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Echoes of Liberation: The Practice of Ghinwa Yassine

Step into the multidimensional world of Ghinwa Yassine, a Lebanese anti-disciplinary artist based on the ancestral lands of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples, known as Vancouver. Through a diverse array of mediums, from film to installation, performance to text, Yassine challenges entrenched ideologies and patriarchal systems while delving into collective consciousness and the complexities of identity.


Joana Alarcão

Audio Answer Q.1
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As stated in your biography, the body serves as a site for personal and collective memory in your art practice. When did you first get interested in this concept? How does this exploration manifest in your practice?

Initially, my work has been autobiographical. In the beginning, I've been writing stories about my identity. As a Lebanese and Muslim raised, and then about being raised in a patriarchal society, and witnessing things related to war or oppression of women, etc.

I was mostly making films and I often intuitively performed in films without thinking of myself as a performer or a mover. And I gradually started getting interested in movement, somatic movement. Mostly after starting to read about body memory or sense memory. While doing some movement rehearsals in the studio, I stumbled upon a gesture that felt very familiar to me. I placed my hand on my heart and felt that the gesture was so familiar, and so, I started repeating it and I wondered, “What is this thing?” And then, I realized that I grew up witnessing this gesture. Witnessing processions, and mourning rituals. I grew up as a Shiite, Shiite Muslim, and the Shiites mourn every year a war that happened more than 1, 400 years ago, where they were betrayed or massacred.

And when they mourn every year, they march the streets and beat their hands to their heart. And  at that moment, I realized that although I hadn't taken part in those processions, the gesture lived inside my body, it lived in me, it was familiar, and witnessing it happen on other bodies, it was as if embodied in me I was reading a lot about trauma studies at the time, and I started thinking, in a hypothetical way, “What if with every project, or with every, let's say, repetition or re-enactment of a gesture, you're exorcising it? And I pushed the question even further.

What if there are certain angles and coordinates where trauma enters the body and then it could be reversed through gestures? At the time, I was starting to notice that every time I would create a project, I would end up feeling like there's been some catharsis after it was  done, something changed in me and I was wondering if I could, as a kind of a fun experiment, draw the angle of a gesture and think of it as a way of exorcising or reversing. At the same time, my daughter was probably three then, and I had been seeing a chiropractic to get some adjustments and then physiotherapy, and I was struggling with some pain. I was told that I had some kind of impingement or hip imbalance and if we exaggerated it, it would look as if I was tilting my hip to the left and down while walking.

But then I look at my daughter walking at home and she's, just for fun, doing this exact movement. It was as if she was exaggerating something super subtle in my body. And I thought, if she could see the subtle, then what if she could see the embodied as well? And what am I passing on? And should I tell her about this war that the Shiites mourn, etc.?

Although I'm not necessarily a believer or a religious person, I was carrying the ideology in my body. How was I doing it, and what's my responsibility? How am I passing it as well in a subtle way? 

And this is when I started looking at gesture and reading about gesture, reading Rebecca Schneider's work about gesture. And looking at Rebecca Belmore's work and eventually I started working on re-enacting gestures of women in protests in Lebanon, which happened in 2019 and finding something called gestural agency. For me, it was a very natural progression in my work, from just writing stories that were autobiographical in nature, to turning into something more autoethnographic and yet dealing with some kind of collective body idea or collective feelings. 

And that's where the work of Sarah Ahmed informed my practice which talks about collective feelings. It was a natural progression because I was witnessing my own body holding memories from childhood, from war, from a lot of events, and I could see it in other people as well, and I was starting to get fascinated by the potential of unlocking these memories and these embodied categories as well. For instance, how we internalize racism or patriarchy. And my practice started including more and more performance, and archival imagery. 

Audio Answer Q.2
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The camera used in your work has a deeper meaning than a mere tool. Could you elaborate on the role of the camera as an interface between the bodies of the performer and the viewer in your video performances, and how it shapes the temporal aspect of your work?

When I look at the camera, I'm looking through the camera. I'm looking at a person behind the camera. And I don't know why I chose this medium in the beginning. I know that I needed that element of time in my work. I needed time, I needed time to tell a story.

Not just through the 2D material. And I guess that's why I started making films initially, or video installations because I also need space. And so, I think about the camera as this interface. I am performing, it's like breaking the fourth wall in theatre. I'm performing, but I'm looking at a human being on the other side. 

