Mona Hatoum’s “Measures of Distance” is a reflection of our global life

MonaHatoum

Mona Hatoum

The 2016 exhibition at London’s Tate Modern of the work of Mona Hatoum surprised and intrigued me. I knew little of her work before I saw this show, yet was sure it would be interesting and thought-provoking, as her life and ideas are of interest to me in my own work.

The artist’s biography is marked by exile: Hatoum is a British artist, born in 1952 into a Palestinian family exiled in Lebanon. For over three decades she has been creating works which ask us to re-consider how we see and understand the world, and its “notions of territory, fragility, humanity, scale and power” (Smith, 2016).

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Mona Hatoum: Homebound 2000

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Mona Hatoum: Hot Spot 2013

To say that Hatoum’s work is “electrifying” is perhaps a bit corny, given the literally electric component of much of her work, but I think it is completely apt. Indeed the electric current ran through Mona Hatoum’s whole show at Tate Modern. Ever present, like a now distant, now nearer threat, the crackle and droning hum could be heard almost everywhere, emitted from Homebound: furniture and objects arranged behind a barrier of taut steel wire.

Produced in 2000, this domestic arrangement of tables and chairs, kitchen utensils, lights, cots, toys, a birdcage, are all wired-up so that an audible current surges round the room, with objects lit up in turn, “the aggressive sound amplified for our pleasure and disquiet. With Hatoum, the two are almost always twinned.” (Searle, 2016)

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Mona Hatoum: Grater Divide 2002

Homebound is just one of several “anxious interiors” in an exhibition that shows Hatoum’s oeuvre. Her 2013 piece Hot Spot presents the entire globe as a danger zone, with the term ‘hot spot’ referring to a place of “military or civil unrest”; here red neon outlines the contours of the world’s continents, showing what Hatoum describes as a “world continually caught up in conflict and unrest”(Smith, 2016).

Much of her work is darkly disturbing when you may think it will be at first glance. The over-sized, scaled-up domestic appliances of Grater Divide and Dormiente, using items such as graters and other kitchen utensils, useful and homely at their regular size, take on sinister characters hinting at torture implements when larger than human-scale.

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Mona Hatoum: Dormiente 2008

 

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Mona Hatoum: Dormiente (detail) 2008

 

A key piece for me is Mona Hatoum’s film Measures of Distance. It speaks to me of the inter-connectedness of familial relationships across space and time. In the film, the artist’s mother is shown in close-up, in the intimacy of her shower. Fragments of Arabic script from their handwritten correspondence form a visual barrier over the image; like barbed wire, the script conceals and reveals the body speaking simultaneously of literal and implied closeness and distance, simultaneously expressing the painful distance of displacement and the longings for closeness that mark the artist’s experience.

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Mona Hatoum: Measures of Distance 1988 (film still)

In this work I was also trying to go against the fixed identity that is usually implied in the stereotype of Arab woman as passive, mother as non-sexual being… the work is constructed visually in such a way that every frame speaks of literal closeness and implied distance.
(Quoted in Mona Hatoum 1997, p.140).

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Mona Hatoum: Measures of Distance 1988 (film still)

The film graphically highlights the difficulties of communicating across the geographical divide: Hatoum’s audio track reading of the letters in both Arabic and English shows the dual identity through language that a migrant or exile experiences and takes on board:  language both expands and limits expression, here the dual language also serves to bring audiences of both languages closer together.

Exploring themes of home and displacement from the perspective of the Palestinian exile, Mona Hatoum’s works, from the last thirty years and today, continue to be relevant in this “age of migrants, curfews, identity cards, refugees, exiles, massacres, camps and fleeing civilians” (Said, 2000).

Further reading

Gallery websites featuring the artist’s work

 

 

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Why was Leena McCall’s “Portrait of Ms Ruby May, Standing” removed from a London Exhibition?

“Inappropriate”, “bad taste”, “pornographic” or fine art?

The woman, one hand on her hip, the other holding a pipe to her lips, looks directly at the viewer with an air of confidence. She wears a fur-trimmed vest encircling the cleavage of her breasts, with her trousers dropped casually open at the waist, revealing a small strip of dark pubic hair.

The work was selected to hang in the gallery for the 153rd annual exhibition of the Society of Women Artist’s (SWA), but two days after a charity event and private viewing of the show, the piece was removed by the gallery, apparently “too pornographic and disgusting” for public display.

