Mona Hatoum: 6 Facts About the Palestinian Artist

Mona Hatoum often blends political topics with personal experiences in her work. Here are six facts about her career as an artist.

Jun 2, 2023By Stefanie Graf, MA in progress, BA in Art History
mona hatoum facts

 

Mona Hatoum was born in 1952. Her body of work features pieces of performance art, video art, installation art, and sculptures. She works with materials like light bulbs, glass, metal, and wood and also uses more unconventional materials such as hair. The interpretations of Hatoum’s works range from highly political to humorous and personal. Violence, oppression, dislocation, confinement, the familiar and the unfamiliar, the body, politics, and the viewer’s experience are important themes of Mona Hatoum’s work. Here are six facts about Hatoum’s work and career as an artist.

 

1. Mona Hatoum was Born in Beirut to a Palestinian Family

mona hatoum measures of distance
Measures of Distance by Mona Hatoum, 1988, via MoMA, New York

 

Being born in Beirut to a Palestinian Family greatly influenced Mona Hatoum’s work as an artist. Her family went into exile in Lebanon after 1948 but never received Lebanese citizenship, which made integrating into the country more difficult. Her family members became citizens of Great Britain, and her father worked for the British embassy. Since he wanted his daughter to be financially stable, Mona’s dad didn’t like the idea of her becoming an artist.

 

Hatoum studied graphic design at the Beirut College for Women. After finishing her studies, she worked at an advertising agency. This was not a job that Mona enjoyed doing. In 1975, she went to London for a temporary visit. The civil war broke out in Lebanon at the time, so Hatoum had to stay in the UK since the airport in Beirut was closed for six months.

 

Her parents were still living in Beirut in a dangerous area. They, therefore, had to spend a lot of time hiding in a shelter. In London, Hatoum studied at the Byam Shaw School of Art and the Slade School of Fine Art. These experiences caused her to feel dislocated, which was reflected in her art. Hatoum mentioned that her role as an outsider influenced her work by saying: My work is about my experience of living in the West as a person from the Third World, about being an outsider, about occupying a marginal position, being excluded, being defined as “Other” or as one of “Them.”

 

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Her video work Measures of Distance deals with themes like displacement and loss. The piece shows images of Hatoum’s mother showering overlaid with Arabic texts, representing the letters the artist’s mother sent to her daughter from Beirut. The letters are read by Hatoum in English. The viewer can also hear personal conversations between Hatoum and her mother held in Arabic.

 

2. She Started Her Career as a Video and Performance Artist

mona hatoum performance still
Performance Still by Mona Hatoum, 1995, via Tate

 

Mona Hatoum’s early career was characterized by her work as a video and performance artist. In pieces from the early 1980s, Hatoum concentrated on the human body. One of the reasons why the artist chose to focus on performance art was its affordability.

 

Her Performance Still documents one of the three performances Hatoum created for an exhibition organized by the Brixton Artists Collective titled Roadworks. During the one-hour-long performance, Hatoum walked through Brixton, a district in south London, with bare feet and black Dr. Marten boots tied to her ankles. Since the police and skinheads were known for wearing these boots, the shoes served as a symbol of fascism and oppression. Some of the people that saw Hatoum pass by during her performance were left confused by what the artist was doing. The whole performance was filmed and then made into a six-minute-long video. Another performance Hatoum did for the Roadworks exhibition featured a collaboration with Stefan Szczelkun. They both fell onto the floor and outlined each other’s bodies with chalk on the floor.

 

3. She Made a Work Showing the Inside of Her Body

mona hatoum corps étranger
Installation view of Corps étranger by Mona Hatoum, via Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney

 

With an intense focus on her own body, Mona Hatoum created Corps étranger, a video showing the insides of the artist’s body with an endoscopic camera. Viewers could watch the video being projected onto the floor of a cylinder-shaped structure. The title Corps étranger translates as a foreign body. It was chosen by Hatoum to express the camera as a foreign object inserted into the body while also representing how the body that we call our own can feel like a foreign entity.

 

When we see the artist’s or our own insides through an endoscopic camera, it’s hard to recognize these strange images as our very own bodies. The piece, therefore, questions the prefixed notions of inside and outside, self and other, as Sarah W. Abu Bakr writes in her text A Stranger in the Gallery: Conceptions of the Body Through Art and Theory.

