Fought Through Women’s Bodies: Mona Hatoum’s Early Performances

Mona Hatoum, "Changing Parts," 1984. Photo: Brigitte Rodoreda. Under Siege LFMC (Phaidon Pompidou catalogue).

The first image is a close-up of a breathing, or perhaps pulsing, scarlet blob. Only when the camera zooms out do we see these are bloody innards spilled from an abdominal cavity. As we begin to make out a hand and then a head wrapped in gauze, and realize this is a half-alive mummy laying fetal on a wooden table, the soundtrack starts to come through the headphones. Excerpts of political speeches echo, disorientingly, from the right ear to the left: “Peace in Galilee”; “because we spend billions and billions of dollars for arms overseas over which we have no control”; “the Middle East is, as I’ve said, vital to our national security and economic well-being. We’re a nation with global responsibilities. We’re not somewhere else in the world protecting someone else’s interests; we’re there protecting our own.”

This last is from President Reagan’s address to the nation on October 27, 1983, about developing events in the Lebanese Civil War that would eventually claim more than 120,000 lives. Mona Hatoum, the artist who is bloodied in the twenty-minute video, which documents her 1983 performance The Negotiating Table, called this work “the most direct reference I had ever made to the war in Lebanon … which for me was the most shattering experience of my life.” Born to a Palestinian family in Beirut, she was visiting London in 1975 when the war broke out, leaving her exiled. Many of her early video works in the 1980s, particularly those made during a yearlong residency at the Western Front in Vancouver, engage with the war—and are much less studied than her later sculptures and installations. This year, these videos, many of which document live performances, were finally shown together for the first time, at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) in Chicago. Titled Early Works, the exhibition came twenty-five years after the museum hosted Hatoum’s first solo show in the United States.

Mona Hatoum, Changing Parts, 1984 (Phaidon scan). Courtesy the artist.

By centering her body in these works, including on the metaphorical “negotiating table,” Hatoum spotlights a neglected theater of the Lebanese Civil War, fought on and through women’s bodies. Moreover, her play with figurative and literal registers of meaning allows her performances to do more than express the personal traumas of war, making visible the larger structural forces that collude to produce that trauma. Although Western media typically depicts violence in Lebanon as a timeless sectarian battle among various Christian, Muslim, and Druze factions, Hatoum’s soundtrack of politicking, especially from the US and the UK, makes clear that the conflict was and is pressurized by larger imperial forces with vested interests in the region. During the original 1975 to 1990 conflict, more than two-thirds of the arms and financial backing for local militias—in excess of thirty billion dollars—came from foreign investment, especially Israel, Syria, Iran, and, by extension, their respective Western or Middle Eastern allies. Often, conflict actually unfolded within sects, for instance when Sunni Palestinians expelled by Israel began fighting the largely Sunni army from Syria. But regardless of their political interests or foreign backing, religious rhetoric provided militias with ideological justification to present themselves as the true defenders of their faith.

This religious rhetoric consistently framed women as both the innocent damsels who must be protected from violence and the symbolic mothers who in turn protect identity. As the biological and allegorical reproducers of communities, women are targeted for actual sectarian violence because violence against women is violence against the sect as a whole. But women are also mobilized discursively as the victims that only we can protect from those monsters and animals belonging to the other sect. Through the figure of “women and children,” political conflicts and global flows of capital and arms become moral issues. This is what Hatoum stages by bringing together the international soundtrack and her Palestinian body. Where the material investments of imperial powers and the local ideologies of religious self-defense meet is on the woman’s body—or, as Hatoum put it in a 1988 photomontage showing herself with a toy soldier planted on her nose, “Over my dead body.”

In Hatoum’s early video work, the scene matters as much as the body. The scene in The Negotiating Table is of a dining-room table, dimly lit with chairs on opposite sides, inviting us to a grotesque meal. Offering up her body to the voices playing in the room, Hatoum seems to ask: Is this what your wars mean to feast upon? The symbolism is even stronger in Variation on Discord and Divisions, a 1984 performance that includes Hatoum producing raw kidneys from beneath her jumpsuit to butcher and serve to the audience. She created the performance during her residency in Vancouver, where she finally had the freedom and time to evolve an experimental practice of improvised performance that she began as an art student in London, gutturally responding to the war in Lebanon and her resulting exile. Variation on Discord and Divisions takes place in a room lined with newspapers so that—as with the speeches in The Negotiating Table—geopolitics provides the context for violence, even as a woman’s body provides its focus.

Mona Hatoum, The Negotiating Table, 1983. Courtesy the artist.

