art collection, was not agreeable to him, John replied that Assyrians would never go there because there were too many “Blacks”…though that is not the term he used. When I pointed out to him that these monuments were intended to teach other people about who we are and that a University campus where students and teachers from around the world come and go, especially in such proximity to the Oriental Institute would be ideal, and as there were Afro Americans in every part of every major American city, he replied that the Assyrians in the North end of Chicago, where he lived…the “better” part of town, would appreciate the monument more. John Nimrod has expressed to me numerous times that “his” foundation gave all the money for the Shumirum, therefore they get to decide what to do with it…that it “belongs” to them. I pointed out to him that $90,000.00 was raised from other Assyrians, none of whom had any objection to the site chosen and all of them eager to see the piece installed after 13 years, as I was too. The failure to install the Shumirum, five years after being accepted by the city of Chicago, coupled with the letters John had written to members of our community in Detroit, had slowed the Hammurabi project down to a crawl causing me to make another trip there to answer concerns about my integrity, and about why Chicago hadn’t installed the Shumirum etc. questions which John had deliberately raised as “pay back”.
At the Assyrian American National Federation (AANF) convention held in Chicago in 2000, I had been invited by Dr. Eden Naby of Harvard to speak about Assyrian Monuments and their function in the Modern Era. She had been asked to coordinate the speaker’s program. She called me two weeks before we were to travel back to Chicago, furious because she’d been told by the local organizers of the convention that all things were set for her program and would proceed smoothly on condition that she dropped me as a speaker. They said that no one who sues an Assyrian (meaning John Nimrod) should be allowed to speak. She flat out refused and threatened to cancel the entire program at which they relented, however, this show of support only made them more determined. I had been promised a room of my own to display the sculpture I was bringing…the upper torso in plaster of the monumental Hammurabi and several bronzes. Her call alerted me to the fact that there might be trouble over my display and I insisted that the Federation send me a written invitation signed by a senior officer. They complied and I went to the convention, with an invitation and a promise of a room of my own signed by their vice-president.
.I had worked for one year on a design for a base for the Monument. It was a huge thing, nine feet by five feet by two feet high. On it was a history of the Assyrian people, also A history of Shumirum, donor names, as well as five versions of the name “Shumirum” in various languages and forms…all had been hand inscribed over a bas-relief design of palmettes. I drove the model in sections, as it was too delicate to ship, to a foundry in Arizona specializing in this type of casting. It was on my return from there that I received news that John had written the letter threatening to sue the city of Chicago and they could not proceed under those circumstances. The entire pedestal I’d taken to Arizona was subsequently thrown out when I was not able to pay for its storage. It was with this background that I arrived in Chicago for the convention at the downtown Chicago Hilton.
I felt the only way we would get the city to move forward with its plans, over the objections of only one man, would be to have a petition signed by as many people at the convention as possible. With that aim in mind I came with a display board on which were copies of all correspondence between John and I and Michael Lash, along with brochures setting out the case. I wanted people to understand the bizarre set of circumstances which had brought us here and offset the version John was spreading. During the first day of the convention these materials as well as a large photo of the head of Shumirum were confiscated by the Federation’s own security people, from the hallway where I’d placed them, by local members of the Chicago affiliate of the National Federation, whose president that year, Sargon Lewie, was also from Chicago. On the second day, when I was in the room provided me by the national Federation, members of the local affiliate entered saying that the displayed literature and petition forms were not “Art” and I would have to remove them, otherwise they would take down all my sculpture. I refused to do so, pointing out that I had been promised a room to display my “Art”, and I would be the judge of what my “Art” meant. Hotel Security was called. The Director for Security finally came himself, as I refused to yield, and when I showed him the invitation from the Vice President of the Federation, the local men responded that…”this was not an invitation from God”, and they didn’t have to honor it. This was obviously new territory for the Security chief but he informed me that the local affiliate had rented the space and if they now changed their minds, I would have to leave. I refused, and the city Police were called.
