Let me start with two things: Mona Hatoum is one of my favourite artists of all time and second, I find her works are extremely difficult since there are always different possibilities in ways of reading and interpreting her work. I also find it difficult to classify Mona Hatoum art. If I would have to give her a label, it would be Intellectual art. She draws her subject matters from different theoretical frameworks. Her work deals with different kinds of politics like gender inequality, cultural differences, and complicated geopolitical situations. In this blog, I will only focus on one of her artworks: Roadworks from 1985.
The artist was born in Beirut in 1952 to Palestinian parents. Her parents went into exile in Lebanon without getting the Lebanese nationality. When Hatoum was on a visitation in London in 1975 – the Lebanese Civil war broke out – and she remained in the UK ever since.
In Roadworks (1985), she walked through Brixton – a neighbourhood in London – in bare feet for almost an hour, hauling a pair of Dr Martens boots that were tied to her ankles. This work correlates with other performance pieces in the 80’s in the way she responds to her environment. In these works, she exposes herself to the hostile public and positions herself as an outsider as being a refugee.
This work correlates with other performance pieces in the 80’s in the way she responds to her environment. In these works, she exposes herself to the hostile public and positions herself as an outsider.
Hatoum has stated about the work that: ‘the fact that the audience was basically all the other people on the street, a non-specialised, chance audience experiencing casually the artists’ actions while passing by, gave the work a more ephemeral, immediate and less precious character’
The streets of Brixton are carefully chosen, this neighbourhood has been heavily charged with serious social and economical conflict. Especially a large Afro-Caribbean community had to endure high unemployment rates, crime and poor housing. A far-reaching riot broke out in 1985 as an effect of a shooting of an innocent local black woman by the police. Hatoum felt solidarity with the black community: ‘I found myself in this rare situation of creating work which although personal/autobiographical, had an immediate relevance to the community of people it was addressing. I also found that I was working ‘for’ the people in the streets of Brixton rather than ‘against’ the indifferent, often hostile audience I usually encounter.’
Hatoum offers different readings for her work: ‘One comment I really liked was when a group of builders, standing having their lunch break, said ‘What the hell is happening here? What is she up to? And this black woman, passing by with her shopping, said to them, ‘Well it’s obvious. She’s being followed by the police’. (The Dr. Martens Hatoum is wearing are used by the police.)
And another: ‘One guy came up to me and said: Excuse me. Do you know you’re being followed?’ Hatoum’s Dr. Martens were a symbol of the punk movement but skinheads also frequently wore them. So the Dr Martens refer to two contradicting groups who frequently wear them: the establishment and the anti-establishment. This can be seen as a signifier of a measure or condition that is able to keep people under control, or as a symbol of oppression. This works on different levels since in this neighbourhood it is difficult to tell which of the groups is enabling oppression.
Essentially, Roadworks encountered ideas of control, individual struggle and social conditioning.
During the retrospective I’ve seen at the Tate Modern in the summer of 2016, the curators made sure that she did not stigmatise her as a “Lebanese Artist” but as an international artist who has experiences of being an exile, distanced from her own country and confronted by a hostile geopolitical situation. Although art exhibitions are usually planned two years in advance, it is a bold move to host this exhibition during the refugee crisis. It is a great thing they did so, especially since Hatoum has been great at showing insight to the difficulties refugees have to encounter every day.