Tea with the bogeyman
Born in Beirut to a Palestinian family who fled Haifa during the Nakba, 23 year-old Mona Hatoum found herself stuck in London with the outbreak of war in 1975, adding one exile to another and producing her early works in Thatcherite Britain, works that have since borne the scar of wars and frontiers piling up between her and her former life.
Some western critics have a hard time stomaching this background; there seems to be a confusion as to how art like Hatoum’s can be both universal enough to make it into timeless places like Centre Pompidou or Tate modern, while simultaneously identifying with a country that is off the map.
Their solution to this dilemma usually runs along the lines of her art being so relevant to the West as to be redeemed from its Palestinian background. The catalogue introduction to her Pompidou retrospective reads for example: "Mona Hatoum doesn’t construct the work of a Palestinian exiled in London (…) she’s an artist of the present, in phase with our modernity and its issues [italics added]."
As if exiled Palestinians are by definition outside the present, living some pre-modern apocryphal version of history that could spoil our reading of Hatoum’s art if allowed to interfere too much. That is exactly what this article is proposing, for the pleasure of provoking, but also of opposing a discourse that threatens to write off Hatoum’s art as a harmless western product with a pinch of spice.
Repatriating Hatoum's art is not without its dangers
Of course, this is not to undermine the list of achievements Hatoum will be credited for by western art historians, achievements relating to "[their] modernity and its issues", like masterfully managing the shift from minimalism to post-minimalism, reconciling the legacy of 20th century abstraction with new forms of political engagement and other achievements with little relevance to the Arab spectator, who will be instantly bewitched by Hatoum’s works, no introductions necessary, as they will speak to him in a language he knows too well.
On the other hand, repatriating Hatoum’s art is not without its dangers. The sheer scale and diversity of her work are beyond regional confinement, her charm stems from a sense of foreignness and from a delicate presence of homeland that risks getting crushed by insisting too much on defining it.
In Keffieh, for example, bits of Hatoum’s hair are woven into the emblematic Palestinian textile, curling out like noxious weed. The result is unsettling and leaves much to be said: maybe it’s a way of addressing the dangerous femininity that overgrows a national icon; hasn’t the keffieh always been made for men by women, at the expense of their own lives and bodies?
Isn’t it also the symbol of a resistance written by men, while a closer look reveals the traces of a femininity amputated to create the masculine icon? What about women’s hair? Is it still ‘awrah, an intimate part to be covered, when it is woven into the very tool that could be used to cover it?
Hatoum’s Keffieh doesn’t ask any of these questions though. It’s a silent object, all it does is to exist, to provoke. The questions are our way of explaining away the sudden unease towards an object we knew to be familiar and harmless. But the power of Hatoum’s work lies precisely in its ability to resist explanation, insisting on communicating its meaning in a way instinctive, telepathic, yet crystal-clear.