What I see when I see Eyes Skinned (1988, 4 minutes 4 seconds) - VISUAL

VISUAL Centre for Contemporary Art &
The George Bernard Shaw Theatre

What I see when I see Eyes Skinned (1988, 4 minutes, 4 seconds)

The non-fiction writer Chitra Ramaswamy shares her powerful response to Mona Hatoum’s 1988 video work Eyes Skinned in this specially commissioned text. Documenting her reactions to the video second by second, Ramaswamy traces the resonances of Hatoum’s work after three-and-a-half decades, finding a kinship with the artist and reflecting on a vital, unflinching body of work

What I see when I see Eyes Skinned (1988, 4 minutes, 4 seconds)


I hear breathing.


By something soft, the way a change in the wind sucks a curtain back into a room. This breathing, it draws a thought from me: somewhere out there, always, is a body unable to articulate its pain. I am in my kitchen in Leith, a district to the north of the city of Edinburgh at the mouth of the Water of Leith (Latitude: 55° 58' 8.99" N, Longitude: -3° 10' 4.20" W), paradised in mid-afternoon peacetime, my children on their screens for a little rest and respite before dinner, the sun having migrated south from the back to the front of the flat, darkening the screen of my laptop. So I brighten it.

There, that’s better.

How astonishing that this is how so many of us receive the world’s horrors, through a glass darkly, looking, looking, looking, then choosing when to look away. To cover our own eyes. We must never get used to this way of getting the news nor how it claims to beget us. We call it the algorithm. In the 1980s when you made this video work, the tabloids in this, our country, would have called it ‘giving people what they want’, and you would have called it surveillance. The point is, all roads lead here – to the Present Tense. There is so much I want to say, Mona Hatoum, when I look at (and want to look away from) your work.


Two words: Eyes Skinned. This will be a confrontation and I will experience it in two ways.

1. As a daughter of Indian immigrants beginning, in my fifth decade, to wake up to history.
2. As a brown-skinned westerner, bewildernessed monoglot, ticker of the box marked Asian or Asian British.

These are opposing forces: one fusing me to you, the other cutting the wire. A double vision you and I and how ever many billions call home. We are the global majority goddammit! (Separate but not unrelated thought: I was only nine years old when you first showed this film. Bloody hell.)


It disturbs me, the sight of hands covering eyes covered by a black shroud. How many layers of prevention – of occupation – can a person – a people – take? Then, projected onto the hands, as if witnessed through the gauze, images of war. A dead child. A commentary: fifteen members of one family buried together. A feeling: we have been here before, over and over, until the end of human time.

Which war is this? This one?

More than 110,000 Palestinians killed or injured in Israeli attacks on Gaza since October 7 / ‘Anything could happen’: Gaza Strip left hanging while Israel plots response to Iran’s attack. / ‘It’s death there.’ Babies and children hit hardest as famine tightens hold on Gaza. / Leaked NYT Gaza memo tells journalists to avoid words ‘genocide’, ethnic cleansing, and ‘occupied territory’ / Oxfam International: we don’t know what to post about Gaza anymore.

No, this one: the 1982 massacre of Palestinians in the refugee camps of Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War. The city where you, daughter of Palestinian refugees, grew up. I know so little about so much. But I do know that every day the present wakes up and chooses to forget the past. And that artists like you, Mona Hatoum, serve to remind us.


These hands. They are so clean they frighten me.


The shrouded figure – you? – takes a knife in her right hand and, with the deftness of a mother peeling an apple for her child, tries to carve out holes for her eyes. The sound of steel slicing through fabric is horrifying.

I press pause.
Walk to the paradised kitchen window.

I am thinking, now, of how layered your work is even on a two-dimensional screen. The images seen on and through a layer of fabric of the 1982 massacre – I know now, and will try my best not to forget, that it happened over three days in September, during which between 700 and 3,500 civilians were killed, and how I hate it when the numbers of the dead are so wildly estimated, the same, say, is true of the one to two million killed during Partition, because it shows, dear god how it shows, how worthless some peoples’ (our) lives are deemed that even their dead aren’t accurately counted. Then there are the layers of voices, Arabic and English. Truth has many layers. The body has layers. Even a map is an impossible attempt to flatten that which is layered.

