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Maps of lost homelands


Conflict and deception are part of life, says Mona Hatoum's powerful and metaphoric art

The first thing the research on British -Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum tells me is that she hates interviews. I'm nervous enough but she makes it worse by demanding to see my questions before she says a word. But the ice is broken as soon as the 60-yearold starts talking about her conceptual pieces, some of which have travelled to India as part of a British Council show. From a glowing neon globe that is titled 'Hot Spot' to a prayer mat that has a compass pointing to Mecca but is actually made of brass pins, her metaphorical objects remind us that conflict and deception are part of life. Exile is something she is familiar with and her art reflects this displacement. Born in Beirut to Palestinian parents, Hatoum was travelling in the UK when civil war broke out in Lebanon in 1975. The war lasted 20 years and Hatoum's exile became permanent. Her art is rooted in those life experiences, exploring borders and breaking taboos. On her first visit to India, Hatoum spoke to TOI-Crest

In India, your work is part of a British Council show titled 'Homelands'. What is your idea of home?

It's not something I think of very much or try to define any more. I have no romantic idea of wanting to go back since my original home has changed so much. When my parents were alive, Beirut was home but not anymore. Now you can say it is London where I mostly live with my husband. But I travel a lot and I create these temporary homes from where I work. I spend a lot of time in Berlin because of its nice, laidback feel.

You've visited the India art fair. What do you think of the idea of culture meeting commerce?

I am not very keen on art fairs though it's a good meeting place. I like to enjoy what I am doing without thinking about where the work is going to end up. I have done a lot of my creative work in residencies in faraway places like Mexico, Venezuela and Cairo. Away from the hyped up art market and the bureaucracy of big museums which want to push you in one direction or the other, it's a much freer situation.

In 'Shift' (2012), you mapped the world on a wool carpet overlaid with yellow circles of seismic waves that give the impression of danger. In an early work titled 'Present Tense', you created a map using bars of traditional Palestinian olive oil soap collected from factories in Nablus, north of Jerusalem. Why are maps a recurrent theme in your work?

It happened accidentally the first time. I came across a map of the 1933 Oslo peace agreement between Israel and Palestinians. It was a very ridiculous map which marked the territories to be handed back to the Palestine Authority. All it did was dissect the land into little pockets. It was clearly about dividing and ruling rather than sensible borders. So I decided to do the soap work with red glass beads pressed into the ivory surface denoting borders. This was during my first visit to Jerusalem in 1966. Maps imply measurable, identifiable space but my maps are about an unstable geography, about things not being secure.

One of your most famous pieces is 'Corps Etranger, Foreign Body', when micro cameras explored your body through its orifices. Was this you holding up a mirror to our obsession with the body?

In the eighties, I did mostly performance. My body symbolised society and the things happening to my body were like violations of its borders. But in the '90s, I started making sculptural works such as The Light at the End in which six electric heating elements were suspended from an iron frame that looked like prison bars and gave off heat. What changed was that instead of my delivering a message to the audience through my actions as a performer, I decided to set up situations where viewers could experience for themselves. My body was replaced by the body of the audience who could experience the work physically.

Does it make you angry when people slot you as a Palestinian artist?

It bothers me when people explain my work in relation to my geographical origins. That's limiting to my art. My works are much more complex - this does not equal that. The language of art can be very ambiguous. A work is a story to be completed by the spectator and each one will interpret it depending on his or her life experience.

In one of your video works that is showing at 'Homelands', you read aloud letters that your mother wrote to you from Beirut. Your mother is also heard, speaking openly about her feelings and sexuality, accompanied by images of her in the shower. Are there overtones of feminism in your work?

In the early '70s and '80s, I was involved with feminist groups. During my readings, I become aware that in Freud's narrative there seemed to be no interest in the mother and daughter relationship. It was always about the father and daughter. Now, I see a lot of complacency has set in about feminism but there is still a huge amount of work to the done. And it's not that I only deal with feminism. I see women's issues in the larger political context since they're closely woven together with issues of race and class.

'Homelands' will be on at The Harrington Street Arts Centre, Kolkata till March 14 and at the Dr Bhau Dadi Lad Museum, Mumbai, from April 28 to June 9

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