These synecdoches for the reproductive labor of women—their conscription into raising, nurturing, and serving war’s combatants, even as citizenship in Lebanon is passed on only patrilineally—draw our attention to the ordinariness of sectarian conflict, experienced not merely in spectacular events of violence but in ongoing negotiations of everyday life: where you get your food, how you find health care, who is sleeping in your bedroom. As Joanne Randa Nucho writes in her 2016 ethnography, Everyday Sectarianism in Urban Lebanon, access to public services is gendered through a discourse “that promotes the idea of women primarily as ‘mothers’ during times of extreme violence and war,” heightening normative gender roles—and how different sects idealize motherhood—as one mode through which conflict is lived out. Hatoum conjures this reality when she almost tenderly offers up her kidneys one plate at a time to her audience, like a mother who has carved the centerpiece meat for a feast. At the same time, her jumpsuit alludes to a military uniform—for armed groups not only fight women but also fight over the idea of women.

At its best, Hatoum’s early work maps what Verónica Gago has called, in the context of the International Women’s Strike, the “transversality” of resistance to multiple forms of violence. For instance, the six-minute documentation of Roadworks, performed in 1985 in the majority-Black London neighborhood of Brixton, shows Hatoum slowly walking the streets, weighed down by a pair of Dr. Martens boots that trail behind her, their laces ensnaring her ankles. The boots, both the official wear of the British police and the unofficial wear of budding skinheads, become an oppressor that Hatoum cannot escape, linking racism not only with police surveillance but also with gendered violence. This is a performance of being stalked almost thirty years before the UK would even recognize stalking as a specific crime. As in the works linking sectarian violence and violence against women, to walk in Hatoum’s shoes in Roadworks is to tread a coalition among feminist and anti-imperial movements. The Lebanese poet and artist Etel Adnan (who has a painting in an MCA Chicago group exhibition that overlapped with Early Works) writes in Of Cities & Women (1993) about how it is the women, not men, “who speak of the war.” She adds that the woman who speaks becomes a weapon: “I tell myself that we are terrorists, not terrorists in the political and ordinary sense of the word, but because we carry inside of our bodies—like explosives—all the deep troubles that befall our countries.”

At its less effective, Hatoum’s early work might be seen to flatten political distinctions, conflating forms of violence more than analyzing their intersection, so that gender becomes the key to race or vice versa, or so that Brixton and Beirut become interchangeable. Hatoum once reflected that her work “is not localized” but “refers to conflicts all over the world.” She did not want to be pigeonholed into speaking only from or about Lebanon. But in aspiring to something more universal, she always risked speaking instead in generalities. We do not need her art to know that war is bad or that stalking can be terrifying. But we do need her art to know what political and economic conditions conspire to produce war in a particular context, and why in that context war might be channeled through the terror of gender.

Mona Hatoum, Variation on Discord and Divisions, 1984. Photo Stefan Rohner (Pompidou retouch).

But just as there is a danger of becoming too general, there can also be a danger of becoming too personal, when the body begins to refer only to itself instead of allegorically for a larger system of violence. The profound ability of works like The Negotiation Table and Variation on Discord and Divisions to find this balance in structural commentary is clear compared to Hatoum’s best-known video, the sixteen-minute Measures of Distance (1988). Installed at the MCA Chicago alongside her other earlier works, it seemed an anomaly. Its intimate images of Hatoum’s mother showering in Beirut are overlaid with Arabic text lifted from letters sent and received by Hatoum in London, text that the artist reads aloud in English. This expression of exile is Hatoum’s most personal video. It is also her most conventional, perhaps because it was planned as a video rather than a documentation of a performance that, by definition, is open to the contingency of audience interaction. By aligning image and sound—and therefore the dissonance between the written Arabic and the spoken English—it provides an overly neat encapsulation of living between two worlds.

Mona Hatoum, Measures of Distance, 1988. Courtesy the artist.

This would also be Hatoum’s last work in the medium. Video and performance can too easily be overpowered by the enigmatic personality of the performer, digressing from structural critique to “mesearch”—a mode of confession more than analysis. Perhaps this is why Hatoum turned after 1988 to works we could more broadly categorize as sculpture, which affords more anonymous, structural analyses of violence. Consider, for instance, her well-known Grater Divide from 2002, a magnified steel version of the kitchen appliance whose trifold installation dividing a gallery space at once references Israel’s West Bank barrier, whose construction intensified that same year, and a shoji screen behind which a woman might undress, only to have her naked flesh abraded. We are simultaneously at a state border and in an intimate bedroom, causing a set of associations between state violence and intimate-partner violence to unravel. At borders, too, migrants may be asked to strip for a search—an intimate violation. And in the bedroom, the state is always present by determining who is allowed to be intimate (is sodomy legal?) and what kinds of violence are criminal (is marital rape illegal?)

While four of the six videos on display at the MCA Chicago were in a well-lit, open space just off the stairwell—providing more room for visitors to meander and loiter together—Measures of Distance and Changing Parts (1984), another work that features the Hatoum family bathroom in Beirut, were installed in their own dark screening rooms, amplifying the sense of privacy that is implicit in their content. This was fitting, for what makes works like The Negotiating Table or Variation on Discord and Divisions so effective is their relative avoidance of private experience, their invitation to public discourse rather than hushed confidences. What remains freshest about Hatoum’s early works is not what they tell us about her, but what they say about the structure of sectarian violence that interpenetrates empire and sexual politics, policing and fucking.

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