Nuance and Instability: On Mona Hatoum

Nuance and Instability: On Mona Hatoum


Performance art enables artists whose political and social identities have been infringed upon to comment on the mechanisms of oppression as well as the core impacts of that oppression on their bodies as political vessels. Mona Hatoum is a contemporary artist who adopts a wide variety of material and aesthetic choices in her art practice. Simultaneously, her life has been altered drastically due to her experience as a Palestinian woman forced into exile due to war conditions in Lebanon. It was inevitable that she grew into “an artist whose life experience is anything but clean and neat,” experiences which would then translate into her art.1 While most of her early work was performance art, she then moved onto producing multi-media installation pieces and sculptures.2 This paper will situate Hatoum’s performance art within the politics of her body as well as its political context. 

Hatoum was born in Lebanon in 1952 to displaced Palestinian parents who fled Haifa, Palestine during al-Nakba, the first Palestinian exodus that forced 700,000 Palestinians to flee their homes and many were forcibly expelled from Palestine.3 She was in the United Kingdom in 1975 when the Lebanese Civil War broke out, forcing her to live the remainder of her life in exile.4 Much of her work is rooted in themes of displacement, memory, and suppression, informed by her own life experiences as well as the collective Palestinian experience of dispossession and occupation. Her work addresses “what can be described as the ongoing Nakbaization facing Palestinians.”5Hatoum does so while intentionally “evading didactic political narration.”6  Most essential to her work is the expression of a post-memory that is specific to the experiences of generations of Palestinians living under occupation and those in the Palestinian diaspora. 

In one of Hatoum’s early performances, The Negotiating Table, performed in 1982, the audience enters a dark room, lit by a single light bulb over a table on which Hatoum lies motionless. Her blood-stained body is wrapped in plastic, covered in beef entrails, and her head is wrapped in surgical gauze.7 Speeches of Western leaders discussing peace in the Middle East along with news reports regarding civil war are heard on a soundtrack.8 The piece was created in response to Israeli attacks on Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon during the civil war. Hatoum describes these events as “the most shattering experience of her life.”9 The context most essential to the piece is the generational trauma resulting from the Deir Yassin Massacre of 1948, when the village was depopulated and destroyed with the creation of Israel.10 The massacre is often deemed by Palestinians as the event that prompted the mass exodus of al-Nakba and the occupation of Palestine. Therefore, Deir Yassin can be understood as “a collective memory lens into the events of Al-Nakba.”11 It is essential that Hatoum focused on transmitting a traumatic post-memory of the collective Palestinian experience of ethnic cleaning and dispossession rather than centering archival documents of the village. Archival accounts of the massacre do not include oral accounts rooted in the experiences of women being disemboweled in Deir Yassin. Hence, the juxtaposition of her brutalized body and the distant speeches of Western leaders are essential to highlighting the drastic disproportion between the physical experiences of war and violence and the failure of news and media outlets to capture the experiences of Palestinians. This is mainly because the narrative is controlled by Eurocentric Western systems that fail to humanize the “third-world” and acknowledge the Palestinian identity as a legitimate one. Hence, Hatoum’s body is politicized; she is a woman, she is Palestinian, and she is from the “third-world.” At the same time, Hatoum is humanized due to the construction of a metaphoric representation of her body. The viewer is forced to interpret her bodily experience rather than rely on insufficient archival documents. Didactic political narration is evaded. Thus, her body evades stereotypes associated with her body politic and she is essentially decolonized.  

Renowned Palestinian scholar and founder of the academic field of post-colonial studies Edward Said asserts that “No one has put the Palestinian experience in visual terms so austerely and yet so playfully, so compellingly and at the same moment so allusively.”12. The paradoxical and nuanced politicized nature of her art is essential to her performance Under Siege in 1982. Hatoum placed her naked body in a glass container filled with mud in a piece that lasted seven hours 13. In an artist statement, Hatoum recalls that the piece was performed a week before the Israeli invasion and siege of Beirut: “it was almost like a premonition.”14  Yet, her main intention for producing the piece was to remind the audience that wars were still taking place in various parts of the world, since at that time most people’s attention at the time was toward the anti-nuclear movement and “keeping the peace.”15 Hatoum explains that this work was her first attempt at “making a statement about a persistent struggle to survive in a continuous state of siege,” and as “a person from the ‘Third World,’ living in the West, existing on the margin of European society and alienated from my own, this action represented an act of separation.”16. By placing her mud-covered body in a glass container, unable to stand up, she actively reinforces the division between herself and her Western audience, highlighting the East vs. West dichotomy that characterized Western-centered media and news reports at the time. She reinforces Orientalist stereotypes by consciously placing herself in a box: the same way Eurocentric news outlets have done to the Middle East. Yet, it is in her conscious choice, intention, and agency as an artist that she completely subverts Orientalist structures; this is why Under Siege is a testament to discourse about the Middle East in the West.  She hyper-politicizes her body even more than it is in its natural form to amplify the absence of Arab voices in Western accounts of conflict in the Middle East. 