And I believe that there is somewhat of a mirroring that happens in our bodies when we look at each other, when we are in each other's presence. And I think even when there's a camera, there's a mirroring that happens and there's still some transfer. So, I use the camera as an interface. I rarely look away from the camera, from the lens. And sometimes I'm filming other things than my body, than my performing body, but it's usually me, me using theatricality or performativity in the medium of film. Because I have this instinct to work in between media and to resist compartmentalization and just categorization.

I've always said that I like to blur the boundaries between media. The camera ends up also creating somewhat of an installation space or a mirroring of installation space, but it creates a space in the sense that when you look at me and I'm looking through the camera, we're somehow in the same space as well.

I often place my films within installations. Sometimes within room enclosures that you and I, or the viewer and I, end up in the same space, connecting through the gaze and through our bodies. And I'm a mirror to the audience, to the viewer, and there's what I call “a relational encounter”. In this space where collective feelings can take place and emotions can exist between us.

Performance by Ghinwa Yassine
How Far Can a Marked Body Go by Ghinwa Yassine. Image courtesy of Ghinwa Yassine.

Audio Answer Q.3
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How do you confront ideological and patriarchal systems through your artwork, and how does this contribute to the exploration of collective feelings and the concept of being a marked body?

  I don't plan to confront ideology or patriarchy or whatever that is. I usually receive a story in my head when I wake up or when I travel. Sometimes change shifts something in my subconscious and I write something. And everything starts with writing for me or with reading. I get inspired by an article. I get interested in a topic. I start reading about it. I leave the books and then somehow my subconscious will weave something for me. And I just start writing. I'm writing sometimes as an intuitive process, but sometimes in response to what I read. So, some of my works are in a conversation with, for example, writings by Sarah Ahmed or Judith Butler or, right now, for example, Maggie Nelson.

And then my writing often leads me to this place of me confronting something and it's often a patriarchal system and ideological system because of simply being a politicized body. It's something that is intrinsic. I can't get out of it. It's my experience in this life, and I speak through my experience and through witnessing my mother's experience and other women's experiences in Lebanon, other Arab people's experiences, and other originally Muslim people's experiences. And so, I'm always connecting the social to the personal, the private to the public, and the local to the global, and the individual to the collective.

And I guess that's how I face these structures by being autoethnographic and constantly going back and forth between these two opposites, the global and the local, the collective and the individual, et cetera.

Performance by Ghinwa Yassine
How Far Can a Marked Body Go by Ghinwa Yassine. Image courtesy of Ghinwa Yassine.

Audio Answer Q.4
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Considering your background and experiences growing up in Beirut, how do war and religion intertwine in the context of political and religious ideologies, and how do they manifest in embodied expressions and gestures?

I grew up in Lebanon in Beirut at the end of the civil war. And our war was a war of religions and sects. And still is, up till today. Political parties are based on religion. And so, ideologies are all related, I mean, politics and religion are very intricately interwoven. And once I think about Shi'ism, the ideology that I grew up within, I think of having an enemy or I think of having the embodied experience of having to have to fight injustice or having fought injustice, being in a reactive mode towards injustice, carrying a war within, always, carrying somewhat of an enemy, or the idea of victim or self-victimization, the idea of self-sacrifice for a cause or martyrdom for a cause.

And so, this is all related to ideologies that become embodied. And then I question the individual's responsibility towards keeping themselves in check around what they've inherited and how they respond to situations based on what they witnessed growing up and to counter the conditioning with awareness and a more ethical and moral approach or understanding of things.  

Every ideology has its own aesthetics, interestingly. Christianity has iconography, Islam has iconoclasm, but has the kind of musical aesthetic and gestural aesthetic with prayer and different movements during prayer, and mourning as well has its own gestural language. And that inspires me. Public protests have their own gestural language as well, and that inspires me too. And what basically inspires me is the free individual. Who is a person who is capable of defending their rights or claiming their rights or living in their own agency, living to their own truth?

And is that person's body able to enact or embody an energy, let's say, that is different from somebody else? I'm not necessarily interested in comparing as much as I'm interested in this subtle presence of agency in the body and how it looks, how it manifests and what freedom means. 

Is it to be free from the war within? From having to fight? Almost to fight or to carry a war within or to carry a reaction towards injustice or oppression to justify one's existence as if to feel a sense of deservedness to live. Is that freedom, or is thatactually a restriction? What is freedom?

So, my recent projects are more and more researching freedom and what it means to be free from the past or free from an outside oppressor and the contradiction between these two. Because to be free from the past means that there's no internalized oppressor, but to be free to appear in public, to protest, to this, to that, is to remain bound to this condition of the oppressor, to live in reaction to an oppressor.