As we were all debating what to do next, with the Police officers stating that as I’d broken no laws, they would need a citizen to sign a complaint, a few volunteering quickly…Jackie Bejan, a friend and patron from California happened on the scene and marched us all down to the conference room where the president, Sargon Lewie, was addressing the assembled delegates. I had been trying to meet with him to seek his support for the petition drive to bring the monument to his City. It was decided quickly that I could address the meeting and I did. Sargon refused to allow me to circulate the petition, saying he would help me a little later but not just then. I did have the chance to explain the situation.
The next day I saw the person who had been willing to sign the citizen’s complaint warrant the day before, he turned out to be the Federation’s own head of security, William Youmarran. He and a friend were in the lobby where I told them both that they should be careful about signing such warrants because they would be open to a suit for false arrest and, in my case, as I had a written invitation the case would be a good one. At that the security chief , Willima Youmarran, exploded, threatening to knock my teeth out, put me in a hospital and go right then to destroy every piece of sculpture I had there. Thea Halo, a woman who was signing her recent book on Assyrian massacre victims in Turkey came to us asking that we not have have this secene in public. For my part I had said nothing, merely going to the telephone to call the Police. The two gentlemen quickly disappeared and I saw them later run down the stairs and away.
The first officers to arrive received such a harangue from the Assyrians who’d gathered that they were hesitant to take the threats seriously, until their captain arrived, who’d had his fill of just such shenanigans from the day before. When told that no one would give the names of the two men, and that they were being kept in the conference room and no one allowed in, he strode off down the hall and into the room, spoke with Sargon, who said he didn’t know their names…and led us to the Chief of Hotel Security’s office where he said there was a credible threat made against me and my family and he wanted the Hotel security people to respond immediately and in force if I should call on them…and he would be right behind. Later in the day I was asked to call the thing off because the two men in hiding from the Police, who wanted them for questioning, were needed to fill staff positions so the convention could progress. I agreed to drop the matter if they met me face to face. A meeting was quickly arranged and the two appeared from an upstairs suite where they’d been hiding and we discussed the events and what my objective had been all along. Though I asked for no apology they insisted on shaking hands and one, the one who’d threatened to kick my teeth in an hour before, hugged me and invited us out to dinner. I declined. In parting he said….as in reproach to me, “Fred…you didn’t think we meant it, DID you?
For the rest of the convention I tried to meet with the president, Sargon Lewie to get permission to mount the petition drive. I knew what they would do if I proceeded without his permission. I finally managed to address the delegates on the last night and just before the main banquet was to begin, my last chance to gather signatures, and he flat out refused to allow me to do it. I had little opportunity to speak with anyone about donations to the Hammurabi as I’d been kept running around trying to do the work necessary for I still hoped to have the Shumirum installed…as, among other reasons, many people had begun to doubt the Hammurabi Monument’s chance of ever getting installed and donations had stopped entirely.
We now come to this year’s convention held in San Jose, California. Jackie Bejan, a friend and patron (she and her husband have close to $90,000.00 of my sculptures), is the president of the San Jose club, an affiliate of the National Federation. Incidentally at last year’s convention in Chicago, Atour Golani, another friend, was elected president. About five months ago Jackie asked me to consider bringing the Shumirum Monument to San Jose for installation. Until last year Jackie had believed John Nimrod was working to have the monument installed in Chicago. That all changed when she and I met privately with John on one of his trips out here. At that meeting John looked Jackie in the eyes and told her he’d been assured by the Arts Council in Chicago that they would discuss his idea for alternate sites at their upcoming meeting (John had proposed, at the very first meeting when he’d rejected the site chosen by the city, one or two sites they’d immediately told him right then were not available or appropriate) and in any case, he was set to have coffee with the Mayor soon and was confident he could get the site he wanted. As we left I told Jackie he’d been saying these same things, about having coffee with the mayor etc. for years now. His intention, I believed, was to take “his” monument back from the city and install it at a never-to-be-built clubhouse the AUA had been planning to build for years and still hasn’t.
