Written by Alessandra Amin 

Mona Hatoum was born in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1952, to Palestinian refugees displaced during the Nakba in 1948. She began her higher education at the Beirut College for Women (later Beirut University College; now part of the Lebanese American University), where she studied graphic design from 1970-1972. Like most Palestinians in Lebanon, Hatoum’s family was unable to obtain Lebanese citizenship, but her father’s former job as a civil servant under the British Mandate enabled them to obtain UK passports. During what had been intended as a short trip to London in 1975, the eruption of the Lebanese Civil War prevented the artist from returning to Beirut. Hatoum thus became the exiled daughter of exiles, an experience that would significantly impact her work both thematically and technically; she completed her arts education in London, first at the Byam Shaw School of Art (now Central Saint Martin’s College of Art and Design) from 1975-1979, and then at the Slade School of Fine Art from 1979-1981. 

Hatoum’s early work is characterized by aggressive, overtly political content and largely takes the form of performance and video art. An illustrative example is The Negotiating Table (1983), in which the artist lies motionless on a table, surrounded by empty chairs and dimly lit from above by a sole lightbulb. Her body is covered in blood and viscera, bundled in plastic, and her face is obscured by the surgical gauze that wraps her entire head. The piece was produced in direct response to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, as is suggested by the sound clips accompanying Hatoum’s performance, which feature news reports on the war and speeches by Western leaders promising peace in the region. Evoking, at once, a sacrificial altar and an operating table, the work sends a powerful message about the inability of Lebanese civilians to “negotiate” for their lives through the uneven frameworks of power in which they find themselves.

By the mid-1990s, Mona Hatoum had shifted her focus to object-based pieces that strayed from direct engagement with political protest. Hatoum stated in a 1996 interview with Michael Archer, “I don’t think art is the best place to be didactic; I don’t think the language of visual art is the most suitable for presenting clear arguments, let alone for trying to convince, convert or teach.” Rather than taking on discrete political circumstances, Hatoum’s work of this period addresses various and multifaceted themes of nomadism and exile, recasting the stuff of everyday life in a disorienting, unstable light. Home (1999), for example, is an installation of metal kitchen appliances on a wooden tabletop. Wires wind menacingly through these utensils – which include a whisk, a colander, a ladle, a sieve, a pasta maker, presses, a pastry cutter, and several graters – and connect them with crocodile clips, conducting electricity through the metal objects. The electrical current thus transmitted, which is controlled by a software program, periodically lights up the installation from bulbs placed under an upright grater, the colander and the sieve, and a sound system amplifies the threatening crackle of electricity through the room. Home is characteristic of Hatoum’s work in the 1990s and early 2000s in its immediate juxtaposition of domesticity and danger. The transformation of ‘safe,’ quotidian objects into hazardous materials creates a palpable instability that inverts conceptions of domestic comfort, turning a kitchen table into a hostile and alien site – an allusion to the precarious nature of “home” for a person living in exile.

Mona Hatoum’s Witness (2009), currently in the Ramzi & Saeda Dalloul Collection, speaks to the direction of the artist’s work since the mid-2000s. This small sculpture, not quite 50cm in height, is a miniature ceramic replica of the Martyr’s Monument in downtown Beirut. The original monument, erected in 1960, was heavily damaged during the civil war, and the restorations it underwent in 1996 intentionally preserved the marks left on it by bullets and shells. Hatoum’s replica subtly emphasizes these holes, which appear in contrast to the smooth white of the ceramic. The original monument is centrally located in a public space, and its scars “bear witness” to a brutal conflict that touched virtually every family in the city. In shrinking it down to a miniature, Hatoum brings the statue down to a domestic scale, as though it is an object for personal contemplation – or even for mere decorative use. Here, Hatoum’s deliberate manipulation of boundaries between “the public” and “the private” prompts reflection on the very nature of commemoration itself. To what extent do monuments help us mourn our dead? To what extent do they glorify or sterilize the events they represent? In enshrining our losses, do we guard against the repetition of history, or do we nurture old grudges?

Hatoum, who is arguably the most internationally successful Palestinian artist working today, currently resides between London and Berlin.

Sources

Archer, Michael, Guy Brett, and Catherine de Zegher. Mona Hatoum. London: Phaidon Press, 1997.

Daftari, Fereshteh. “Home and Away,” MoMA 3, no. 8 (November 2000), pp. 2-5

Hatoum, Mona and Laura Steward Heon,eds. Mona Hatoum: Domestic Disturbance. North Adams, MA: Mass MoCA, 2001.

Hatoum, Mona, Edward W. Said, and Sheena Wagstaff, Mona Hatoum: The Entire World as a Foreign Land. London: Tate Britain, 2000.

Mansoor, Jaleh. “A Spectral Universality: Mona Hatoum’s Biopolitics of Abstraction.” October 133 (Summer 2010), pp. 49-79

Schulenberg, Anneke. “Sites and Senses: Mapping Palestinian Territories in Mona Hatoum’s Sculpture Present Tense,” in The Imagined and Real Jerusalem in Art and Architecture, eds. Jeroen Goudeau et al., Leiden, Boston:  Brill, 2014, pp. 11-32.