This image could be regarded as a beautiful one, with its carefully crafted brushstrokes and its finely rendered details, yet London- and Berlin-based artist Leena McCall’s Portrait of Ms Ruby May, Standing was removed from this year’s SWA exhibition at the Mall Galleries this summer, for fear that it may have corrupted and offended the public.

The Mall Galleries issued the statement:

“As an educational arts charity, the federation has a responsibility to its trustees and to the children and vulnerable adults who use its galleries and learning centre. After a number of complaints regarding the depiction of the subject and taking account of its location en route for children to our learning centre, we requested the painting was removed.”

Much of the controversy centred around why this picture was censored in the first place: Is it pornographic? Obscene? Is it too erotic for the general public? Is it because she is looking directly at the viewer and not submissive? Is it because she is partially clothed? Is is because she is not completely naked as in a classical “nude” painting? Is it because pubic hair is clearly displayed?  Is it because she is smoking?

It is in the name of children and vulnerable adults that McCall’s Portrait of Ms Ruby May, Standing, was censored. The artist said that removing the piece from public view only serves to underline the precise issue she was trying to address, she said:

“My work deals with female sexual and erotic identity. The fact that the gallery has deemed the work inappropriate and seen it necessary to have it removed from public display underlines the precise issue I am trying to address: how women choose to express their sexual identity beyond the male gaze.”

Further, McCall’s commented that throughout art history, women’s sexuality is consistently portrayed as something for and controlled by men, and she seeks to challenge that paradigm. Her work is a deliberate attempt to use the traditional language of portraiture in a way that’s less patriarchal.

The gallery offered her the opportunity to replace her painting with another work, but she said that would be tantamount to admitting there was something wrong with it. Given the long history of the nude figure in art, particularly of the nude female figure, it is difficult to see why this was an issue. Indeed, compared to most music videos or advertisements today, there is less skin on display, and the woman’s breasts show less cleavage with her nipples not actually even visible.

Remarkably the painting was replaced by another nude painting, so obviously the nudity itself was not the issue. It seems that the pose of the subject was the reason for the complaint and subsequent removal of the painting from the exhibition.

The replacement was another, less provocative, nude: no tattoos, unbuttoned clothing or brazen attitude, suggesting that the Mall Galleries‘ clientele can cope with nudes, as long as the model is passive and unthreatening to a (male?) viewer’s gaze. This has been described as “a desperately outmoded form of prudishness, like the wartime strippers at London’s Windmill club who were allowed to pose naked, by the Lord Chamberlain’s reluctant acquiescence, so long as they didn’t move. They posed with one foot forward, obscuring any glimpse of “the fork” (ie vulva). The implication’s clear: the minute a woman is alive and free to move, an active agent of her own sexuality, she is a menace to society.”

Ruby May, the subject of the painting, said:

“I don’t think people realise how threatening a sexually empowered woman is to a paradigm that is still patriarchal at its roots. Thankfully, the world is evolving, this outdated paradigm is crumbling, and forms of censorship such as this are becoming unacceptable to the wider public.”

The executive secretary of the SWA, Rebecca Cotton, said:

“We thought the painting was beautifully executed and the composition was much admired. We saw nothing wrong with it; had we, the piece would not have been selected. We hire the gallery space from the Mall Galleries for the period that the show is on. The gallery took it down without seeking our approval.”

Society today teaches young women that they should be waxed, shaved, buffed and polished to perfection, such messages are pervasive and uncensored. In such a world view, girls grow up believing that beauty equals pain, to be sexy is a hairless, pre-pubescent ideal, and boys expect girls to look like submissive porn stars.
McCall’s Ruby is not size zero, like the models used to sell clothes to women aged 14-years-old upwards. Ruby does not lie submissively with her legs splayed like the centrefold of a lad’s magazine; she is not made of silicone or plastic and there is no overt sexuality: she’s beautiful, confident, and real.

The Mall Galleries may have been “thinking of the children”, yet hiding the human body, when shown so positively and in an empowering way, does nothing for a child’s awareness, safety or self-belief.

McCall  is understandably incensed at the censoring of her portrait: it is ironic that her work should be removed from an all-female exhibition, curated by women.

When contacted via her website, the artist explained that:

“Ruby May (who leads erotic workshops) had proudly wanted to own the pubic hair that is so often waxed, covered or air-brushed away in contemporary depictions of the female body – and rarely glimpsed in classical ones, come to that… [one] can’t begin to understand how a painting that reveals no intimate flesh, other than the pelvic triangle, could possibly be described as pornography.”

