Mona Hatoum is a Palestinian video artist and installation artist born in Lebanon. Her work transforms familiar every-day objects such as chairs and kitchen utensils into dangerous and threatening and alarming sculptures and exhibits, mirroring the harshness of life and exile. She uses an unconventional range of media and became known in the early 1980s for performance and video pieces which used her own body to explore the fragility and strength of the human condition under threat.
‘Although I was born in Lebanon, my family is Palestinian. And like the majority of Palestinians who became exiles in Lebanon after 1948, they were never able to obtain Lebanese identity cards. It was one way of discouraging them from integrating into the Lebanese situation. Instead, and for reasons that I won’t go into, my family became naturalized British, so I’ve had a British passport since I was born. I grew up in Beirut in a family that had suffered a tremendous loss and existed with a sense of dislocation.
When I went to London in 1975 for what was meant to be a brief visit, I got stranded there because the war broke out in Lebanon, and that created another kind of dislocation. How that manifests itself in my work is as a sense of disjunction. For instance, in a work like Light Sentence, the movement of the light bulb causes the shadows of the wire mesh lockers to be in perpetual motion, which creates a very unsettling feeling. When you enter the space you have the impression that the whole room is swaying and you have the disturbing feeling that the ground is shifting under your feet. This is an environment in constant flux—no single point of view, no solid frame of reference. There is a sense of instability and restlessness in the work. This is the way in which the work is informed by my background.
On the other hand, I have now spent half of my life living in the West, so when I speak of works like Light Sentence, Quarters and Current Disturbance as making a reference to some kind of institutional violence, I am speaking of encountering architectural and institutional structures in Western urban environments that are about the regimentation of individuals, fixing them in space and putting them under surveillance. What I am trying to say here is that the concerns in my work are as much about the facts of my origins as they are a reflection on or an insight into the Western institutional and power structures I have found myself existing in for the last 20-odd years.’
– Excerpt from an interview with Mona in BOMB Magazine
The Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said said of Mona, ‘No one has put the Palestinian experience in visual terms so austerely and yet so playfully.’
From 1947-1949 conflict between recently arrived Zionist soldiers and Palestinians resulted in a mass exodus of 700,000 Palestinian Arabs to neighbouring states. In total around 80% of the Palestinian Arabs of what later became Israel left their homes. Their property and lands were taken by those who remained in the land and newcomers looking for refuge in the aftermath of the Holocaust. This is known as the ‘Nakba’ or catastrophe by Palestinians.
Many Palestinians fled to Lebanon, where they still live in refugee camps and lack basic human rights. In 1975 civil war broke out in Lebanon, lasting until 1990 and killing over 120,000. As a result of this there was a mass exodus of over 1 million people from Lebanon, including Palestinians who became doubly displaced.
Throughout the 1970s the government increasingly restricted immigration. Commonwealth Citizens born overseas had to prove that a parent or grandparent had been born in the UK or they had to meet the requirements of another visa category in order to settle in the UK. The 1970s was also significant as it was a period when spontaneous asylum began to eclipse resettlement programmes as the most common form of entry into the UK for people fleeing persecution. These settlement programmes were run by the British Council for Aid to Refugees for groups of refugees from Uganda, Chile and Vietnam.