Looking at your work, I have learnt that geo-graphy = writing the earth.
That there are boundary lines drawn in our hearts, and we didn’t get to write those ones either.

I am also thinking of the actual layer of skin behind the fabric: the eyes that might be skinned. Your work from this time is so unflinching. It looks straight at the thing, which is what makes the looker want to look away. It bristles with the fearlessness of the young. I love its conviction, how this video, and the five others you made in Vancouver in the 1980s, contains all your future work – the abstractions, forms, reconfigured objects, wired up furniture, child’s cot strung with cheese wire, map made with bars of olive oil soap from Nablus, big black cube writhing with iron filings, glisten of your own sphincter, vast globe-cage in which the entire world is a political hot spot. This last one, Mona Hatoum, is the world in which I am watching Eyes Skinned. Did it feel like that when you made it in 2013?


Projected on to those hands: a man carrying an emaciated, dead or dying, child. A word, caught between the Arabic I cannot understand: decomposing.


How dexterous those hands are, carving away at the fabric. An artist’s hands. I want them to stop. I listen out for my children: their silence unsettles me. Your work makes me anxious, like this world.

Unsettlement = a camp in which so many live.

I am thinking, now, of another of your so-called confrontational (I call them badass feminist) 1980s works. Under Siege, staged at a gallery in Portsmouth in which you were naked, covered in clay, and stuck inside an increasingly smeared glass box for seven hours. What a thing to put yourself through in an era (I was three years old) when you must have been so grossly unseen? How did you pass the time? When I look at the black and white photo of the performance piece in situ I want to shout at the trio of threatened-looking white men leaning against the gallery wall, watching you: TAKE YOUR HANDS OUT OF YOUR POCKETS.


By layering the news reports in Arabic and English you make me strain to hear what is being said. To get to grips with all that I don’t know (because bewildernessed monoglot etc). Listening, though, is still a lot easier than being heard. There may be so much we want to say, and it may take a lifetime to say it, but we need others to open their unskinned eyes and ears. In Measures of Distance, shown the same year as Eyes Skinned, you read out in English extracts from letters your mother wrote to you when you left for London in 1975 then could not go back to Beirut because the war broke out, leaving you stranded in another otherland. (These were also the conditions out of which you, the artist, were born.) Can I say that I love your mother? I love how she calls you the apple of her eyes. I love how physically she longs for you, which is how I long for my mother, who died in 2020, in the eye of the global pandemic.

(If I’m honest this is what Eyes Skinned returns me to. It’s the breathing. It reminds me of grieving into a thousand masks.)

I love how your mother knows that children are the soul of a home. I love how your mother gives you permission, though you are not asking for it, to be an artist when she says go ahead, use the photographs and tapes (just don’t tell your father). And now I can’t help myself. I have to ask: when did your mother die? How old were you? Were you able to be with her? Did it knife your life in two?


The circular motion of the knife hopelessly sawing at the fabric is putting me in a trance. How long would it take me to go mad if I was made to watch this over and over again? I need to get dinner on. How long have the kids been on their screens?


When will it end?


The knife stills in a vertical position. Credits roll. So it is over. Instantly I regret all that cowardly willing it to be so. My thoughts, they
I feel our Eyes are Kinned, Mona Hatoum. Home, for us, is not a fixed abode but the restless search for one. Your work knows this home sweet home truth. I know that you resist explanations of your work, I do too, but that does not mean you / I / we do not want to be understood. I am thinking, now, of how Edward Said wrote that memory clings to the objects of your art relentlessly. I love this idea, perhaps because it is also how we cling to an idea of home.

Chitra Ramaswamy is a journalist and non-fiction author based in Edinburgh. Her works include the award-winning memoir Homelands: The History of a Friendship

Mona Hatoum, Eyes Skinned and So much I want to say are at VISUAL Carlow, 17 February – 12 May 2024