American University of Beirut

President's Speech - Mona Hatoum

Dr. John Waterbury's speech
introducing Mona Hatoum

We welcome Mona Hatoum back to Beirut, the city in which she was born and where she attended BUC, later to become LAU. The civil war drove her and family out of Lebanon and to London where she attended the Slade School of Fine Arts. Being of Palestinian origin, it may not have been altogether surprising that she and her family had experienced double exile. It is also not surprising that an album of her exhibition at London's Tate Gallery in the spring of 2000 is entitled "The Entire World as a Foreign Land". 

I find myself wondering how our celebration today appears to Mona Hatoum's inner eye. Everything about this honorary degree ceremony is intended to be harmonious, steeped in comforting tradition, and in this setting, with light streaming through stained glass windows and with the faculty in their medieval robes, it is intended to be beautiful. I fear to think how Mona Hatoum might re-work this scene, what elements she might pull out of it and then assault our senses and sensitivities with them. 

Might it be the robes themselves, the chairs upon which we sit, the furled and ribboned diplomas, the illuminated windows? Whatever she might select, one can be sure that she would extract from it an alter ego that would shock and disturb us. We would recognize the object but, at the same time, not recognize it. 

I do not know if, in general, Mona Hatoum wants to shock her viewers but she certainly does not want to comfort them. One of her consistent messages is that what appears familiar really is not. What we think we know is really superficial. What Mona Hatoum does is, quite literally, to shed a new light, sometimes a blinking or pulsating light, on the familiar and force us to see it in new and unsettling ways. The object may be a common kitchen utensil or parts of our own body. Our external parts are of course visually familiar to us, but despite the intimacy that joins us to them, how many of us know what our insides look like? Mona Hatoum takes us to this foreign land that lies beneath our skin. In her 1994 video, Corps étranger, she presented a physician's record of his endoscopic exploration of her own body, focusing particularly on the body's orifices. 

Unfortunately for us the world we live in is both familiar and alien, of our making and yet somehow repulsive. Fortunately for us it is this same world that has inspired Mona Hatoum and drawn us to her work like moths to a flame.

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