The artist subsequently launched a social media campaign asking supporters to contact @mallgalleries using hash-tag #eroticcensorship – to see if she can get people talking about sexuality in that medium instead.

Writing on Twitter, McCall described the move as “erotic censorship”, adding; “How is this painting ‘pornographic’ and ‘disgusting’?” Twitter users lamented the “19th century Victorian ideas” at play, and asked: “How is that any more outré than classical nudes?”

One wonders if those (men?) responsible for censoring and removing the portrait have ever seen Gustave Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde at the Musée d’Orsay, with its splendid sprawl of black-haired vulva, or indeed Britain’s much loved Stanley Spencer’s Self Portrait with Patricia Preece, and what they make of them.

References and further reading

 

 

Where Are the People of Colour in Children’s Books?

Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?

“Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?” Walter Dean Myers’ article in the New York Times makes an interesting point:

“Of 3,200 children’s books published in 2013, just 93 were about black people, according to a study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin.”

His article is thoughtful, insightful, personal and touching. His article takes you on his personal journey through life, which is at times troubled and painful. Finding characters to identify with in literature (or indeed film, music, art…) is not often questioned in this way. How many classic children’s books are about white people? “Snow White”, “Alice in Wonderland”, the C.S. Lewis Narnia stories… It’s not a criticism, more an observation.

Myers cites Joe Morton, the actor who starred in “The Brother From Another Planet,” who said that “all but a few motion pictures being made about blacks are about blacks as victims. In them, we are always struggling to overcome either slavery or racism. Book publishing is little better. Black history is usually depicted as folklore about slavery, and then a fast-forward to the civil rights movement. Then I’m told that black children, and boys in particular, don’t read. Small wonder… There is work to be done.”

How timely given the current films in the cinemas… I hadn’t really heard of Walter Dean Myers until I read this article, but now I’m going to search out his books and his artwork that he also mentions. This is something for me to think about more deeply as a creative artist. I hope you might too.

Check out his article in the New York Times >

Read the Cooperative Children’s Book Center report >

Celebrating motherhood through art

The Lots Road Group Motherhood Exhibition

The Lots Road Group Motherhood Exhibition

Kensington and Chelsea Today featured the The Lots Road Group, an association of portrait painters in Chelsea, with their free exhibition on ‘Motherhood’ at the Chelsea Library from Thursday 20 March until Mother’s Day, Sunday 30 March.

“The exhibition celebrates mothers, grandmothers and mothers-in-law featuring 16 portraits by a group of figurative artists who met while studying portraiture at the Heatherley School of Fine Art in Chelsea, which is one of the few art colleges in Britain to focus on portraiture, figurative painting and sculpture.”

Read the full article http://www.kensingtonandchelseatoday.co.uk/arts-and-culture/exhibitions/uzpy6g2er6.html

Mayor of London to investigate rising costs of artist studio space

artist-studio“There’s a lot of concern that London is changing and artists are being forced to move to new areas… artists are pioneers of regeneration because they go where others don’t. But they’re also the victims as they then get priced out.” – Munira Mirza, deputy mayor for education and culture in London

In an article in The Independent, City Hall flagged up the importance of the issue of the shortage of affordable studio space in the capital in a report published in 2010, but further investigation was shelved as preparations for the Olympics intensified.

The issue is now back on the agenda in an investigation by the Mayor of London, amid growing evidence that artists are being driven out by rising rents and redevelopment.

The development comes after it emerged that a former biscuit factory in Bermondsey, which hosts close to 400 artists, had been sold and will be converted into 800 flats.

This seems to be a consistent pattern, where run-down areas are affordable for artists, but as the area becomes “arty” and “trendy”, the prices go up with the following “gentrification” and artists are priced out and forced to move.

Read the article in The Independent  http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/news/mayor-to-investigate-as-artists-fear-being-driven-out-of-london-by-rising-costs-of-studio-space-9120150.html

Tips for combining digital and hand-drawn techniques

Just read an interesting Creative Bloq article for combining digital and hand-drawn techniques: http://www.creativebloq.com/adobe/7-tips-using-textures-illustrator-31410998

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As an artist, illustrator and designer I share Nicole Tan’s passion for both digital and traditional media: how we wish there was a “ctrl-z” or “undo” button for the real world! I love it when illustrators and artists combine the two worlds: both have so much to offer and why does one have to cancel out the other?