“Now we go to shopping malls in the way we used to go to church.”

Fátima Mortada

A Penelope of the 21st Century. Like the character from The Odyssey, she weaves works that denounce social and gender injustice.

The Lebanese artist Fatima Mortada left her studio in Beirut in order to come to Barcelona for a month with her manual knitting machine. In her hands, the knitting machine –which rescued so many family finances in Spain in the ’60s and ’70s—goes beyond the domestic realm and becomes a tool of political and artistic action. Along with Mortada, artists from Morroco, Palentine, and Tunisia are participating in the Xabaca project, a web of artists opposed to the censorship and abuse of women. This project is supported by the organizations Novact, Al Fanar, and Jiwar Creació y Societat.

You always had the desire to be an artist.

I’ve been drawing since I was a little girl, but I was raised in a very conservative, Islamic community where drawing another person is haram (prohibited). My mother used to wear colorful dresses all the time but one day, when I was three years old, she came home covered in a black cloth.

You still remember it!

It’s burned in my memory. My mother told me that this was the religiously correct way of dressing. I couldn’t believe it. Why did God want my mother to look so ugly?

So small and you were already asking these questions!

Despite social pressures, my father was a free thinker who taught me not to take anything as a given, to think for myself, and to ask questions. My first act of resistance was to leave that bubble [of my conservative community]. I took off my hijab (veil) and first studied Philosophy and afterward, Fine Arts.

It caused trouble for your family.

I’m aware that my decisions put my parents in a difficult situation. A little before he died, my father confessed that someone once told him that he should kill me because I’d removed the hijab. In the beginning he was also opposed to my studying Fine Arts, but later he felt very proud.

Have you experienced censorship in Lebanon?

In 2014 I had an exhibition at a very prestigious gallery of contemporary art in Beirut. There was a lot of talk about whether they should remove certain works, like a painting in which a masculine figure with an enormous erect penis appears, but the curator’s opinion was that “This Beirut and art is not censored here.”

Here this also happens. The director of the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (Macaba) decided to censor a work that had to do with King Juan Carlos and had to resign.

Really? When you live in countries like mine, you always think of the West as a paradise full of people with open minds where democracy and women’s rights reign.

Now you know . . .

In 2009 I went to do a Masters degree in England and a lot of men there thought that of course they could have sex with me because there are breasts and vaginas in my work. I might have expected that reaction from an Arab, but from an Englishman?

No culture has a monopoly on machismo.

Basically there’s only one system, the patriarchal capitalist system that has replaced the power of the Church. We now go to the mall in the same way that we used to go to church and we spend more time shopping than we do in museums. And all of this is wrapped in a false discourse about the freedom of expression and the culture of success that make it even more dangerous. We’re political beings but the system has us so busy that it doesn’t let us think.

You draw and weave feminine figures who express pain.

It’s what I feel. When I was studying Fine Arts I did some self-portraits and my professor asked me, “Why do you draw yourself as ugly when you’re so pretty?” I did it because I feel deformed, wounded inside; I’m in pain and I want to show it. I don’t make art to entertain people or to be hung on someone’s wall; I do it to reflect painful problems. I’m a political artist and I believe firmly that art can transform society.


— Translated by Nan Scott Hanway

Link: elperiodico.com/es/noticias/entre-todos/vamos-tiendas-como-antes-ibamos-iglesia-5952760