Mona Hatoum: The First Contemporary Arab Artist?

Over My Dead Body at the The Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo in Brazil. Source: Juan Eyheremendy

Attempting to pinpoint a specific date in which modern Arab art gave way to the contemporary is bound to raise more questions than answers. And yet it is a question that curators, gallerists and collectors continously face and one that hasn’t even been settled in the West. In a column for the New York Times back in 2000 art critic Deborah Solomon seems to have proposed the date of 1970 as a starting point of Western contemporary art. Her suggestion was ridiculed by Hilton Kramer, a fellow art critic who wrote that “To attempt to assign a specific date to such a fluid historical phenomenon would seem to be about as wise as assigning a birth date to air pollution or traffic congestion”. And while it is certainly not possible to assign a specific date for such matters it may be possible to observe a general trend associated with this change brought about by technological advances or political events.

The infinity symbol should for the title
24 x 13 1/2 x 13 1/2 in. (61 x 34.5 x 34.5 cm)
© Mona Hatoum. Photo © Orcutt + van der Putten Courtesy Alexander & Bonin, New York

Today, interest in art from the Arab region continues to grow along with a proliferation of exhibitions in institutions around the world. In 2010 Qatar inaugurated Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art whose collection now exceeds 8,000 artworks. Palestinian collector Dr Ramzi Dalloul plans to build a museum in Beirut for the over 3,300 works by Arab artists that he has amassed in a relatively short period of time. New York City’s Here and Elsewhere, Tokyo’s Arab Express, Madrid’s Looking at the World Around You, Paris’ 25 Years of Arab Creativity, London’s Imperfect Chronology, Singapore’s Terms and Conditions (PDF), Toronto’s Home Ground (Disclosure: the latter three centre around the author’s collection) are some of the exhibitions that have presented modern and contemporary pan-Arab art in global cities over the past few years. Moreover, many of these exhibitions are accompanied by publications that carry essays by respected scholars such as Nada Shabout, Dr. Salah Hassan, Salwa Mikdadi and Kamal Boullata amongst others thereby enriching the scene with knowledge and research. Many of these scholars caution against measuring Western and Eastern art developments with the same yardstick. After all, each region’s art movement coincided with varying influences from colonialism and wars to the emancipation movements thereby adjusting the timescale.

Mona Hatoum Rug at the The Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo in Brasil. Source: Juan Eyheremendy

Despite the proliferation of exhibitions and the increase in scholarship, one issue remains unresolved in the Arab art canon: When did modern art end and contemporary art begin? We are familiar with modern masters such as Egypt’s Abdul Hadi El Gazzar, Morocco’s Ahmed Cherkaoui and Iraq’s Jewad Selim. We may also recognise contemporary artists such as British-Iraqi Jananne Al-Ani, French-Algerian Adel Abdessemed and Saudi Arabia’s Abdulnasser Gharem. There are however distinguishing elements between these two eras. The first being heavily influenced by drawing, painting and sculpture, while the latter embraces conceptual, video, and digital art. When did this shift occur? And was there a reason behind it? That said, how do we refer to artists whose practice extends from the 1960s, arguably the height of modernism in the Arab world who continue to produce works well into the second decade of the 21st century such as Syria’s Marwan and Palestine’s Samia Halabi?

‘Plotting Table’ Collection Barjeel Art Foundation. Loaned to Singapore Art Museum’s Terms & Conditions exhibition in 2013. Image source: Singapore Art Museum

I would like to offer the following suggestion: Rather than assigning a specific date or year to the shift from modernism to the contemporary in the Arab World I propose the following notion. That Arab contemporary art timeframe begins with artists who have come of age in the decade between the early 1980s and the early 1990s due to their general readiness to adopt the latest technologies and concepts in their work. In my opinion the artist that best embodies this definition is Beirut born British-Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum. There are of course other artists whose work fits into this category but few have achieved the global recognition and critical acclaim that Hatoum has. 

Born in 1952, Hatoum embraced the spirit and form of contemporary art from the outset. Having studied graphic design in Beirut University College, and trained at both the Byam Shaw School of Art and the Slade School of Fine Art in London, Hatoum began her career producing videos and performance work in the 1980s revolving around the body before she turns her focus on themes such as feminism, dislocation and power structures. Her work is as much influenced by her Middle Eastern heritage and personal experience as it is by the decades that she has spent in the West. West. She settled in London in 1975, when the Civil War broke out in Lebanon while she was on a short visit to Britain. In her groundbreaking 1988 video Measures of Distance Hatoum uses images taken of her mother in the shower. Measures of Distance, which is one of the earliest examples of video by an Arab artist, is interlaced with letters from the artist’s mother sharing intimate details about exile, sexuality and identity.

Mona Hatoum
Measures of Distance
Colour video with sound
Duration: 15 minutes
A Western Front video production, Vancouver, 1988
© Mona Hatoum. Courtesy White Cube

In September 2015 London’s Whitechapel Gallery opened a 16-month long series of exhibitions from the collection of the Barjeel Art Foundation titled Imperfect Chronology curated by Omar Kholeif. The exhibition presented works by artists from the Arab World based on a progressing timescale beginning in the early 20th century to the early 21st century. Through its display and catalogue Imperfect Chronology also implied that 1990 is seismic shift as the first work in the contemprary display dates back to that period. Additionally, Hatoum’s work Witness, 2009, a miniaturised rendition in porcelain of the famous bullet-riddled monument in Beirut, appears in the display titled Mapping the Contemporary 1, which followed Debating Modernism 2.

Mona Hatoum: Witness, 2009. Collection Barjeel Art Foundation. Loaned to New York City’s New Museum exhibition Here and Elsewhere in 2014. Image credit: Author

In the West, the artist Andy Warhol is regarded as one of the most successful contemporary artists. In 1964 American philosopher Arthur Danto paid a visit to a Warhol exhibition at a New York gallery. The exhibition was an eye opener for the philosopher as it presented a “completely new answer to the philosophical question of the nature of art”. Hyperallergic noted, “It wasn’t Warhol’s subject matter that shocked the philosopher, but its form.” Danto then wrote (PDF) that Warhol’s Brillo boxes “could not have been art fifty years ago. The world has to be ready for certain things”. Similarly, not only was the Arab world not ready for Hatoum, the Western world itself, where museums typically showed far less works by female artists was coming to grips with this strong woman and who transcends boundaries and conventions. To borrow from Danto, Hatoum’s 1982 performance Under Siege, where she was naked, covered in clay and trapped for seven hours inside a massive transparent container simply “could not have been art fifty years ago.” The world needed to wait for Hatoum to turn that into art. In some respects it’s almost as though art before Hatoum was modern and after Hatoum became contemporary. Having said that, certain bodies of work by some masters who practiced in the 1960s could still be perceived as modern despite being painted in the 21st century. By the early 1990s Hatoum was finally getting the recognition she deserved. In 1994 she held a solo exhibition at Paris’ Centre Pompidou and at the Tate Britain in London in 2000. In 2015–2016 she was the subject of a large survey exhibition at both institutions.

Mona Hatoum
Under Siege
Performance within a wood and plastic sheeting structure; sound tape and liquid clay
© Mona Hatoum. Photo © J. McPherson Courtesy White Cube

In Hatoum’s ascent to global art phenomenon, she has transcended the constricting labels of her ethnic and gender identities. Through her audacious and creative artworks she has helped usher in a new era of contemporary art and influenced a generation of artists in both the West and the East. She embodies the best of the Arab world where creativity and freedom of thought and expression are free to reign and societal and cultural inhibitions are not permitted to restrict the mind and the shackle the hands.