As a first generation Iranian-American, I have been exposed to diaspora through my family’s emigration from Iran in the 1970’s. The Middle East’s constant political unrest has created many diasporic subjects throughout the world. The sudden shift from one culture to another, from Orient to Occident, has provided two female Middle Eastern artists ground from which to make profound work on. These two women experienced a vital discontent in their homeland and left their settled territories to become residents in areas far removed from their former home. This essay will focus on the work produced by two women that bear several identities at once which in turn contributes a special point of view, a consolidation between the East and West. Their work employs transnational feminism, Orientalism, and minimalism as underlying philosophies that strengthen the multivalence of their work.
Mona Hatoum is a female artist who uses her body as a metaphor for exile, displacement and dislocation. Her identity has had a strong tie to physical locations and despite her denial of “illustrating her personal experience,” I believe she represents an artist who displays an acute awareness of transnational feminism. She was born in Beirut in 1952 and studied at the American University there. Her parents were Palestinians living in Lebanon, who were unable to gain Lebanese identity cards, so they became naturalized British citizens instead. In her 20’s, Hatoum traveled to London for what she thought would be a brief visit, but she could not return to Lebanon when the airports were closed due to a civil war that broke out there. She was not able to return home, so she attended art school at The Byam Shaw School of Art and The Slade School of Art. Hatoum has lived in the West ever since, and splits her time between Berlin and London in addition to the various artist residencies she has participated in. I think this nomadic lifestyle and her personal history divided between East and West has informed her work with a uniquely global perspective. Space is a central theme in Hatoum’s work as she creates environments that prompt the viewer to reference a psychological or mental space as opposed to a specific location. Her installation works and sculptures employ space physically, while the work’s aesthetics induce confinement, fear and dislocation. In the late 80’s her work moved from narrative and time based work to installation which she says, “articulates [her] concerns through materials and formal aspects instead of delivering a message to a passive audience.” Creating a direct, physical experience for the viewer became a matter of importance with a work called “Light At The End” in which 6 metal heating bars are evenly spaced between a vertical metal structure. Because the title refers to light, you expect the yellow bars to be made of light, but when you walk closer towards them, you feel the intense heat coming from the work. Initially you may be drawn to the work’s beautiful light, but as you experience the work closer to your body, curiosity shifts to fear and danger.
I highlight a work like this because of its specific need of bodily participation in order for the work to be fully realized. She says in an interview with Michael Arfiero in Sculpture Magazine, “A work like this may refer to situations of imprisonment, pain, and torture without pointing the finger at any specific place, leaving it to viewers to make their own connections and identify with either the jailer or the jailed.” Here she emphasizes the importance of the viewer’s body. The work becomes a site of projection for their own experiences, memories and desires. Although she probably created the work from her own experiences in space, she turns the local into the universal by utilizing tools of minimalism to distill the work’s concept to its form.
In her sculptures, “No Way” and “No Way II”, she plugs the holes of a strainer and a colander with metal bolts, and thus creates objects that look like a mace and a land mine. She says she drew inspiration for these works from roads that were obstructed by military police in the Middle East. Perhaps even more, the impact of Lebanon’s civil war and the weapons of destruction permeated her consciousness and planted the seeds for this work. Here again, the body is referenced through the household items, where the relationship to humans is implied rather than shown. In addition, the household items, kitchen utensils specifically become these objects of war, alluding to the war in her homeland. But Alix Ohlin offers another perspective in Home and Away, “No Way and No Way II seem to express a sense of claustrophobia and blockage, even deep rage, experienced by women alone.” He suggests that the use of kitchen utensils can be read in a feminist language, a metaphor for a socially oppressed body.
