We spoke to artist and photographer Laetitia El Hakim to get to know more about her ongoing multimedia photography project Domestica (f.), a work in three chapters that explores the domestication of women through tales about the body, knowledge, and being, uncovering new imaginaries and creating spaces for the occult in our understandings of contemporary womanhood. The first installation of the work is in the form of an artist's book which presents the ideas that will be explored in a more in-depth way through the chapters. Take a look into the artist’s process and approach to developing a long-term project.
Tell us a bit about the project's conception?
L: The idea came to me when I got accepted to an art residency in France and I wanted to use that bridge between our cultures to tell a story that falls within my area of interest, which is around women and domesticity.
I was searching for what that story could be while I was at home in Lebanon, and I had noticed the cookbook in my family’s kitchen. For almost 30 years now, my mother has compiled this cookbook with recipes borrowed from friends. But throughout my life, she has shown a total lack of interest in cooking. In response to her indifference, my father took over the kitchen. My dad is actually brilliant in the kitchen, and loves cooking. But he doesn’t use the recipe book, ever. He has always evolved freely in the kitchen, manipulating the ingredients according to his desires. On the other hand, my mother was never able to cook without relying on her "borrowed" recipe book. This shift in dynamics in our household, which was a normal sight for me, raised a lot of questions from those around us because of the anomaly of this role reversal in our society. So that became a kind of simple metaphor for the way rules and regulations are imposed upon us, as women in the Arab world.
You began looking at the transformative potential of this cookbook to be an occult object, and using it was like a framework for a ‘book of strategies for women’, in the same way that witches might have spell books that alter circumstances, bend realities, and that in doing so, would challenge the status quo and its oppressive logic. Could you tell us more about that process, how you came to that idea?
L: While there isn’t a history of witches in the Arab region, in the literary sense, as they have in France, we do have a folkloric tradition of people who deal with the occult - those who we would call in Arabic “a’arafat” and “basarat”, or in other words, fortune tellers. When I began researching, my understanding was that there is a sort of fearful respect paid to them, and there isn’t a history of mass persecution of these people in our societies. While there was tendency for violence or erasure towards it is more present in the French context. So in response to that relationship, I began transforming the recipe book. I had to find that axis of research, where it meets the axis of my areas of interest. What was I trying to say about women? I had to reconcile some of my desires for this project. First, to me, a ‘witch’ isn’t something negative, but rather is a figure that represents the historic reclamation or ownership of our thoughts and bodies. What I was looking into vis-à-vis ‘the witch’ was more about education, opportunity, the body, and about the constraints of the household or domesticity. But this project is not meant to be a judgment about women who do choose to be in a house and raise kids and do domestic work, or “follow the rules,” so to speak. So my hypothesis fell flat because I realized that all women, even those who might choose domesticity, all of us are still witches. It’s just the form of persecution that has changed. Women are no longer burned at the stake, instead, every time a woman’s body is policed, every time that a woman is killed through a crime of honor, or through marital violence, that is persecution.
So I was no longer searching for that figure of the witch, but rather using it to illuminate things about contemporary womanhood. The book’s recipes became access points for that. So I went back to the beginning and discovered that my mom's recipe book is actually quite interesting because it’s divided into three parts: savory dishes, desserts, and “how to be a good housewife.” And that discovery was the biggest revelation inside of that recipe book. This project leans on the book’s "borrowed recipes" as a trigger for reflection, attempting to dismantle the limits, guidelines and rules set by instructions and ingredients. ‘How to prepare lamb chops’ becomes an entry point to this idea of the ‘sacrificial lamb’ as a metaphor for ‘burning a witch at the stake’. I also use the housekeeping guides in the book, for example, like ‘how to preserve a plant,’ in a sense to draw on the idea of preserving one’s virginity. So I would use that guide to preserve daisies, which are a symbol of innocence and purity. These guides also detail other things like ‘how to set the table,’ ‘how to keep fingers clean,’ ‘how to fight a cold,’ and so on. When I began using these recipes and guides and combining them with visuals, the project split very organically into three chapters, which were titled Mythos, Maga, Femina. In other words, the body (myths), knowledge (witches), and being (women), respectively.
'A Cold' - Femina | From the project Domestica (f.); Courtesy of Laetitia El Hakim
Could you tell us about these chapters? How did they come to tie into this idea of contemporary womanhood to form parts of this overall project?
