JUSTINE YOUSSEF

Justine Youssef’s work ‘Things that remain’ features delicate remnants of Australian fauna – leafs, flowers and bark – fashioned into Arabic writing. While the work is quiet, meditative even, there is something strikingly original and powerful about this dichotomy that it quite literally stops you in your tracks. She has achieved a profound visual language that is as hauntingly beautiful as it is meaningful.

This elegant approach to materiality has become Justine’s signature. Fusing plant life to represent the human form and metal to imply both ‘violence through its puncturing and healing through its alchemy’, her work is an inquiry into the diasporic Arabic community that raised her, as well as histories of colonisation and the politics of identity.

Used paper, torn up, worn down, sewn together, coated in layers of wax and flesh and crimson coloured pigment, edges frayed and centres carved right through, echo a corporeal resilience through her process, exploring tensions between the nation that houses her and the heritage that formed her.

Justine’s work will be exhibited in Moving Nations.

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  hy did you want to be an artist? Is this something you knew from a young age?

Becoming an artist was a reality inaccessible to me at a young age, partly because of this subservience instilled in me as a woman and partly because of my socio-economic background as the daughter of migrant parents. These things hold no power over me now, but I had just turned nineteen when my ptsd was worst and I somehow found solace in drawing. Mostly what looked like scribbles, then paintings in old factories. I found a language when words wouldn’t suffice and eventually I found myself at art school. I went to art school because I didn’t get to finish high school and I felt that further education would empower me. As it turns out, that empowerment came in the form of the myriad of questions I was left with after art school, so I continue to make work today to work through these challenges.

 

Your sculptural practice often fuses metal with natural materials such as bark, wood and native Australian flowers. What appeals to you about working with these mediums?  

The women who raised me nurtured through rituals pertaining to food, a lot of which was grown at home and made in the tradition of their mothers who live in the mountains of Lebanon. When my sister and I were sick, we were taught to boil the mint and za’atar growing in old oil drums to drink for medicine. When we’d pray, we’d pick roses to offer at our altars and pin blue stones and gold beads to our singlets for protection. A connection to certain natural mediums was cultivated within me and this was to the constant backdrop of LBC and Al Jazeera on the TV as my father kept politically informed, not by choice but by circumstance. Today the mediums of plant and metal, those relating to my inquiry of the herbal sciences, present several readings within my practice that allow for me to speak to histories of colonialism in a non-didactic way. Where native plant connects the human to site, metal implies both violence through its puncturing and healing through its alchemy. This materiality allows for me to explore the evolving relationships between my cultural inheritance and the subject of site, that which is referred to as the ‘third space’ and exists for me on Darug land.

“Today the mediums of plant and metal, those relating to my inquiry of the herbal sciences, present several readings within my practice that allow for me to speak to histories of colonialism in a non-didactic way.”

From left: Roots Worn Thin, steel bar, date palm leaf, 150 x 46 x 40 cm, 2016. Man For Ashes, steel bar, eucalyptus branch, 204 x 52 x 34 cm, 2016. Lessons In Shedding, steel bar, tree root, 124 x 36 x 40 cm, 2016. Biting My Tongue, (detail) date palm, karroo thorn, eucalyptus leaf, 84 x 64 x 4 cm, 2016

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ne of my favourite quotes about art says ‘Good art is not about what it looks like, but what it does to us.’ What does your artwork aim to evoke in the viewer?

A healing of sorts.

 

Your work ‘Things that remain’ featuring delicate leaves, flowers and bark fashioned into Arabic writing is incredibly evocative and poetic. What do the words in Arabic say? What message is this work aiming to get across?

My student work was made in reaction to the Western-centric curriculum taught to me at art school. At the time, I was sawing each of the names I am called in Arabic out of found plywood and charring them over open fire. When Hossein Valamanesh’s text pieces opened for display at the ‘Beyond World’s’ exhibition, they were constantly recommended to me almost as a saving grace for ‘Arab-Australians’ by those who couldn’t tell the difference between Arabic and Farsi. This lead to my adoption of his visual language to speak to ideas surrounding Orientalist discourse. In forging coded plant form into the names I’d been ascribed, a hybridised sense of space and identity were conjured. A curator came to speak with me regarding the translation of the work. “What if it says ‘Kill all Christians? We need to know what it says”. These were their exact words; I wrote them once they’d left me with their weight. Their line of questioning revealed an unconscious bias and to witness that prejudice inside an academic institute really had me shook. In a globalised world, the relevance of the Western eye needs to be questioned. I showed the piece in my graduate exhibition without an accompanying translation, using language as a means of resistance. The work opens a space for the parts of us that have experienced moments as the ‘other’, a confrontation common to us all at one point or another.

 

What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

“Will this kill you? No? Then you simply go on.”

“Th[is] line of questioning revealed an unconscious bias and to witness that prejudice inside an academic institute really had me shook. In a globalised world, the relevance of the Western eye needs to be questioned.” 

Interrupted Healing (detail), tree roots, tree branch, steel bar, 66 x 44 x 42, 2016

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n the era of the likes of Trump and Pauline Hanson, do you think artists can play an important role in effecting change? How so?

The misanthropy at the core of Trump and Hanson are nothing new to us today. Their presence legitimises the more negative rhetoric around the ‘other’ that I’m told existed in abundance decades ago. Often it’s the artists who first challenge the ideologies they represent. Often this is long before those who make policy catch up and often it’s even longer before an education system does. Artists at their best teach us to challenge. They teach us resilience and resistance and they teach us to endure.

 

This quarter at Antidote is all about addressing xenophobia and ideas of otherness. Australian popular culture often perpetuates the story that we are a ‘multicultural’ and accepting country. Do you agree with this?

With the gratitude I hold for a country that allows me free expression, I can’t agree with the miseducation of a popular culture who covet my mama’s baba ganoush while cringing at my father’s thick accent. I grew up within a tight community in Western Sydney where my cousins lived next door, down the road and a block away. My uncles ran the grocery and bakery and my best friend’s backyard held a scene in the film ‘The Combination’. In high school we’d catch the T2 to the Eastern Suburbs for galleries and gigs and this was long before the Knafeh Bakery or Western Sydney trended. The postcode stigma wasn’t real frequent, but it was real. People never saw that these quips they’d make surrounding where we lived indicated our race, our family’s migration and the ensuing economic structure that placed us in the West. I can break down countless moments surrounding the anti-Arab sentiments and racial fetishism my family, friends and I have come up against in this country, though, as I write this I realise I’m missing a deeper point. This country at large won’t rest its racial tensions and come to a place of acceptance until the Commonwealth undertakes a series of treaties with all Indigenous nations and drafts a new constitution. Only once we address the first and foremost tragedy here can those who come after be received with respect.

FINAL FIVE

Favourite book? Most recently ‘Night Sky With Exit Wounds’ by Ocean Vuong

Favourite film?  ‘La Haine’ since I was something like age nine

Favourite band / musician? Leanna, my sister

If you weren’t an artist, what would you be? I can’t say for sure, but I can tell you that my natal chart reads ‘journalist’ because my Sun sits in Gemini.

If you could change one thing about the world today what would it be? Just one? I once heard “this world is too perfect to be fair”, I’d change myself to know that.