The next day I called Ms Mizwicki at the Chicago Arts Council, my third contact person there, who said they had told John quite the opposite, that until he wrote them the letter they’d been asking for, they would not even place us on their agenda. She had not had a conversation with John about anything other than the fact that they required that letter from him before proceeding. When Jackie realized that John had lied to her as well, she became determined to have the monument installed in San Jose.
Jackie Bejan is a very capable woman who owns a Silicon Valley business with her husband. She is sharp, professional in many ways, and extremely ambitious politically. She has been president of her San Jose club for two or three years now. I first met her when she organized a State convention for Assyrians, also held in San Jose, in 1996. Since then we have become friendly and have shared ideas over how best to improve conditions for our people here in this country and abroad. I have appeared on her television program several times and have donated sculpture to be used in fund raising for relief work among our people caught in Northern Iraq.
I agreed to her proposal on condition that we work diligently to install the monument by this year’s convention on Labor Day so the thousands of Assyrians coming from around the country and from other parts of the world, could see the unveiling. She agreed and we had nearly five months to do the work. The monument, meanwhile, consisting of an eight foot plus statue of the Queen with a seven foot long lioness reclining at her feet, was taken to Monterey Sculpture Center for about $5,000.00 worth of final preparation. We also had to build a much modified base for it, the other one having been junked in Arizona.
Jackie’s approach was to begin with the Mayor and his staff. This is contrary to common and correct procedure. Every major city has an Arts Council or committee of some kind and all questions relating to Art on city property are their responsibility and they especially don’t appreciate any attempt to enlist politicians on behalf of an Art project which they would want to know could stand on its own merits. I’d questioned Jackie about this approach, for I had done this twice already, in San Francisco and Chicago. She insisted that San Jose was different, that she knew the Mayor personally and his support would be invaluable. I was to find out later from the director of the Arts Council, Harriet Traurig, that Jackie did indeed attend a meeting, held once each month, in April, and that subsequently she went to one other sub-committee meeting. But she never got on their agenda after the April meeting which is puzzling since for most of that time she insisted to me she was moving forward on schedule etc.
In the course of coming weeks Jackie told me she had met with the Mayor, the previous mayor, the head of the Arts council, had gone to lunch with a couple of people from the Mayor’s office, all in an attempt to “make our case”. The Committee had voted unanimously to accept the monument already and was waiting on Jackie to provide the answers to questions they’d raised as to technical details and of course a site had to be selected and approved. Jackie and I talked frequently and e-mailed each other about the progress of the monument and also about the sculptures I was to display at the upcoming national convention of which she was the hosting affiliate and was in charge of securing a hotel and preparing the sessions and special events. She’d asked me in addition to displaying sculpture, to give a talk about the theft and damage of our antiquities in Iraq due to the Gulf war sanctions.
It was in one of our conversations that Jackie let slip that she’d had lunch with “Ash” an Assyrian working in the Mayor’s office, that they’d begun to plan the unveiling ceremonies. She mentioned also that her brother, who evidently has a good voice, would sing at the unveiling. I was dismayed at this as it seemed to be premature and their plans had not included me. I feel that until a monument is dedicated and becomes a part of the public space, it is still in my care and guidance, especially as to location and unveiling. When I asked Jackie to keep me informed of her plans and include me in any discussions with people I hadn’t met yet, before they agreed to any procedure, she responded, rather tersely I thought, that she would. And when I asked if another, professional, singer could also sing, she replied that she knew he was unavailable.
From that moment a subtle change in her attitude and efforts took place. I believe that Jackie, as John before her, thought the monument was “theirs” once they decided to have it installed…that my duties were ended and I should stay out of it Installing the monument and designing the unveiling ceremony was to be their “artwork”, their chance to bask in the limelight, something I hated doing. But I had seen enough and knew enough about them to know they would use the event to further their very determined agendas, and I didn’t want to end such a long process by turning it over to anyone else without being allowed a voice in how the project would finally come to completion.
