The themes that Mona Hatoum examines in her artwork are extremely intimate and personal yet intensely political and somewhat autobiographical. She portrays a sense of rootlessness throughout her work, reflecting her experiences of exile from a global perspective. With an unsettled background, Hatoum describes a feeling of being unable to give credence to anything. She especially mistrusts the solidity of the ground that you stand on, and she reflects on this sense of instability
“Maps give the illusion of a stable, measurable space. My works are more about mappings of precarious space with unstable boundaries and shaky geography.” (Hatoum, 2011)
Threads of her individual identity woven with the Palestinian Cultural Identity, she melds her personal story with that of the collective memory. Her work testifies to a sense of being controlled and transferable like a commodity. Seemingly unintentional, yet quite purposeful she juxtaposes her particular anxieties with the sense of being drawn towards the historical global politics and that of the present day. She invites the audience to consider the world as through the experiences of those who are in that state of in-betweenness perceived as Outsiders or Incomers. When interviewed by Janine Antoni, Hatoum reflected:
A kind of self-examination and an examination of the power structures that control us: Am I the jailed or the jailer? The oppressed or the oppressor? Or both. I want the work to complicate these positions and offer an ambiguity and ambivalence rather than concrete and sure answers. (Antoni, 1998)
Geographical Demarcation is a crucial concept in Hatoum’s work, delineating borders on maps and associating cultural differences. She highlights the fact that these boundaries are muddy, blurred, and decaying as a result of globalisation. Although Hatoum uses maps, these are not to make direct political statements, in fact her focus is more about the aesthetics. The materials used and the process of simplification to develop a reduced form that arrive at an abstraction which can then suggest many different associations.
Present Tense (1996), by Hatoum, her first example of Cartography was constructed over the space of a week from olive oil soap bars. This soap has been produced in the West Bank since the 14th Century, purchased by Hatoum in the local market. Red glass beads outlined the division of land in the 1993 Oslo Peace Agreement and were also purchased in the same local market. Smells often trigger remembrances and the smell of the soap in Present Tense acts as a compelling embodiment of memory.
For viewers of Present Tense in 1996, the spread of the smell of the soap throughout the gallery in occupied East Jerusalem – for Palestinians an emotionally charged place – may not only have activated memories, but may also have intensified longing for the homeland that was taken from them. This longing may have been accompanied by a feeling of sadness because the homeland, as they knew it, no longer existed. The integration of the map of Oslo accords must have only enhanced that feeling, as it shows fragmented Palestinian Territories. (Asperen and Goudeau, 2014)
As the piece degrades over time the borders are dissolved. Association with the issues of Diaspora can be observed when reflecting on the degradation. Not only does it indicate a perception of the Palestinian people, as being unclean or untouchable. It also suggests the fluidity of borders that we see in our modern-day world.
Continental Drift, another cartographic piece created in 2000 from Iron filings and transparent plastic as a representation of the world from the North Pole. A magnetized rotary arm generates a tidal wave that disfigures and alters the continents. This continual shift demonstrates the instability in our geography and suggests that known fixed boundaries can be destabilized by the presence of an overriding power.
Maps historically have been drawn and then redrawn, the cartographic pieces of Mona Hatoum inspire reflection on the geographical fluidity. They also prompt us to consider our identities and connections. By disfiguring her artwork, so to, our perceptions of our geography become diffused and the sense of destabilisation lingers.