Through performance, video and installation, Justine Youssef uncovers links between family ritual, ecology, Indigenous culture and colonial history.
Words: Rebecca Gallo
On a recent visit to Justine Youssef’s studio, her floor was strewn with drying rose petals in preparation for an other’s Wurud (2017- ongoing). This iterative performance sees Youssef distil rosewater from a family recipe, filling a gallery with her quiet, purposeful energy and the heady scent of roses. Rather than Damask, used by her family in Lebanon, Youssef distils with a species of British rose, a symbol of colonialism here in Australia. From this invasive species, through a gentle and meditative process, Youssef extracts both tangible and symbolic value. The tangible outcome is glass bottles of the warmly tinted, scented liquid. Symbolically, the performance connects Youssef’s ancestral home- land with her adopted home, acknowledging the complexities of its colonial history.
Through performance, video and installation, Youssef uncovers links between family ritual, ecology, Indigenous culture and colonial history. Kohl (2018), in collaboration with Duha Ali, brought out unexpected links between kohl – used for spiritual, medicinal and cosmetic purposes – and the uses of ash from smoking ceremonies in local Indigenous culture, (discovered through an elder where the work was filmed in Sydney’s west). For an iteration of an other’s Wurud, Youssef distilled waste flowers on-site at the Sydney Flower Market, as stallholders cleared up around her. These men offered their discards as Youssef crouched and worked, troubled by the wastage of these imported, cut blooms. Several workers asked where she got her enormous aluminium bowls – brought from Lebanon – as their mothers and wives couldn’t find them here.
2018 has been a big year for Youssef, with highlights including collaborative exhibitions in Sydney and Melbourne, performances and curated group shows at Sullivan+Strumpf, Blindside and MCA Artbar, and a residency at Parramatta Artists Studios. The year culminated in Youssef’s debut solo exhibition, All Blessings, All Curses, at Sydney’s 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art. That her first solo exhibition was an institutional commis- sion speaks to the quiet power of Youssef’s vision, and its resonance here and now.
Image: Performance documentation of Justine Youssef’s an other’s Wurud, 2018. COURTESY: THE ARTIST
This article was originally published in Art Collector issue 87, JAN – MAR 2019.