The closer we came to the convention the less Jackie seemed to get done. At one point I’d suggested to the foundry owner that they begin the final work on the monument without the deposit they required, and if we did not manage to repay them the $5,000.00 by August15th, the monument would be his to install in a small sculpture garden the city of Marina maintained and which he curated for them. I was due to move to Mexico and did not want the monument lying around in storage any longer…somewhere was better than nowhere. Jackie had said she would raise the money by selling one of my sculptures to one of her friends, but that she wanted to wait until everything was set before doing so. My concern was that by the time she did that, we’d be too close to the convention date and the foundry would not be able to finish in time. We still had to find a site, get approval, and find someone to do the drawings and pour the concrete pedestal at the site. If we were not able to install by the convention date, then at least we’d be ready soon after, so that the sooner work was completed, the sooner an installation would occur.
Just that year we had bought a home in Mexico and were eager to get settled in. I’d postponed our move and the work I had to begin, in order to remain here and supervise the work on the monument and installation, also to display at the convention and give my talk. The Federation itself was the fiscal sponsor for the Hammurabi Monument, and though they had not as yet donated to it (the Federation gave $20,000, to the other two monuments), they had always allowed the chance to attract new donors and raise funds at their conventions. I made several trips to the foundry, a distance of 400 miles round trip, as well as cast sculptures, have new pedestals made etc, for the upcoming show.
As we came closer to the August 15th deadline for us to pay the foundry before the monument became theirs, I called Jackie and mailed her that surely she must know by now and we really had to find a donor so we could pay the foundry. She never called me back or answered the several e-mails I sent her until I gave her 24 hours to do so before I would have to act. I had thought the deal with the foundry had been a good move to get the work completed because I believed Jackie would find a donor or pay the money herself and be reimbursed later. When she didn’t respond I contacted a patron and he paid the foundry bill. I suspected by now that Jackie had changed her mind about the monument at some point but hadn’t told me. She knew I was eager to make the move to Mexico and I think she decided to stall, knowing I would have to go soon after the convention…if we did NOT install by then , leaving her a free hand to proceed with the monument as she saw fit. Jackie apparently used the monument as an entre into every office she could get into and to present herself to the city in a favorable light. She’d told me that a few politicians had asked her to run their campaigns for them and I believe she had other ambitions for which the monument would have come in handy…but only without me around. My only agenda all along was to build a monument that would be welcomed in a city with a collection as fine as Chicago’s, and to install it and position it in such a way as to make us all proud.
After her failure to respond to me, which almost cost us the monument, I mailed her that the monument was no longer available for installation in San Jose, that the bill had been paid by someone else. She fired back that I was therefore not welcome at “her” convention…that it was a private party and I was not invited. This happened two weeks before the convention. I immediately had a lawyer write a letter to Jackie and her boss, the president of the Federation, Atour Golani, who lives in Detroit. Atour and his wife Janey are wonderful people, friends of mine…who became the guardians and chief promoters of the Hammurabi Monument project. They have given talks, lugged maquettes around Detroit and eagerly look forward to the day when the project is completed and installed in their city. Of a $150,000.00 budget we have raised $50,000.00 for the monument out of total sales of maquettes of $90,000.00.
Atour Golani is a highly respected member of our community, a senior supervisor at Ford Motor Company, who hoped his managerial skills could be employed to bring the Federation into some sort of meaningful and effective new direction. He reluctantly stood for office…and I think regrets ever having done so. There is a culture within the Federation, not necessarily at the top either, which fights off change, preferring things as they are. Atour’s response to Jackie’s attempted ban was to tell me to do what I thought best. I had declared my intention of coming to the convention and displaying just those sculptures Jackie and I had discussed, at the location we’d selected in the Hotel lobby. I was assured informally, not by Atour, that I was more than welcome, that Atour had told Jackie that any invitations to anyone would have to cross his desk and I could count on receiving one. My recollection of Federation written invitations was that the local “boys” could nullify them at will, as the local boys, or “girl” in this case was the main customer of the hotel…she would be able to have anyone removed she claimed was not welcome to her.
