Galvanized Beauty of Mona Hatoum
Mona Hatoum (1952- ) began her life in exile. Though she was born in Beirut, Lebanon, her parents were refugees from Palestine and unable to obtain Lebanese citizenship. The Lebanese Civil War broke out in 1975 while Hatoum was visiting London. Through her father’s work at the British Embassy she could obtain British citizenship and to this day lives in London. I mention this because it is this biography that many use to define her work, but Hatoum takes a different route. In an interview with artist Janine Antoni, Hatoum said, “I’m often asked the same question: What in your work comes from your own culture? As if I have a recipe and I can actually isolate the Arab ingredient, the woman ingredient, the Palestinian ingredient. People often expect tidy definitions of otherness, as if identity is something fixed and easily definable.” Hatoum utilizes sculpture and video to discuss issues of gender and inequality that she sees happening on a global scale, not just in the Middle East.
On the surface, Hatoum’s art seems miles away from the stereotypical idea of Middle Eastern art; it's industrial and minimal. For example, Hatoum’s Daybed, 2008, offers viewers a dangerous respite from fatigue. Black finished steel makes up the low sitting bed. With a passing glance, one might think the punctures on the top are a design etched into the steel. The surface of Daybed is disrupted by two sets of perforations; it is as if Hatoum used the side of a box grater for the sculpture. Both sets of perforations are evenly spaced and perfectly symmetrical. The use of two different size grates tricks the eye into seeing a nightmarish blanket and pillow, Hatoum’s humor at play with the title. Hatoum takes a utilitarian object we are familiar with, a box grater from any kitchen, and transforms it into something meant for leisure. Edward Said writes about the tension Hatoum creates with this work, “Domesticity is thus transformed into a series of menacing and radically inhospitable objects whose new and presumably non-domestic use is waiting to be defined. They are unredeemed things whose distortions cannot be sent back for correction or reworking, since the old address is unreachably there and yet has been annulled.” The function of Daybed is left undefined. Hatoum challenges the viewer to adapt to the objects in their new setting and rethink their original definition.
Hatoum turns another object upside down in her work No Way IV, 2013. The artwork repurposes a stainless-steel kitchen colander. The colander is placed upside down so that Hatoum’s modifications to the bottom become the focal point. A short stainless-steel dowel protrudes out of each circular hole; effectively making the colander useless. Liquid cannot enter its current position or exit if turned the other way. In both works of art, Hatoum makes the viewer question their reality. She described this train of thought to Janine Antoni as, “A kind of self-examination and an examination of the power structures that control us: Am I the jailed or the jailer? The oppressed or the oppressor? Or both. I want the work to complicate these positions and offer an ambiguity and ambivalence rather than concrete and sure answers.” No Way IV can also be interpreted through a feminist lens as Hatoum rejecting traditional roles of being a woman. On the surface, the title tells us the colander will not work if we try to use it. However, it is also a bold statement of defiance. Gone are expectations of housewife – “no way” will I make dinner – and here is reclaiming of the female body – “no way” will I allow you inside.
Dislocation is defined as “disturbance from a proper, original, or usual place or state.” This definition fits not only the history of Mona Hatoum but also her art. The artist has spent most of her life traveling the world, settling from place to place, and never returning to her country of origin. She has used this disturbance from her home to create artwork that challenges traditional attitudes and socially coded behavior. By removing the subject matter from its familiar setting, she is, in effect, puncturing the viewer’s expectation and making them question their idea of reality. This reading of Hatoum and her work only scratches the surface of potential research. I could spend time writing additional articles delving into power balances of western society, the Surrealist influence cited by the artist, and a deeper examination of female artists calling out gender stereotypes. Combined, these topics prove that being an artist of Middle Eastern descent in today’s world results in a layered interpretation that extends far beyond the Fertile Crescent.
An exhibition of Hatoum's current work, titled Terra Infirma, was just on display at the Menil Collection, Houston and next opens at Pulitzer Arts Foundation in Saint Louis.
Articles / Links Mentioned
 Janine Antoni, “Mona Hatoum,” Bomb Magazine, April 1, 1998. http://bombmagazine.org/articles/mona-hatoum/
 Edward Said, “The Art of Displacement: Mona Hatoum’s Logic of Irreconcilables,” in Mona Hatoum: The Entire World as a Foreign Land (London: Tate Gallery Publishing, 2000), 108.
 Antoni, “Mona Hatoum,” http://bombmagazine.org/articles/mona-hatoum/