Although under my close inspection, I am tempted to see her work as highly personal and very much about her identity, she rebells against being over-identified with her biography. She has said that she is often asked about what aspects of her work come from her own culture to which she responded in a 1998 interview with Janine Antoni, “As if I have a recipe and I can actually isolate the Arab ingredient, the woman ingredient, the Palestinian ingredient. People often expect tidy definitions of otherness, as if identity is something fixed and easily definable.” It is this very notion that no single “ingredient” can present an understanding of her work that is so fascinating to me. She is not just coming from a feminist perspective, in fact I read that she grew great discontent for feminism in its second wave because of its strictly Western stance. And as feminism in art grew into the 90’s hot topic of identity politics, feminism in particular was not a starting point for her. However, I still believe it plays a vital role in her existence as a transnational feminist with aims of destabilizing boundaries around nations, gender and race. Central to a transnationalist feminist framework is the need to consider gender in an integrated analysis with race, class, nationhood, ethnicity, etc.
To go back to her quote, the “otherness” she refers to is an obvious reference to the Palestinian scholar Edward Said who has written about Hatoum’s work and deals with “otherness” in his own writing. The mutual influence of East and West is significant in understanding why Hatoum’s identity cannot be formulated with named equal parts. In The Art of Displacement: Mona Hatoum’s Logic of Irreconcilables, Edward Said analyzes the way in which identity as a subject is present, albeit ulterior. “Her work is the presentation of identity as unable to identify with itself, but nevertheless grappling the notion (perhaps only the ghost) of identity to itself. Thus is exile figured and plotted in the objects she creates.” Each ingredient becomes a mirror in understanding another ingredient in a similar way that Said sets up the Occident’s creation of the Orient as an idea, a reflection on the Occident itself. When asked about Said’s interpretation of her work, Hatoum explains how each person that interprets her work does so depending on their own experience. In referring to Said she said, “his experience of exile and displacement is that of the Palestinians so he read specifically the Palestinian issue in my work, but it's not so specifically to do with the Palestinian issue. It could be related to a number of people who are exiled, who are displaced, who suffer a kind of cultural or political oppression of, of any kind.” In this same quote she talks about how because he is a writer, he is predispositioned to look for a literal meaning, where the content in the work is more important than the form. Unsurprisingly, she finds difficulty in accepting this because it limits the multivalence of the work and provides, again a “fixed” meaning. In the same way she approaches her mixed biography, she champions the multiplicity of meanings that art work can produce.
But of course I do not want to create a negative picture in discussing Hatoum’s views on Said, as in fact his influence was very fruitful and eye-opening. They became friends not long after her nomination for the Turner Prize in 1995. His work made her realise, she says, that she wasn't alone in "feeling an in-betweenness, of being out of place and of not relating completely to where I am". Aware that no artist can control how their work is interpreted, she is sensitive to how she might be perceived as a Palestinian artist. "People often don't credit me with the intelligence to have an awareness of western art history," she says. "They might assume that someone with my background doesn't have the capability of being aware of what's going on and making comments upon it. But for me that was part of my education and my culture. And what's often ignored about my work is that I'm also making reference to [western] art and art history." I am not sure how one can “ignore” her sensitivity to minimalism, Sol Lewitt in particular whose modulars are obvious influence in her cage like structures. I am not surprised however that writers and critics try to pigeon-hole her work, as they seem to have that tendency as a means to their own ends.
In a work called “Homebound”, Hatoum, stretches two parallel horizontal electric wires which take up the entire length of the gallery. The wires form bars that enclose you from a chaotic mix of kitchen utensils and household furniture that are connected to each other through another electric wire that produces an alternating current of electricity. Light bulbs flash intermittently throughout time while a faint buzz steams through audial vibrations in the gallery. The wires form a barrier that creates a tension between the viewer and the work as it cannot be entered nor exited. This highly controlled and seemingly threatening space can allude to various spacial forms of confinement.
