Is Mona Hatoum a Surrealist Palestinian?

(This text was originally published at The International Museum of Women, December 2012)

Mona Hatoum ( b. 1952, Lebanon) was born into a Palestinian family in Beirut. She often explores the danger and limit of everyday objects, giving them a new vision of interpretation. Her poetic and political oeuvre is realized in a different range of media: installation, sculpture, video photography and work on paper can be interpreted as a description of the body, gender and a commentary on politics.

All her earlier works draw a strong link with the condition of Palestine people. Although born in Lebanon, she always emphasizes her belonging to Palestine, but expresses frustration when that of “nationality” is the only interpretation that the audience gives to her works.

One of her most celebrated works is a video “Measure of distance” she made in 1988. Hatoum produced this video of letters written by her mother in Beirut to her in London. The video is a sensual conversation between two women, mother and daughter, in which the former speaks openly about feelings, sexuality and femininity.

“Although the main thing that comes across is a very close and emotional relationship between mother and daughter, it also speaks of exile, displacement, disorientation and a tremendous sense of loss as a result of the separation caused by war.” 1

“View Siege” (1982) was a performance piece in which she was trapped in a large glass container entirely covered in clay. She tried several times to stand but repeatedly slipped and fell as the clay from her body smelted. It was a clear reference to the condition in Palestine as a country living in continuous siege. A collage of sound from different directions and in different languages was the background of the event.
Hatoum’s work is strongly evaluated as existing in the space between the Duchamp’s ready-mades surrealism and minimalism through her way of exploring objects and giving them a metaphoric interpretation via different framework. To explore the way in which she manipulates the object it is interesting to look at “Untitled (Wheelchair II), produced in 1999.At first glance, the object looks unremarkable in its status, but as soon as one looks closer the differences come across: the chair itself is very uncomfortable and the wheels are very small, consequently the object is useless in its purpose and what appeared is different from the reality.
She took part in the Venice Biennale in 1995 and 2005 and has received numerous international awards, including the Joan Miró Prize in Barcelona (2011), the Käthe Kollwitz Prize in Berlin (2010), the Rolf Schock Prize in Stockholm (2008) and an honorary doctorate from the American University of Beirut (2008).
Today Mona lives and works in London and Berlin, exploring daily through her works, the duality of belonging to a Country of Arab tradition as well as to belong at the other, the “adoptive one” in which prejudice is overcome and freedom is a right of everybody.
1. Quoted in Mona Hatoum 1977, P.140

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