Hatoum’s works are often driven by this tension between a rational component, bearing the imprint of the Establishment (patriarchy, colonisation, or bureaucracy), like blocked windows, maps, or the gallery space, and a visceral component luring the visitor with emotional icons too powerful to be rationally apprehended, like embroidery, Nabulsi soap, or the keffieh. Battery-like, the two poles are put in conflict, electrifying the visitor wide awake.
By observing how she draws icons from an Arab visual and psychological reserve, manipulating them to create works that refuse to be reconciled with themselves and the space around them, it becomes clear that Hatoum’s experience as an Arab Palestinian woman has a structural role in her art. As for western historiography wanting to neutralise the Arabic bogeyman in her work to facilitate its appropriation, it’s perfectly normal.
Alienation rooted in the post-Naksa condition
Western art (like any other) has always found solutions to its problems elsewhere, re-inventing a long-dead Greek culture during the Renaissance, or expressing its modernity with formal procedures derived from African and Asian arts are but two instances of this phenomena. This time, Hatoum happens to be the perfect candidate to facilitate the encounter and to guarantee minimum reciprocity.
Hatoum’s position – her fame as an exiled Palestinian – is something she achieved because not in spite of: one can even argue that it was this position that enabled her to pull contemporary art out of certain dead ends. Having found herself in a scene whose attitude towards the Arab-Palestinian situation was a mix of confusion and indifference, she was one of few eligible artists capable of creating new tools to express causes only she saw as urgent.
The well-known sense of alienation in Hatoum’s art is thus firmly rooted in the collective post-Naksa Arab condition and cannot be dismissed as merely biographical, individual, or generically postmodern. And yet, "militant" seems too crude a word to describe works as subtle as Hatoum’s. Unlike "militant" art, hers stand out for the fascinating ease with which it questions itself and its causes.
Between her hands, the most intimate Palestinian icons succeed in addressing universal concerns while still conserving their singularity. Hatoum’s goal at the end doesn’t seem to be the dissociation of an Arab experience from a western one, but finding what’s common in both in order to dissociate the good from the bad in human experience as a whole – or maybe to remind us that such dissociations are not as easy as we may think.