In Uncharted Territory: New Perspectives in the Art of Mona Hatoum, Sheena Wagstaff points out moments in the work where a bed is sporadically illuminated by one of the light bulbs which alludes to electric beds as instruments of torture or dissection, or morgue tables. Where at once the work seems to be overly fictionalized and repulsive, it still seduces the viewer in “entering” the installation even though we can not physically do so. “It is through Hatoum’s ambiguous relationship between entrapment and freedom, emphasized by the spatially dislocating flux of light and shadow, that Homebound exercises the ever-fascinating ‘mechanism of alienation’ by which the subject is caught.” This work is perhaps the most illustrative display of a woman in exile. Not only do the formal qualities and spatial relationships of the work elucidate exile, the title of the work also cleverly plays on the literal and figurative meaning of the word “bound”. It refers to the state of being on the way home as in “homeward bound”, as a subject in exile typically can not be. But in an increasingly globalized world, where diaspora no longer refers to people in exile, and where people are able to go back and forth between their new and “old” homes, the meaning changes. The word “bound” can also refer to the state of being tied up to something, and in this case it would be the home. Again, issues regarding domesticity and multinationalism, creates a transnational feminist dialogue in the work of Mona Hatoum.
Another Middle Eastern female artist who employs the politics of representation in order to navigate their transnational identity, is Shirin Neshat. Like many of the members of my own family, she emigrated from Iran at the at age of seventeen to the United States, ultimately escaping Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution. After returning from studying art at Berkeley, she came back to a foreign Iran, one transformed by a totalitarian regime. The Islamic Revolution had altered the country completely, and the regime had come to determine every aspect of the lives of the people, from what they ate and drank to what they wore. During this period the country had been barely accessible to journalists from the West and was almost exclusively associated with fundamentalism, fanaticism and terrorism, and since has created ground suitable for exploration, albeit at a distance. Neshat, like Hatoum has been living a nomadic life, as it is the only way in which she can realistically deal with her situation as a diasporic subject. Although she has, “battled with the pain of cultural disjoinment and alienation,” her distant relationship with her homeland has granted the space to observe and interpret her subjectivities through her work.
Her earliest body of work, “Women of Allah” was inspired by a trip back to Iran after twelve years of absence. Before this body of work, she had not been inspired to create anything at all since her schooling. But the changes the Islamic Revolution brought to her home country were so shocking that she finally felt that there was something that she could passionately make work about. “There was so much that I didn’t understand: for example, how and why the revolution was formed and what were the main philosophical and ideological ideas behind this change. In a sense, coming to terms with this subject strangely made me feel less distant and more a part of the community.” Perhaps creating work about the woman she could have been had she not left Iran, allowed her to consolidate the tension between her escape and her constant return.
She was particularly interested in the Revolution’s effect on women: the chador (the farsi word for the burka or veil), and the potential of female resistance in an oppressive regime through aesthetic means. “Women of Allah” is a photographic body of work which are all composed of an image of Neshat herself, calligraphy of Iranian female poets, weapons, and the veil. Each of these elements have symbolic value that discuss the issues of contemporary Iranian women. For example, the veil is a highly controversial symbol of the repression of women’s rights and individuality and at the same time a sign of liberation against Western influence.
These photographs beg an Orientalist read as they feed into how Edward Said discusses the “inherent violence” and “lascivious sensuality” of Orientals which the images of a weapon and a woman provide respectively. The veil further exploits the “exotic” Orient which in the nineteenth century became at the same time mysteriously secretive AND understood through the lens of the Occident. The exemplary exposed yet mysterious object is the veil and thus the veiled woman. The veiled woman fed into Oriental paradoxical fantasies, where she is represented in the context of colonial literature and art as mysterious yet knowing, convertible and assimilable. The projected availability and vulnerability of Eastern woman supported a desire of the European colonizer to enlighten the Islamic world and “free” its women from opression. This ambivalence still carries on in Neshat’s work where a tension between the illegible calligraphy (to people who cannot read Farsi) and the inherent “truth” of photography creates a space of contemplation of the image. When Pierre Bourdieu reminds us, “The world of images is dominated by words. Photos are nothing without words.” the familiar incrusted symbols in the photographs become undeniably multivalent and deep.