Some of Hatoum’s performances were rooted in experiences she had living in the West. In Roadworks (1985), Hatoum is seen dressed in black at a market walking along the street in Brixton, a neighborhood in London.17  She is barefoot, but heavy Doc-Marten boots are tied to her ankles, forcing her to move with difficulty. The boots were symbols of police brutality, as they were nominally associated with police officers who were oppressive towards the Afro-Caribbean community.18  At the time, Brixton had experienced race riots and conflict between the black population and the brutal police force. The intention of the piece was to create a relationship between artists intervening in an “impoverished community” as opposed to museum or gallery experiences.19  In formalized gallery experiences, the myth of active spectatorship is more present. The notion that individuals actively interpret their own meaning from a piece is a myth “as long as certain people are offered the option of merely watching those who are being watched.”20 Hence, witnessing is not necessarily a means of intervention; it is known that in our contemporary day, everyone is being watched, yet the disparity lies in that some are being watched more actively than others.  Homi Bhabha once asked, “Can there be culture without melancholia?” It seems that the answer is that “there cannot be melancholia without culture.”21 The act of selectively watching individuals is melancholic in nature because it is racially and culturally fueled. The line between Hatoum’s body politic as a Palestinian female artist and the Black body politic of the Afro-Caribbean community in Brixton is blurred because both histories are defined by a melancholic suffering. In an interview with Hatoum, she asserted that she always worked in an “intuitive way” and could not see her work as “serving any group, political or otherwise.”22  It was rather her attempting to address an environment that she believed as “hostile and intolerant, and eventually those feelings began to pervade the work.”23  Hence, an alliance between the Black struggle and the Palestinian struggle is a pivotal element of the performance. Her body as a political vessel, along with her experience of colonization, exile, and dispossession are at the root of much of her work. Yet, in Roadworks, that essence translates itself as a means for her to situate those experiences alongside the struggles of black people in Brixton. Hence, in this particular piece, Hatoum sheds light on a collective struggle existing in many geopolitical contexts that share the same message. Her experiences as a Palestinian woman cannot be separated from the struggles of other people of color, as the mechanism of oppression remains rooted in a racist, white-supremacist submission of individuals and communities to the same type of brutality. Yet, the value of the piece lies in the distance created by her ethnicity and nationality and its imposition on a community that seems to be experiencing an oppression much different than hers, yet essentially is not. 

In the book Feminist Visual Culture, author Helen Potkin refers to Mona Hatoum’s comment that “’Performance is very attractive to me because I saw it as a revolutionary medium, setting itself apart from the gallery system and the art establishment.”24  Historically, performance art emerged as an alternative site for women in Britain as art was majorly a male-dominated industry. Performance art is a constantly changing practice, and is hybrid in nature as it draws on multiple mediums ranging from theatre to film, and dance to visual arts (Potkin 75). Hence, evading masculine norms of art. Considering this context, there exists in Hatoum’s performance art an active and inherent rejection of modernist forms of practice as well as systems of powers perceived as masculine. Performance art rejects the traditional concerns of the production of an object in gallery art, for example. Rather,  it focuses on the body of the artist, on movement, action and speaking. Therefore, Hatoum’s performance is an act of rebellion and resistance against institutionalized hierarchies in society. Her work focuses on the power of her body as an artist, as well as on action. Said deems that Hatoum’s work is “the presentation of identity as unable to identify with itself, but nevertheless grappling the notion (perhaps only the ghost of identity to itself.”25  Hence, exile permeates the objects she places herself in and in relation to. She imposes her body as her performative medium so clearly and possessively that she enables the audience to grasp the weight of dispossession and instability. Nonetheless, it seems that many interviewers focus their interviews on her work only in mere relationship to her ethnic and national background. There is an ongoing attempt to validate or explain her work specifically in relation to her background. Within this framing, she is reduced to the inherent politicized nature of her body rather than her body’s ability to evade its own politics. Hatoum stated, “I’m often asked the same question: What in your work comes from your own culture? As if I have a recipe and I can actually isolate the Arab ingredient, the woman ingredient, the Palestinian ingredient.”26 The attempt at categorizing and reducing performance artists to banal slogans highlights an austere inability to understand the medium of art as the message. While her experiences, rooted in politics, have informed some of her art, the value of Hatoum’s art lies in its nuance, instability, and complexity. Her experiences of exile, dispossession, and displacement were rooted in socio-political dichotomy imposing itself on her. Hatoum attempts to evade that order through the aesthetics of her work, the nuance of her actions in performance, and the alleviation of a need to define or understand performance art as merely performative.

