Weeping in coal - the feminist art of Hannan Abu-Hussein

Hannan Abu-Hussein explores such loaded issues as violence against women and the complexities of Arab-Israeli relations in ‘My Body-Soul-Honor-Property,’ currently at the Givat Haviva Art Gallery.

Hannan Abu Hussein a still image  from the 2017 video work Mashara (Blacker) 2017 (photo credit: HAGAY HACOHEN)
Hannan Abu Hussein a still image from the 2017 video work Mashara (Blacker) 2017
(photo credit: HAGAY HACOHEN)
Dough is white, coal is black. In the 2001-2008 Video Ajeeneh (Dough) Hannan Abu-Hussein kneads and covers herself in dough as if ready to go to sleep in its soft and warm embrace. In a video placed next to Ajeeneh titled Mashara (Blacker) from 2017, she is seen breaking large blocks of coal into smaller fragments and smears her face with the soot. Both works take place in a space that evokes a home, or maybe a kitchen, where fuel is burned and bread is baked.
In the context of Palestinian culture, the works function on levels that might be invisible to the Jewish viewer. Abu-Hussein hails from a town called Umm el-Fahm, which means “the mother of coal,” as it was a coal-production center for centuries.
In traditional societies women make dough at home and bake bread for their families. Among rural Arabs, a custom of smearing one’s face with soot and dirt to mark a death of a loved one used to be widespread. The soot was often taken from the family oven used to bake bread, marking a powerful meeting point between life (wheat, bread) and death (coal, cremation).
“When a traditional Arab woman saw the video,” Givat Haviva Art Gallery curator Anat Lidror told The Jerusalem Post, “she burst into tears.”
In My Body-Soul-Honor-Property, currently on display until February 22, Abu-Hussein continues her artistic exploration into such loaded issues as violence against women and the complexities of Arab-Israeli relations.
In the 2003-2010 video My Little Country with 2 Big Mustaches she claims that there is “a main occupation and the Israeli occupation.” The main occupation, in her mind, is that which women are subjected to. Using the nature of the Arab language – which describes people according to their family relations [father of, mother of] – she describes her situation as that of “being a shadow of, the daughter of, the mother of... shadow of a shadow.” In the powerful video she describes the need in some cultures to control women as a sick need to place women in jars. “There are many empty jars,” she explains, “and nobody looks at them.”
The violence, of course, is not limited to that used by men to harm women; women can also use violence against themselves or against other women, believing they are doing the right thing. After all, women function as the mothers of the men who murder women in what are mistakenly called “honor killings,” and women marry such men when they are in prison for their crime.
A woman does not have to be Arab to suffer violence. A 2013 US Bureau of Justice Statistics report shows 10,470 women were killed in intimate-partner homicides from 2002 to 2010, more than all the US soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan plus those killed during the attack on the World Trade Center. Yet Arab culture still grapples with the meaning of honor and its functions.
In the exhibition, various objects are used to speak of the various pressures placed on women. A massive hung work is made out of bras. Another work shaped like a large uterus is made out of nylon stockings. Abu-Hussein is not embarrassed to speak of vaginas or to display representations of them. A woman’s vagina, she argues in My Little Country, is “the central door of the house, the place that can be occupied.”
Writing about the works, Lidror claims that the choice to work in “enormous quantities” reveals that to the artist “one is part of a larger whole, one of a crowd.”
It is interesting to note that the bra itself, when it was first introduced, was seen as a progressive, healthier choice than the corset which caused women to faint and suffer a great deal of pain. It is possible that the wide selection on offer – sports-bras, push-up bras, large-sized bras and training bras – only fosters a false sense of autonomy. No matter what your body is like, the fashion industry points to the female and says, “We have something to put you in.”
Other works on display include large razors cast in cement, a material the artist employed in the past in a nod to the association many Israelis make between Arabs and construction work, as well as a gesture of her own strength. Abu-Hussein does the mixing and casting herself, taking on the so-called “heavy lifting” that is part of the image of the male artist who works in stone, metal and concrete.
In a series of works that leads to the main segment of the exhibition she depicts prison shirts. This brings to mind the words of Eugene V. Debs: “While there is a lower class, I am in it, while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”
Hannan Abu-Hussein will meet the public and discuss her work at the Givat Haviva Art Gallery on Saturday, February 1, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Further details can be found on the Givat Haviva-The Center for a Shared Society website at givathaviva.org.