Neshat’s work simultaneously communicates her sense of geographical dislocation and the gendered divide of Islamic culture. “Turbulent” from 1998 and “Rapture” from 1999 illustrate these two themes perfectly by opposite groups of men and women separated in space that investigates the ideological implications of private and public space. The films are installed opposite from each other, so the viewer is caught in the middle, only being able to see one screen at a time, thus becoming the editor. The two projections seem to address each other as though one could not exist without the other. In “Turbulent” a man and a woman are seen on opposite sides of the gallery. First, the man sings a song to an all male audience. When his song has ended, the woman performs her own piece that contain no lyrics and no audience. The work focuses on the separation of sexes in Islamic culture. The fact that the woman’s delivery is wordless and solitary is exemplary of a law in Iran that does not allow women to sing in public. Another interesting aspect of “Turbulent”, is that it was made as a collaboration between a Iranian writer, film maker, singer, cinematographer and art director who were all living abroad. This sense of community among diasporic subjects seems to be prevalent, as the need for a common understanding perhaps fills a lonely, displaced void. It is also quite interesting that the films are not shot in Iran, but in a near-by country. Neshat says this is due to the controversial nature of her work and that she fears that creating the works in Iran would put her at great risk. Additionally Neshat’s work has barely been shown in her home country, Iran. Due to its political and anti-fundamentalist approach, the only work of hers that has been shown in Iran, is a film called “Tooba”, a poetic piece whose main feature is a garden. Gardens are a symbol of spirituality in Iran, and thus its neutrality prompted a pleasant reception in Iran.
“Soliloquy” is probably Neshat’s most personal film in that it displays her experience as a woman with divided and seemingly oppositional cultural and religious influences. In the installation version, we see her walking in two different cityscapes: one in a small Middle Eastern city visiting a mosque where she joins some kind of ceremony with other women dressed in similar black veils. On the other side of the installation she is again dressed in black, in an urban modern city where she joins a Christian religious service. Standing between the installation, the viewer can quite literally interpret the work as insight into the artist’s psychological struggle to understand her place between two very different worlds, her past and present. In her past, she might fear losing her individuality as a traditional Islamic woman, but in her present she may feel isolated and separated in a modern Christian based society. This work clearly presents her divided worlds where she consciously used the architecture to emphasize the difference to the viewer. She says “The architecture became an essential aspect of Soliloquy as the buildings represented each culture in its traditional values.”
Both Hatoum and Neshat were included in a show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York called “Without Boundary: Seventeen Ways of Looking”. Its mission was to present work by artists born in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia but who live and work in Europe or the United States. The curator of the show who is the director of contemporary painting and drawing at the museum, Fereshteh Daftari says the underlying point of the show is that borders between art and artists have been enclosed, whether they are formal, political or religious, hence the title of the show. Because these artists are of the Middle Eastern Diaspora, and they are among the global elite, their work can and should not be labeled as “Islamic” as such a classification falls short. Neshat and Hatoum’s work clearly shows how globalization and its various aspects have allowed artists of multiple origins to become global citizens, and their work be read with universal issues. The show also displayed how an artist can maintain a balance between loyalty towards their roots without becoming ethnographic.
Similar to Mona Hatoum’s complaints that she cannot be understood as a Western artist of Palestinian descent, Shirin Neshat discusses a similar discontent: “Much of the criticism towards my work is more reflective of Western critic’s own inability to accurately analyze non-Western artists.” However, I would argue that both artists have mastered the task of consolidating between their Eastern and Western identities through their work, and that they can not be one without the other. They have studied and lived in the West despite being born in the Middle East, they speak of contemporary Middle Eastern issues with contemporary Western art historical discourses, and thus the East is as integral to their work as is the East. Every exile and immigrant carries a sense of their cultural homeland in addition to the individual perspective on the country they inhabit now. Unlike the black and white contrasts of Neshat’s photographs, these women’s works can not be read as such.