Thursday, February 3, 2011

Mona Hatoum, Measures of Distance, 1988

Mona Hatoum was born in Beirut, Lebanon in 1952, but during a visit to London in 1975 war broke out in Lebanon which forced her to stay in London. She studied art between 1975 and 1981 and in the early 1980s that she moved from performance pieces to video. Measures of Distance is a 1988 video installation that addresses Hatoum’s status as an exile and her longing to be in relationship with family, particularly her mother. In 1981 she returned briefly to her war ravaged Lebanon to visit with family. Measures of Distance is Hatoum’s response to that visit.
The video opens with Arabic script moving across the screen and in the background the viewer begins to recognize a female form -- images of Hatoum’s mother. The Arabic script functions as a partition between the viewer and the women similar to the veil that protects the privacy of women in Muslin countries. It also can be interpreted as a barrier; not only are we the viewers kept at a distance, but the woman too is confined by this wall of characters.
The letters are read aloud in English. The very personal content of these letters allows the viewer an intimate glimpse into the artist’s family life in Lebanon and insights into her feelings of displacement as a citizen in exile. Her mother speaks openly about family matters and the troubling frustration she feels because war has separated her from her children. At one point she reads: “I felt as though I had been stripped naked of my soul.” Indeed, Hatoum shows the viewer her mother’s nude body in the shower sharing with her daughter that her husband, Hatoum’s father, does not think they should be talking “about these things” and the artist should not be phographing her mother naked. The mother, however, seems to love the intimacy she shares with her daughter. Hatoum exposes the sexuality of her mother in both images and words breaking down another stereotype of Islamic women as emotionally repressed. The mother’s full and sensual body, together with her loving and warm letters, speaks of a deep emotional intimacy that all women share. The letters become love letters between mother and child...a longing to shrink the distance between them and to be physically close again. Yet even though Hatoum lives in exile, these demonstrative and tender letters are a measure of how the distance between mother and daughter can be eased, even mended.
Hatoum’s video also challenges what she calls “the stereotype of Arab women as passive.” This is a very personal narrative about the “disasters of war” and the ways that political agendas result in deeply personal consequences. War has caused the mother pain and sacrifice and her letters betray her unfathomable hurt. But, the letters are also redemptive insofar as they become her way of actively connecting to her daughter, to the world, and to her own healing. This is one family story among thousands, but it addresses the universal pain of separation caused by war and politics. Hatoum is the child Palestinians who escaped war in 1948 fleeing to Lebanon. Hatoum is thus twice a displaced person and the video as such calls attention to the distress of Palestinian people who have been removed from their birth places.
Measures of Distance presents a portrait of the artist’s mother, but the viewer soon realizes that the video also is a measure of Hatoum’s physical and emotional distance from family and country. The video examine artist as content as she experiences her own culpability in choosing to remain in exile while her parents are exposed to harm and agony. The grief and anguish of separation weighs heavily on both the refugee and the family members who remain in place.
Hatoum continues to live and work in London and beyond performance and video, she is also creating sculptures. The themes of separation, displacement, and the very personal consequences of political turmoil are ideas that she has returned to throughout her artistic career.

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