Iman Khakoo | September 19 2016
Born in Beirut to a Palestinian family in 1952, Mona Hatoum settled in Britain in 1975 following the outbreak of the civil war in Lebanon. It therefore comes as no surprise that her solo exhibition at the Tate Modern (4 May – 21 August 2016) was an imbrication of the personal onto the political, compelling particularly the Arab female spectator to interrogate her identity.
The exhibition was as poetic as it was provocative. It was in a bleak white room where I encountered Light Sentence (1992), one of Hatoum’s earliest installations. A naked light bulb swayed ominously to and fro amidst the rows of wire mesh lockers, enveloping me in silky, fluctuating shadows, the constant movement disturbing all spatial coordinates-to the point of nausea. This feeling of unease in the pit of my stomach deepened as I took a closer look at the installation, my eyes scrolling from metal bar to metal bar, and I saw the beautiful work for what it truly was: a prison. Similarly, Impenetrable (2009) appeared from afar as an ethereal installation levitating in the air, yet as I moved in closer, I was confronted by the hundreds of barbed wire rods viciously cutting through the air. In this way, Hatoum’s focus on the aesthetic thinly veils soul-searching reflections on violence, claustrophobia and exile.
Her work also packs a punch in transgressing the boundaries between subject and viewer. The video installation, Corps étranger (1994) is projected on the floor within a large white capsule, with two openings on either end to allow the viewer to enter and leave. The ‘foreign body’ is the camera, an alien device introduced from outside, which carries out an endoscopic journey through the interior landscape of the artist’s own body. The viewer stands on the edge of an abyss, completely engulfed by the images of the body’s illuminated cavities as the camera endlessly probes for orifices. But it is the female body itself as a threatening sex which is both grotesque and captivating, activating a fear about the vagina dentata, where the woman is a vampire or animal with a sexuality which is devouring, equivocating and castrating for men.
On the other end of the spectrum, the video work Measures of Distance (1988) – which also unifies the visceral body, technology and the feminine – sees the artist distance herself from the viewer. It haunts all the senses: visually, we see blurry images of the artist’s mother naked in the shower with overlaid, handwritten letters in Arabic. Aurally, the voyeuristic gallery-goer eavesdrops on private conversations, letters and monologues being read aloud in both Arabic and English. Hatoum had taken the slides of her mother in the shower during a visit to Beirut in 1981, a time when, according to Hatoum ‘feminism had so problematized the issue of representation of women that images of women vacated the frame, they became absent. It was quite depressing.’ Instead, Hatoum inherits the filial pride of Arshile Gorky’s The Artist and His Mother (1926), which portrays the American Abstract-Expressionist standing next to his mother, an Armenian refugee. Like Gorky, who paints his mother as a monument with an impenetrable mask, Hatoum also remains protective of her mother’s image. She juxtaposes the intimate images of her mother with the detached, overlaid letters, making the Arabic script almost seem like a veil, or even barbed wire. Thus, the script becomes a screen to conceal the ‘other’: An Arab mother who must be protected from the scrutinizing occidental gaze.
Clearly, the exhibition was a thought-provoking experience for any visitor to the Tate Modern. However, it is particularly empowering and enlightening for the Arab female spectator. The artist guides the Arab woman’s enquiry into her identity, opening up a dialogue where she offers reassurances such as, ‘people often expect tidy definitions of otherness, as if identity is something fixed and easily definable.’ This exhibition was therefore much more than a show: it was the landmark moment when a major Western museum will see the Arab woman reflecting upon and expressing her identity.
Main image: Over my dead body (1988-2002) by Mona Hatoum. Source: Tate.
Iman Khakoo is a sixth-form student from London, hoping to study History of Art at university. If she’s not wandering around art galleries, she’ll be listening to 80’s music on vinyl records or watching Funny Face for the 1000th time. You can follow her on instagram.