Streams of chili, cumin, curry, henna, coconut charcoal, dried beetroot, and salt shimmer across the ground, eroding pathways—timelines, even—in the spaces that artist Monia Ben Hamouda occupies. Viewers encounter the steel sculptural works with sight, of course. Second, perhaps one can smell the work, depending on the sharpness of their nose. Third, one might imagine touch—fingertips sliding down the cool, slick surfaces of steel, of drowning in the powdery dunes of spices. That which is tactile touches Ben Hamouda’s work.
The artist’s new exhibition About Telepathy and other Violences at Chert Lüddein Berlin features a river of spice glistening beneath 10 new sculptures. The haptic connection permeates through these works, invoking her Islamic calligrapher father, the hand both present in the gestures of the sculptures, and literally. A continuation of her exhibition in Berlin, Ben Hamouda’s The Destruction of the Idols of Ka’ba is also on view in the Reivindicar la resiliencia / Reclaiming the Resilience project at La Casa Encendida in Madrid.
Further tethering the Italian-Tunisian artist to her ancestry, Ben Hamouda encounters figuration and aniconism in Islam. The artist explores the event in which the prophet Muhammad and an army marched on Mecca and destroyed the pagan idols at the Kaaba—this time, hands destroy rather than create. This tactility in Ben Hamouda’s work recalls her father’s calligraphic stroke, but also her wielding of it to wrestle with her heritage FLAUNT spoke with Ben Hamouda on the materiality and language of her work, symbols, and the importance of hands.
Can you tell me a bit about your unique visual language? I understand there is a strong relationship there with calligraphy—maybe even poetry and breath—in your articulation of form in space?
My visual language, which translates into a broad range of formal approaches in equal parts drawing, sculpture, and painting, reworks traditional calligraphic forms into a discordant and compound composition, steeped in cultural-religious symbology and rituals. It is significantly inspired by calligraphy, which stands as an extended part of Arabic culture, as well as on my own personal history, and it’s mostly based on exploring and following the belief that each individual is inextricably connected to their family tree and to the psychological universe of their ancestors. My practice is mostly an attempt to master my influences (I was born into a Muslim community as the daughter of an Islamic calligrapher) creating works that act as gestural exorcisms of the expectations placed upon me by tradition and the politicized present, aiming to navigate distances between complex histories of art, culture, language and religion, reconciling these polarities through a personal poetics articulated through a syntax of gesture and raw materiality: metal, wood, powdered spices, charcoal, fire, serve as conduits through which I channel the divergent forces that have shaped my identity.
How would you say the materiality of your work relates to diasporic identity and displacement narratives?
Everything in my work is symbolic. Although the concept of diaspora is not the focus of my research, in the last period I have often found myself asking questions regarding the political implications of my practice. I am a sculptress, and I use the elements that have characterized my life as plastic material. Spices, powders, calligraphy, and language are elements that I know and know how to use, but which take the viewer to a place that seems far away. And so I ask myself: what is the link between spices, food, and seek for asylum? And how does the movement and change of these powders seem to trace a geographical history or retrace migratory flows? Is my work ‘political’ because of my biography or is all Art political? I am still looking for these answers.
From writing and creating to destroying, the hand takes on a number of roles in your work. How do you think about hands?
It is just recently that I realized that hands are recurring elements in my work. I think it is connected to two aspects; Firstly, the aspect of identity, and how in my cultural context hands are often the only visible part of a body, and how they are therefore linked to identity. And then I was thinking about the linguistic aspect: how hands are a vehicle for the passage of information, through which one can avoid using words. In my practice, linguistic architectures are central. I grew up in a bilingual context, and this has often made me think that language is often a vehicle of misunderstandings, rather than a way for sharing information and understanding each other.
How do you feel culture and heritage influence your understanding of symbols and visual communication?
In my case, I would say: massively. The work of my father, the prohibited things in art, the nights in Al-Qayrawān spent doing henna on my hands, the fabulous figurative drawing of my grandmother hidden between mattresses...this all profoundly filtered my view of life and art. But mostly, I would say that the Western vision of my identity, [was] very much linked to Violence (I was 9 years old when 9/11 happened).
The deconstructed quality of some of your work calls to mind the sense of being out of place, placing absence and belonging at the center of the experience. How do you feel about the spaces in which your work is shown and what is your relationship to the formal gallery space?
I often say that I use exhibition spaces as material. My approach to it is maximalist and aggressive, but the final result has a subtle hint of hostile tenderness and sharp elegance. I also think that my vision of architecture was profoundly filtered by religion. The houses of Muslim people are displayed and furnished to welcome the prayer, which has a very specific geographical direction and needs to be performed with the whole body. My family used to design their interiors and display the furniture to this specific need, and I think I have inherit-ed this posture towards architecture: I find myself in an exhibition space and I naturally position myself to occupy that space according to a specific need, a specific posture, which is an almost sacred occupation of space. I often work with installations that articulate the links between architecture and physical and spiritual protection, imagery, and religious spaces, questioning how destroyed architecture and political events are connected and what roles architectural elements play in cult beliefs, migration processes, and art history.