Mona Hatoum - Biography and Legacy
Palestinian/British Sculptor and Multimedia Artist
Biography of Mona Hatoum
Mona Hatoum was born in 1952 in Beirut, Lebanon to Palestinian parents. She is the youngest of three siblings. Her parents had previously left their home in Haifa due to political unrest in 1948, and come to Beirut to start a new life. The couple's children were not however eligible for Lebanese identification cards at birth, due to a political decision to isolate Palestinian families exiled in Lebanon and in turn to prevent their integration within Lebanese society. As a result, Hatoum identifies herself as Palestinian and not as Lebanese. Due to the Arab-Israeli war, her father found a job at the British Embassy in Beirut and as a matter of precaution and clever forward-thinking, obtained British passports for himself, his wife and his three daughters.
In general, Hatoum's parents were not supportive of her early love of art and desire to make a career as an artist. Despite this, Hatoum would continue to draw and doodle in her schoolbooks. There were no art classes available as such so Hatoum spent lots of time studying European paintings from books independently. She enrolled to study graphic design at Beirut University College in Lebanon and continued with the course for two years before starting work at an advertising agency. Hatoum was very disheartened and unsatisfied by the work that she was producing in this role and in order to re-think and change direction, she took a trip to London in 1975. Coincidently, during her trip civil war broke out in Lebanon and she was forced into immediate exile.
Education and Early Training
Hatoum stayed in London and embraced the opportunity to study and pursue her art. Between 1975 - 1981, she studied at both the Byam Shaw School of Art and the Slade School of Fine Art. Work made whilst at The Slade was fuelled by the predominant discourses surrounding race and gender. Hatoum joined feminist groups and gained a taste for political debate amongst her peers.
Her work during the university years was also praised and linked to Conceptual Art and Minimalism, but early ideas of running actual electrical currents through her pieces proved problematic. Hatoum commented at the time that the "Slade said my conceptual stuff was too dangerous" (literally we assume, although likely also in meaning), and with that she moved towards experiments in performance only to return to electrified conceptual sculptures later in her career. Performance provided Hatoum with a sense of exuberance and liberty, having felt generally confined by the strict rules of British art schools; she was always bursting to rebel and re-align boundaries. During this time, Hatoum was renting a studio in Shoreditch, and as well as creating performance pieces, she was making lots of expressive and gestural drawings that she would complete and then immediately give away. After finishing her education at the Slade, the young artist considered moving to the US, however her sister convinced her otherwise and she remained in London and supported herself financially by teaching part-time at Central Saint Martins College.
In 1984, Hatoum was awarded a residency in Vancouver, British Colombia where her work caught the eye of Ms. Van Assche, the curator at the Pompidou Centre. The meeting between Hatoum and Van Assche led to another residency, this time in Seattle where the artist focused on sculpture and installation. Her first Pompidou-supported show was held at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. This show featured large arrangements of steel bunk beds and large cubes covered in iron filings (Socle du Monde (Base of the World) (1992-93)). Hatoum commented on her own show, that visitors were relating her work to Palestinian refugee camps, "they come with this preconceived idea of where I come from and therefore what I'm putting in my work. They tend to over-interpret the work in relation to my background". However, typically there was no intended direct relationship between her work and the conflict in Palestine. Her aims, as always, were more ambiguous and she felt very misunderstood and pigeonholed.
Following this intense period of exhibitions and residencies, Hatoum accepted a job as a Senior Fellow at Cardiff Institute of Higher Education, and remained working there from 1989 to 1992. For this time, she was able to live more comfortably on a salary and spend all of her free time art making. In 1995, Hatoum was shortlisted for the Turner Prize for the piece Corps Estranger, whereby she recorded and displayed the endoscopic journey of her own innards. After the nomination, Hatoum was labelled as a Young British Artist (YBA) along with a generation of others (including Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin). She felt however that this title was misplaced, for whilst the YBAs were revolutionizing the British art scene, Hatoum was in Canada on her residency. Not long after, she exhibited in the XLVI Venice Biennale and had her first solo show - Rites of Passage: Art for the End of the Century - held at the Tate Gallery. In 1996, the Anadiel Gallery invited her to Jerusalem. As she commented, "That was my first trip to the whole area. I was there for a month. I travelled around and saw some members of my family I'd never met before. It was a very emotional time. In Nazareth - my father was a Joseph of Nazareth - there was a first cousin. He took me to where my parents used to live".
Hatoum made a piece specifically to show at The Anadiel Gallery called Present Tense (1996), which also tellingly reveals her stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Gallery is situated in East Jerusalem, an area taken over by Israel after the 1967 war. She made the work by pressing small red beads that mark out a map into 2400 pieces of Nablus soap, a traditional Palestinian product made of olive oil. The lines can appear abstract at first, but they in fact depict parts of occupied Palestinian territory that Palestinians believe Israel should have handed back to the Palestinian Authority. Hatoum chooses to omit Israel from the map and to only feature the occupied territories.
Hatoum bought an apartment in Berlin and now divides her time between this residence and her home in London. She married Gerry Collins in 2012. In 2016 the Tate held a large retrospective looking back over the 35 years of her work. Following this large exhibition she was awarded the 10th Hiroshima Art Prize by the Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art. This accolade culminated in Hatoum's first exhibition at the White Cube Gallery in Hong Kong. In 2018, she was awarded the fifth annual Art Icon Award from The Whitechapel Gallery.
The Legacy of Mona Hatoum
Hatoum is part of a generation of artists who started to work more commonly across different media in order to best present their intended message. As such, her body of work is usefully considered alongside the likes of Louise Bourgeois, Eva Hesse, Ana Mendieta, and Rachel Whiteread, all of who exhibit an understated, and yet very powerful, understanding of the female body and the role that it plays within society. There is a sense in work by these artists that it is by looking to the stereotypical realms of the female, for example to the home, and to a domestic setting, where complex global issues may be reduced to a manageable size and as result better understood. Coming from a lineage of powerful matriarchal art figures, Hatoum's work provides invaluable reference and inspiration for the next and new generation of female artists.
According to her own personal story, her exile, and her direct experience of international conflict, the work of Hatoum is also influential for artists who explore political themes more directly. Indeed, her work has been an inspiration for Bob and Roberta Smith, Yannis Behrakis, and even the infamous Street Artist, Banksy. Born of the same generation, Ai Weiwei too reflects on his experience of conflict, exile, and of corrupt political agendas. Both Hatoum and Ai inform the public that political art continues to play a crucial role in society and that messages gleaned from art works do genuinely have the power to resolve conflict and thus move humanity forward.