MONA HATOUM, Present Tense, 1996, soap and glass beads, 4.5 × 299 × 241 cm. Installed at Anadiel Gallery, Jerusalem. Photo by Issa Freij. Courtesy Anadiel Gallery.

MONA HATOUM: Present Tense


Israel Palestine Lebanon
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Mona Hatoum’s original proposal for a show at Anadiel Gallery in Jerusalem—sent in order for me to apply for a British Council grant —was to construct two false walls running parallel to each other, about one meter apart, stretching from the gallery’s entrance all the way to the back, creating a sort of passageway. Nails covering the entire surface of the two walls would protrude, with their pointed ends out into this passage. The nails would be shiny and long so that when seen from afar they would seem to form a lustrous metallic surface covering the entire entrance. But of course, when one approached, pulled in by alluring surfaces, one would find oneself inside a trap—an unsettling perspective of a long, narrow passage and the fear that the walls, with their sharp protrusions, would close in. Mona and I were convinced that this would be the best project to present at Anadiel.

Mona arrived in Jerusalem in March 1996 to install the show, which was slated for April. We spent almost the entire first week, with the help of Rania Stephan, working out the technical aspects of constructing the walls along the gallery’s entrance and affixing the nails in a slick, precise way. To get from her hotel just outside the city walls in front of the Damascus Gate, to the gallery, inside the New Gate, Mona had to walk back and forth through the souks of the Old City. Every day she picked up a few things from the market. The most important item she purchased one day was a bar of Nablus soap.

During this time, Mona visited George Khleifi (the brother of the filmmaker Michel Khleifi) in his office in Jerusalem. Hanging on the wall was a map of the Oslo Accords, which Yasser Arafat infamously signed in 1993. When we met later that day, she said: “I saw that map and thought, what the hell is that and how could that be? Who’s that crazy person who drew this map? I want to draw it too!” All the plans and work for the walls and nails project were pushed aside and she began to consider how and with what she would draw that map.

Nablus soap was her answer, and she decided to get it from Nablus itself—that is, directly from the factory that produces the brand “al-Jamal,” which Mona remembered from childhood. She calculated that she needed about 2,200 bars for the map’s dimensions to be suitable for the gallery floor. She had already superimposed a grid over the map to facilitate the tracing of the boundary lines of the scattered and disconnected territories into which the Palestinians had been pushed by the Oslo agreement. She intended to delineate these in the soap with nails, but wrote later that this arrangement “looked quite aggressive and sad.” Instead she opted for thousands of tiny red glass beads that she also bought in the market, pushing them into the surface of the ivory-white soap bars. The work, which we did over the course of the week before the opening, was laborious yet enjoyable.

That week, the weather was cold and the gallery, as it turned out, was not heated. I had just moved into the space, which had been my father’s bookbinding shop, after losing the lease on my previous gallery on the then-prestigious Salah Eddin Street in East Jerusalem, the main business thoroughfare in the city. Despite the cold, the smell of fresh soap filled the space with a warm nostalgic feeling, reminiscent of hot baths that my mother would prepare for me during cold winter days. Piece by piece, the map made of soap and red beads gradually filled the center of the gallery. As the picture started to materialize, it suddenly dawned on us that what seemed so delicate and pure now carried some kind of a disturbing feel to it also, as if something unnatural had surfaced on the skin of the soap. Mona described the lines of beads as “amoeba-like and look[ing] like some kind of disease growing on the surface of the soap”—what had previously alluded to cleansing and purity had now become hideous and untouchable. In my mind, all of this started to make sense with regard to the idea of Palestine as it was represented by the historical map that we knew so well, and that some people even wore tattooed on their chests, and this new fragmented, deformed map that represented the interim agreement between the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Israeli government. It dawned on me that what the Israelis were truly after in these negotiations—having sustained a big loss to their international standing during the First Intifada—was to break the Palestinian population apart, confine them to restricted, controllable areas, doping people with a false sense of peace. I felt that Mona’s allusion to the unsustainability of the Accords through the use of soap, a perishable material, was just brilliant and a sort of slap in the face for those who thought we were on the right path toward peace. When Mona was asked during the show’s opening about her opinion on the Oslo agreements and the map, she answered (I’m paraphrasing here): “With this soap I wash my hands of this matter.” One visitor asked Mona: “Did you draw the map on soap because when it dissolves we won’t have any of these stupid borders?”

Yet Present Tense did not escape the controversy of utilizing soap as a medium for artwork in a place where, among the audience, you had hard-core Israelis whose memories of the Holocaust remained the bricks and mortar of their identity. At a lecture I organized in the new al-Wasiti Art Centre in East Jerusalem, at which Mona presented her work and talked about her career, one Israeli artist in the audience stood up and, in an accusatory tone, asked Mona why she used soap when she must have been aware of its association with the Holocaust. I realized in the back of my mind that I was aware of this because early on (in the 1970s) my father had taken us to the Holocaust memorial where I read that soap was made from the human fat of Jewish concentration camp victims. In that museum there were pictures of soap bars marked with the initials RIF, indicating that they were specially made from Jewish fat. But for us Palestinians, none of this is part of our history or our psyche. His question, or remark, came across as quite agitated and confrontational, so Mona simply and truly answered: “No, there is no link whatsoever.” She later reflected: “This couldn’t [have been] further from my thoughts. Those two different readings of the work give you an idea of the very different backgrounds and histories of the two cultures trying to coexist.”