L: Domestica is going to be a five or six year project. I have so many things I'm trying to say that cannot be said in one photograph or one installation. So these chapters are still in development, but I can give you an idea of their contents. This initial chapter Mythos is about myth, and references Eve, Venus, Astarte, Layla, Helen of Troy, all of these figures who inspired such love or deep desire that wars have been carried in their name. But suddenly, they are erased from that plot, and then depicted evermore as waiting or sleeping peacefully, and they become stuck in that kind of role in this simple story, throughout antiquity. That becomes the lens through which I look at contemporary life.
The second chapter Maga moves into occult knowledge. In my research, I discovered that after the mass persecution of witches, a huge amount of medicinal knowledge was lost. So there are actually illnesses that we struggle to treat today, but women who were engaged in occult practices did have a treatment for them. But through the persecution of those individuals, we’ve forgotten a lot of knowledge that is now irretrievable. The scope of that erasure of accumulated female knowledge is significant for me to reflect on. The witches are only a starting point in the research, which is a mirror of today's world where women’s insights and discoveries are made marginal. Another point in this section is about femicide. It's a mirroring between witch trials and today’s honor killings. Historians argue that this understanding of the witch trials as simply a persecution of women who practiced occultism lacks some nuance, because much of the literature points to the idea that they were rather punished for being women who did not align themselves with prescribed gender roles.
And the last chapter is more broadly about womanhood. Femina delves into virginity, motherhood, and how you perceive yourself. But also, I’ve moved more intentionally to broaden its scope because I don’t want to erase a whole lot of the multidimensional experience of being a woman. At the moment I’m developing Maga for my first solo exhibition this September in Lebanon and I'm working extensively on the erasure of knowledge, more so than other areas in that chapter. This particular exhibition project is also developing beyond photography. I’m collaborating with a dance company to produce a performance that expands this visual project further.
In the Arab world, there’s some acknowledgement of occult practices that are adjacent to our religious and/or cultural narratives. But I imagine resources for this area of study are hard to come by. How did you begin to search for points of reference?
L: Honestly, I put up a tweet on Twitter asking if anyone knew about the history of witches in the region. I had many replies asserting that there's no history of witches, and that it's more to do with jinn or spirits, or vernacular practices like palmistry or coffee cup fortunes, more than witchcraft. These aren’t so well documented, so I had to rely more on foreign readings, and their bibliographies.
'Table Set 01' - Femina | From the project Domestica (f.); Courtesy of Laetitia El Hakim
In terms of visuals, what stood out was this image of the spoons and forks that are floating in the air. The image is so potent because it draws a clear link between housework and witchcraft. It's a perfect visual for that feeling of coming home and finding everything ready. Dinner is on the table, the bed is made, and the laundry is folded. How did this person manage to do all of this in such a short time? It's quite magical and in the same way, hidden and secretive. That knowledge is the type of knowledge that potentially could vanish with the person if it's not passed on. Could you tell us more about your visual process?
L: It's an installation, which I created and then photographed, so I actually left my residency in France and it was the only image that had very vividly stayed in mind. When I work, I don’t usually pre-plan my shots, and I'm very organic with my visuals and how they come to me. But that image was so vivid in my mind that I had to do it. I couldn't not do it. So it was the first time that I set a plan and constructed the work. My process is usually more organic than that. Sometimes I would be walking in nature and I’d see something very ubiquitous that I imagine could adopt the aesthetics of the occult, and so I take a photo and work on it from there.
You’re already widening the scope of these personal fictions and imagining the feminine condition through photography (and other media beyond that), carefully constructing this with layers of casual serendipity and untold history. So where is this project taking you next, creatively?
L: Yeah absolutely! It was a deliberate choice not to take portraits of women, which is what you see a lot in feminist photography projects. Except for a couple of self-portraits, I had shifted my focus to photographs of still life and plants. I’ve seen many truly brilliant artists do the portraits of women, but I wanted to find my own expressions about womanhood without defaulting to that. As absolutely magical as women can be to photograph, I want it to go beyond that.
In the summer I’ll be doing a residency in Scotland where the institution I’m working with will be supporting this project by taking me to places where witchcraft was historically practiced, and into some of their archives as well. It’s an area that is very under-documented, so this project is making a big leap and will likely require more research and development to realize creatively.
'Call of the Witch 02' - Maga | From the project Domestica (f.); Courtesy of Laetitia El Hakim
Laetitia El Hakim is a Lebanese multidisciplinary visual artist whose practice was cultivated by her studies into architecture, photography, and dance. Her work explores socio-political dynamics that affect the way Lebanon and its culture are shaped through an anthropological perspective. She pursues not only the role that territory plays in shaping us, but also the cultural aspects of what it means, more specifically through the notions of rituals, memories, and history. Her practice often takes performative and storytelling aspects in its execution, oscillating between reality, fiction, the occult and the fantastic.
Interview and words by Rama Ghanem.