 

Hatoum took pain medication and therefore didn’t have any problems while creating the piece. The artist felt it was essential to use her body in the work. A doctor helped her make the piece, but she was conscious during the whole procedure, and she directed the video. According to the artist, the piece was supposed to show how the body is probed, invaded, violated, and deconstructed by the scientific eye.

 

4. The Artist Started to Focus on Installation Art in the Late 1980s 

mona hatoum interior exterior landscape
Interior/Exterior Landscape by Mona Hatoum, 2010, via Tate, London

 

During the late 1980s, Mona Hatoum switched her focus from performance to installation art. The artist said that instead of her own body, she wanted the bodies of her audience members to engage with the artwork in a more direct way. While her early performance works provided the viewer with a message, her installation pieces concentrate on the audience’s physical, lived experience.

 

Hatoum’s installations are interpreted in many different ways, and this is something that the artist welcomes. Current Disturbance is an installation that consists of stacked cages made of wire, wood, and lightbulbs that are fading off and lighting up. According to the artist, this piece reminded someone of an orgasm. It also reminded some people of prison. The artist actually made the work in San Francisco, which is close to Alcatraz, so she believed that this was one of the reasons why people interpreted the work as a representation of prison. According to Hatoum, the work could take on a different meaning at another location.

 

In her installation Interior/Exterior Landscape, Hatoum created a room filled with different objects: a bed with no mattress, a pillow embroidered with hair, a coat rack, a bird cage with a hairball in it, a stool, a desk, and a chair. The work also contains allusions to Surrealism, an art movement that inspired Hatoum’s work. One particular element in the Interior/Exterior Landscape that references Surrealism can be noticed in the chair that has been merged with the desk. This is reminiscent of an illustration made by René Magritte for the Dictionnaire abrégé du Surréalisme from 1938.

 

5. Hatoum’s Art Has Been Described as Surrealist and Minimalist

mona hatoum light sentence
Photo of Mona Hatoum’s Light Sentence by Philippe Migeat 1992, via Tate, London

 

Mona Hatoum read monographs about René Magritte when she was a child. She also read  texts by psychoanalysts like Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud. She described Surrealism as her point of entry into the art world. Her work Jardin Public was directly inspired by Surrealism. In the piece, Hatoum discussed the similarities between the words public and pubic. She used an iron chair that reminded her of chairs from the public gardens of Paris and put pubic hair in the shape of a triangle on the seating surface. Hatoum has been called a latter-day surrealist by Ben Luke for The Evening Standard and has been described as an artist who is challenging surrealism and minimalism.

 

Hatoum appears to combine these seemingly contradictory movements in her artworks. Works like Light Sentence appear minimalist due to their abstract form reduced to rectangle-like structures and cube-shaped mesh lockers. The title, however, refers to prison and confinement.

 

6. Mona Hatoum’s Work Has Been Featured in Many Solo Exhibitions

mona hatoum over my dead body
Installation view of the 2005 exhibition Mona Hatoum: Over My Dead Body at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, via MCA, Sydney

 

Mona Hatoum’s art has been the subject of numerous international solo exhibitions, including those at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia in Sydney in 2005, the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 2015, Tate Modern in London in 2016, Riverrun in Istanbul in 2018, White Cube in Hong Kong in 2018, White Cube in London in 2019, and the Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St. Louis, Missouri in 2018. Many exhibitions of Hatoum’s art focus on the political aspects of her work.

 

mona hatoum photo
Mona Hatoum in 2021 during the closing of her exhibition at IVAM, via Institut Valencia d’ Art Modern

 

During her successful career as an artist, Hatoum has also won several awards, such as the George-Maciunas-Preis in 2000, the Roswitha Haftmann Preis in 2004, the Käthe Kollwitz Prize in 2010, the Joan Miró Prize from the Fundació Joan Miró, Barcelona, in 2011, the annual Whitechapel Gallery Art Icon award in 2018, and the Julio González Prize in 2020.

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By Stefanie GrafMA in progress, BA in Art HistoryStefanie is completing her bachelor’s degree in art history at the University of Vienna, Austria. She will commence her master’s degree next semester. She has a passion for modern and contemporary art, architecture, and art theory. Interested in researching and reading about the impact art has on the viewer and on society, Stefanie believes that art can change, question and shape the way we think and live.