On the Friday of the convention weekend I arrived and set up the eight pedestals and sculptures as planned. Each piece was draped in a black shroud with yellow chord wrapped round tightly and many had a page affixed to them from an article about the devastation Sanctions in Iraq had caused among the innocent population, children especially…among whom were many Assyrians. When asked when I would show the sculptures, I replied I would unveil them on Sunday night, the last day of the convention, the night of the main banquet.
On Saturday, the next day, I attended a political rally. I had no intention of getting involved until I heard John Nimrod, one of the featured speakers, end his talk by saying it was time for all Assyrians to come together, put aside petty differences and work to increase the awareness of the general public as to our existence in the Modern Era. As these had been exactly my goals in making monuments for twenty years now, I ventured to ask a question when time came for questions from the audience. When I was called upon I went to the microphone in the aisle and expressed my agreement with John’s words but felt compelled therefore to ask him why, in that case, he had been threatening to sue the city of Chicago for almost six years if it went ahead and installed the Shumirum Monument which could have been doing exactly what he’d just called on us to do. Several members in the audience turned to exclaim that I was out of order, and the moderator asked for security people to take me out. Two appeared immediately at my elbow, but as I’d asked the question, I retreated to the back of the room where I’d been standing. Jackie, who’d appeared from somewhere when I first raised my hand, came in with what turned out to be the Hotel’s general manager and two hotel security people who also stood on either side of me. I went out in the hall and asked what the problem was, that I’d merely asked a question, one that was on the lips of several people, especially those who’d donated thousands of dollars (Jackie was one of them) and who were beginning to doubt my sincereity and integrity etc…I’d made no statement, I had attacked no one…just asked the question. Jackie said I was being disruptive and the General manager told me I could go back in the room if I wanted to, but that one more sound out of me and they would escort me off the premises. I should add that against all hotel policy and precedent Jackie had insisted that uniformed San Jose Police officers, all armed, should be at the convention. Looking back on it I think this insistence of hers worried Hotel management and made everyone jumpy. The day before I’d witnessed some pretty extreme Police behavior and had stopped a situation from escalating myself, for which the under chief of security had thanked me personally.
I listened to some more questions and when it came to John to respond he added a sidebar that his foundation had paid $227,000.00 for the Shumirum (Helen gave $120,000.00…it should be in their books) and that he had said all along the statue would go wherever the Mayor decided it would. This seemed to please the crowd. This is the same lie he’s been telling people across the country whenever they ask what happened to the Shumirum. He still doesn’t believe there were any other donors besides his sister/himself, even though donations came through their own checking account to me, unless he considers ANY monies which came through them to be THEIR, the AUA Foundation of which he was president, donation. John had made it appear to everyone he could that I was the one holding up installation somehow by suing him to “make money”…when it was to recover my losses for the commission from Helen he’d also lied about.
I had done what I said I would do…I made a monument which was accepted by the city of Chicago and would have been installed years earlier if not for one man. I was under no obligation, there had been no contract, to wait year after year for something John wasn’t even working on, the supposed “other sites” he was going to find…or the supposed cup of coffee with the Mayor of Chicago which would get him what he wanted His actions had caused people to doubt me and donations to my next project had come to a halt. He has said what he needed to in order to deflect attention from himself and to pay me back for having sued him… and won, because he dared not repeat these and other lies under oath.
I left the meeting room shortly after making a universally understood arm gesture in his direction. I walked the fifty feet to where the sculptures were and proceeded to uncover them. Within fifteen minutes I sold one…a donation for the Hammurabi Monument…when I was immediately approached by Jackie’s club’s vice-president and the vice president of the National Federation. Jackie’s vice president Alphonse (the other man was Alladin…I know, I know) held a “contract” in his hands which they said all the other artists showing there had agreed to and I would have to sign as well if I wanted to remain. It would be useful to point out that since I first began showing in 1978 I have never been placed in the rooms reserved for other artists. I’ve either had my own room, or I’ve set up my pieces in the main lobby close to the banquet room. This was done to get maximum exposure for people to view the works of the only professional sculptor this community has produced, and to learn about the monuments.
