Born into a Palestinian family living in Lebanon, Berlin and London-based artist Mona Hatoum is a video and installation artist whose work deals with themes of female roles and family displacement through the perspective of a Palestinian exile. Her sculptures and installations depend on the viewer to inhabit the surrounding spaces of her art.
Hatoum studied graphic design at Beirut University College for two years. She was forced into exile in 1975 because of the Civil War in Lebanon. She settled in London where she studied art and graduated from the Slade School of Fine Art in 1981. She made public performances in the early 1980s which referenced political and social matters.
In 1988, she made video art, where she gave her Palestinian mother her own voice, contradicting the stereotypical opinions about Arab women. In the 1990s, she continued her earlier work of performance art where she would interact with and confront her audience. She also made sculptures and installations, that required interactions between herself and the viewers. In later work, Hatoum removed herself from her installations to let spectators become involved without the artist present.
Hatoum uses stark industrial materials in unsettling sculptures and installations, which incorporate disparate objects. “The Light at the End” 1989 is an iron frame with six electric heating elements installed in a blood-red painted corridor. Its bars glow with searing heat, luring the viewer with their warmth but threatening like a deadly force.
Her 1992 “Light Sentence” has a cage of wire-mesh lockers in which a light bulb rises and falls ominously to evoke her Palestinian roots. Everyday objects such as steel bunk beds, glassware, hair, and soap address themes of displacement and exile. Her emotionally charged environments, often consisting of metal grids illuminated by moving lights, are both threatening and beautiful. A prayer mat is made out of pins with a compass in the center, while human hair is used in a necklace
In her 1995 installation “Recollection” Hatoum has compressed balls of her own long black hair and has scattered them across the gallery floor. She uses preserved hair – her own and others – in grids, weavings, and embroidery pieces, crafts traditionally performed by women. Hair can be a tool of allure but also a taboo. It is a human product and is material evidence of the self and has been used by her in different art forms for many years. Her 2005 “Mobile Home” is an installation between two steel barriers. It has furniture and household items framed by a pulley system in an evocation of a home.
Her recent 2017 “Terra Infirma” exhibition at the Menil Collection in Houston combines work from different series over the years. Hatoum presents themes of instability, destabilization, and contradictions by articulation through lights that move around a viewer; by the materials she uses such as glass marbles which struggle to keep a circular shape and form a kind of portal; by showing contractions in beautiful hand-size crystal objects where some of them look like hand grenades.
In her “Impenetrable” she deals with the concept of the uncanny where everyday objects become unfamiliar or threatening. She makes a curtain of barbed wire. Viewers can see the gracefulness of its pattern when they walk around it but are not able to walk through it. Their movement is restricted. She makes the familiar unfamiliar by making an everyday object huge. An example is her enlarging a kitchen vegetable slicer 17 times. Now it becomes an entirely different object almost like a scorpion with its tail raised. The object enlarged could contain a person, rolled into a fetal position. She thinks of her work always in relation to the human body.
In 1994, Hatoum was nominated for the Turner Prize. Her numerous awards include a 2010 Kathe Kollwitz Prize and an award from Hiroshima City MOCA in 2017. She has exhibited all around the world since 1983. Her work was exhibited in the Venice Biennale in 1995 and 2005; the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston 2015; and the Tate Modern 2016. Her latest was a solo exhibition 2017-2018 at the Menil Collection.
Her work is is the public collections of major museums in Spain, Switzerland, Copenhagen, Denmark, London, Paris, Zurich, and Qatar. In the United States her work is collected at LACMA, MOCA, MoMA, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.