  1. Nathan J. Timpano, “‘Mona Hatoum,” Tate Modern, May 4 – August 21, 2016.”, (2017)
  2. Artspace Editors, “Using the Body Against the Body Politic: Mona Hatoum on How Art Can Be a Form of Resistance,” Artspace, 11 Nov. 2016.
  3. Chrisoula Lionis, “A Past Not Yet Passed: Postmemory in the Work of Mona Hatoum,” Social Text: Waiting Is Forbidden, 2014
  4. Chrisoula Lionis, “A Past Not Yet Passed: Postmemory in the Work of Mona Hatoum,” Social Text: Waiting Is Forbidden, 2014
  5. Lionis, “A Past Not Yet Passed: Postmemory in the Work of Mona Hatoum.”
  6. Lionis, “A Past Not Yet Passed: Postmemory in the Work of Mona Hatoum.”
  7. David Airey, “The Negotiating Table,” David Airey, 2016, Accessed 2022.
  8. Airey, “The Negotiating Table.”
  9. Christiane Weidemann, et al. 50 Women Artists You Should Know (Prestel, 2010).
  10. Weidemann, et al. 50 Women Artists You Should Know.
  11. Weidemann, et al. 50 Women Artists You Should Know.
  12. Edward Said, “The Art of Displacement: Mona Hatoum’s Logic of Irreconcilables,” n.d., accessed April 2022
  13. Cooke, Rachel. “Mona Hatoum: ‘It’s all luck. I feel things happen accidentally’.” the Guardian. 17 Apr. 2016. Web. 1 Nov. 2022.
  14. Artspace Editors, “Using the Body Against the Body Politic: Mona Hatoum on How Art Can Be a Form of Resistance,” Artspace, Nov 11, 2016,
  15. Artspace Editors, “Using the Body Against the Body Politic.”
  16. Re.act Feminism. “Mona Hatoum: Under Siege.” Re.act.feminism – a Performing Archive, 10 Jan. 2012,
  17. Philippe Dage, “Mona Hatoum,” The Guardian, 2015, Accessed 2022.
  18. Mona Hatoum, director. Roadworks. Roadworks , 1985, Accessed 2022.
  19. Janine Antoni and Mona Hatoum, “Mona Hatoum,” BOMB, no. 63, 1998, pp. 54–61, Accessed 26 Apr. 2022.
  20. Angela Dimitrakaki, “Mona Hatoum A Shock of a Different Kind,” Tandon Online, 1998
  21. Dimitrakaki, “Mona Hatoum A Shock of a Different Kind.”
  22. Artspace Editors, “Using the Body Against the Body Politic: Mona Hatoum on How Art Can Be a Form of Resistance.”
  23. Artspace Editors, “Using the Body Against the Body Politic: Mona Hatoum on How Art Can Be a Form of Resistance.
  24. Helen Potkin, “Performance Art,” in Feminist Visual Culture, edited by Fiona Carson and Claire Pajaczkowska (Edinburgh University Press, 2000), pp. 75–88
  25. Edward Said, “The Art of Displacement: Mona Hatoum’s Logic of Irreconcilables.”
  26. Janine Antoni and Mona Hatoum, “Mona Hatoum.”
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