One glance at the contract convinced me I should speak to Atour, for along with his signature, as president was the signature of, not Jackie, but her vice-president. The contract was dated August 24, nine days previous to the time they were handing it to me. The contract stipulated that I must not mention the Shumirum Monument in any way while at the convention…I also must not talk about the Federation itself…and I must not sell any sculpture while there. The document was a nightmare of uglies and I wanted to caution Atour not to have anything to do with it. It was puzzling to me why he would be associated with such a thing. As president of the Federation, his goal should have been to help me raise money for the project THEY were sponsoring, not shut me down. With thousands of Assyrians present, from around the world as well, it was the ideal time in the entire year to do so and I’d sold one sculpture in a few minutes and there were several who’d expressed an interest who would be coming that night to see the pieces unveiled.
Atour came to where I was and I asked him to step into a side room. The vice-president of their organization insisted on remaining, even when Atour asked him to leave the room. I think “they” were fearful that these two friends might “do’ something. They were spying. I asked Atour if this was the same contract presented to the other artists who’d all had price tags prominently displayed on their works for three days now. He said it was. When I asked if they too had agreed not to sell, he replied that they’d all agreed to “kick-back” a percentage to the Federation (Two of the artists are friends and when I asked them about this later they said they’d never heard of such a thing and wouldn’t have come if asked to do so. They also said there had been no effort to stop them from selling their works, even though they’d signed the contract.). When I asked him why they hadn’t given me the same option of kicking back to them, he said nothing. I next asked Atour if the other artists had also been asked not to speak freely, not to mention the Shumirum or the Federation, as a condition of being allowed to remain and “not sell” their work, though they were obviously offering to sell? He replied that he didn’t want to repeat himself, either I signed the contract or I would have to leave immediately. I chose to leave. As soon as I did, the Hotel was asked to hide the sculptures from view and tablecloths were thrown over them and a barrier wall placed against them where they were shoved into a corner, so people could not even see them.
I was told not to return that night or else I would be taken out by the Police. Jackie’s vice-president, the one who’d attached his signature to a document telling me I must not mention the Shumirum…while John was free to tell lies about the project…stood in the lobby arguing with some supporters of mine, proclaiming loudly that there wasn’t such a monument in existence, that I’ve lied about the whole thing…or else why didn’t I bring it, or a photograph to show. His intention, as Jackie’s and John’s, is to discredit me as much as possible within the tight community we have, who have been the major buyers and audience for the Assyrian sculptures I make. This is all part of their plan to render me ineffective for my stated goal of taking this identity out onto the world stage, through monuments and Art in general. This has scared them all for just the reasons they displayed…they are used to behaving illegally and unconstitutionally, they are accustomed to bullying us and behaving in ways none of them would at their jobs and businesses where they know better than to engage in these kinds of things, and where people can see and measure them, and where laws apply.
None of them can bring themselves to believe a “mere” artist also has laws to protect his work and reputation and that these easy to engage in acts indulged in for a heady weekend once a year, have real and legal consequences in the world, especially for a recognized professional. One is reminded of the removal of a young Assyrian’s painting last year in Chicago from the Art Exhibit because he dared to use the color purple in a “sad” depiction of a face in the painting, and that this was interpreted by ONE MAN as an attack on an Assyrian political organization in Iraq called ZOWAA who claimed the color purple as It’s OWN color. The young man in question never even knew it happened, was not told or consulted and was not allowed to confront the people responsible, neither did he get any support from the Federation for this outrageous act. These are the standards these people wish to maintain and it should be no wonder that they don’t want themselves exposed. They wish to keep this Heritage bottled up in garage clubhouses, basement organizations and the secret bowels of Hotels where no one can see, no one knows, and no one cares to interfere with the ways in which they help keep us infantile and retrograde as a community, when we have so many pressing needs that will never even be recognized let alone addressed if we continue behaving in these immature ways.
The next morning I returned to the Hotel and went directly to the general managers office. He told me I had five minutes to take the sculptures and get out. I’m convinced now that Jackie had filled his ear about me…telling him that I had been the cause of the disturbance in Chicago when the Doubletree’s own parent company, Hilton Hotels…had come down on my side in that instance. I said it would be impossible to remove the sculptures in five minutes, it had taken two hours to bring them in, each was wrapped, as were the pedestals…that they were fragile, that the eight of them were appraised at almost $100,000.00. He replied…”then just get out now.” He said the police would confiscate them…that I would be hearing a lot from the Police etc. I left, returning in a week to find a changed attitude, with BOTH security chiefs bowing and scraping as bellboys wheeled the sculptures down to me, a couple of which had been damaged. I think everyone awoke from a sort of a trance. I know that the Detroit Hyatt at which the last national convention had been held in Detroit in ‘97, and where next year’s was to be held…had sent a”spy” to see how we behaved before allowing us back there, and they had decided that same week end to refuse to host us and that the Federation itself concluded this convention in San Jose was to be the last, after 68 years.
I believe Jackie, her club and the Federation acted illegally in denying me the opportunity to do what I have done at every convention I attended in the last 24 years…that by handing me a contract denying me the exercise of my free speech rights, a contract singling me out personally, stipulating that I not sell or raise donations for a project they themselves are sponsoring, and presenting me with the contract nine days after it was drawn up, presumably…unless it was back-dated that night to make it appear to have been drawn up earlier…when they should have presented me with the option before I came there and was there for the weekend without hearing a word about it….that by doing this to me when Jackie and I had been working together on the sculptures I would display, before she became angry over an unrelated and personal dispute between herself and I…that all of this was precipitated by one woman’s anger and the help she received from a few individuals who have been trying to destroy my growing visibility in our community.
In additon, and to help you better understand our community…my first monument, the Ashurbanipal Monument in San Francisco, was attacked by a handful of the same sorts of Assyrians who went behind the scenes to officials in the city government trying to have the project killed, even going so far as to dispute the well know fact that Ashurbanipal had the world’s first true Library. One of them wrote that he would blow the monument up if San Francisco installed it. To the ordinary person these actions are difficult to reconcile with the target of their abuse. What could possibly upset our own people so much about Art projects which this country welcomes with open arms. My own explanation is that fear and jealousy motivates them. Our people, especially the less educated or sophisticated, feel victimized by years of oppression in their homelands at the hands of Moslems and others. They cling to whatever fragment of their Assyrian identity is left to them, as one who is drowning grabs at anything to keep afloat. What I and others are proposing to do, would expose us all to the general glare and bring attention, possibly notoriety and criticism our way. The others, the ones more seemingly at ease in the world, the ones with businesses and educations and who have become used to being the “Elite” in our community, have in reality maintained their lofty position by keeping the rest of us so immature and ineffective that by easy contrast they have been able to appear to us as far more than they really are. The standard of measurement these leaders and Elites have allowed has made it easy for them to climb to the top of a pretty lowly and pathetic heap. The great crime and shame here is that we have many, many capable, brilliant and motivated young people who are turning away in droves from this community, driven away by shame, frustration and despair over just the sort of treatment I and others have endured. It just hasn’t seemed worth it to fight these people, especially as in the hot confines of the conventions and clubhouses, they engage in the most egregious sorts of behavior, even in illegal acts, vilification, rumor mongering and outright slanders…all calculated to scare away those who quickly decide there are better things to do with their lives.
This situation has to be reversed or there will be very little hope of attracting the brightest and the best among us to come back and provide real inspiration and guidance to our
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