And so, what does that mean in the body?

Performance by Ghinwa Yassine
How Far Can a Marked Body Go by Ghinwa Yassine. Image courtesy of Ghinwa Yassine.

Audio Answer Q.5
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Can you tell us about the live performance, How Far Can A Marked Body Go? 

I started working on How far can a marked body go? when I witnessed a gesture. Well, it started with a project before it called KickQueen. I was in Vancouver, I was finishing my master's in fine arts at the time, and I was thinking about what to do for my thesis project, and we had uprisings in Lebanon, what people call the revolution or protests, and it turned into a feminist revolution.

And there was this video of a woman who gave an armed bodyguard a sidekick in the crotch. A politician had come down to the protests and was like, "Oh yeah, I'm with you," like showing solidarity with the protesters. And he had no right to be there. Protesters got angry at him, and they were trying to kick him out of the arena.

And his bodyguard was protecting him, and he was shooting his rifle in the air, getting ready to move the protesters away from the politician. And then as he was shooting his rifle in the air, this woman just literally side-kicked him in the crotch and someone took a video at that time.

And that video went viral, and everybody was turning it into this illustration, different illustrations and using it as their avatar on social media. And that's when that gesture became also very important for me because I witnessed it. And I was reading about gestures that arrest us. And I was thinking, why is this gesture calling on me to respond? And I started re-enacting it. I created KickQueen, an installation with a film and a kinetic sculpture other metal sculptures. And, after I finished Kick Queen, I was thinking about what it means to appear safely, what it means to expose oneself as a woman on the street in Lebanon, and how these women were, how this particular uprising was spearheaded by women.

There were so many women on the streets, probably the majority were women, and in a way, that was unseen before in Lebanon. And I was starting to think about it, this gestural agency, and looking at a lot of archival material and seeing what I could do with it. And it was just such a rich baggage of photos and videos. And I eventually wrote a script about how women were erased from the history of Lebanon, although they were active, they're not present in history books. And it was a semi-autobiographical, I would say, autoethnographic text that turned into a performance using re-enactment, archival material, and animation.

I animated some photos and used live streaming as well. I was thinking about appearing and disappearing and visibility and invisibility. And that was the aesthetic approach. There were many ways I could disappear from behind the camera because there was a camera and I was performing behind a wall, and so I was using the camera as an interface in my performance, and then I left from behind the wall, I appeared in front of the audience, and there were many ways I was using appearing and disappearing to get my point across about invisibility.

Performance by Ghinwa Yassine
How Far Can a Marked Body Go by Ghinwa Yassine. Image courtesy of Ghinwa Yassine.

Audio Answer Q.6
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How does the intersection of neuroscience, spirituality, politics, and feminism inform your interdisciplinary approach to your art, and how does it contribute to the radical historicizing of individual and collective traumas?

I study somatic movement that is based on nervous system science. I've done a few trainings, something called movement for trauma and out of curiosity, out of the need for self-healing, I became interested in responses to trauma and the body and propensities of the nervous system. I think a lot about the brain and our response to psychedelic drugs and all these things, all this knowledge seeps into my work.

When I move, I'm aware of which way I'm moving and what's moving me and what I'm exposing to the audience in my movement what emotion I might be transferring. I'm thinking in terms of safety and lack of safety in this encounter, in the relationality.

And in terms of politics, I exist within a very political context. And I grew up within a very political context. I've said before, I am marked as a body by politics. I am politicized whether I like it or not. And these things somehow coalesce and converge. Gender is another piece because of growing up in a very gender-binary context, and as a queer person, there are a lot of restrictions. I guess all these factors coalesced, and my work is just a result of all these intersections.

performance by Ghinwa Yassine
How Far Can a Marked Body Go by Ghinwa Yassine. Image courtesy of Elke Dick.

Audio Answer Q.7
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Lastly, can you share a piece of advice for artists trying to approach political topics in their work?

If I have advice for artists dealing with political topics, I mean, I see a tendency in art to be more activism than art. Some artists are more activists than artists and other artists are political, but they're not activists. I think for me, I need to separate the two otherwise, I lose my art impulse. 

In art, I feel one needs to give oneself permission to create fiction and to shift away from reality. In politics, you don't want to shift away from reality because it's a question of ethics. You don't want to minimizepeople's struggle. You don't want to side accidentally with a more interesting story, even if it perpetuates injustice. You want to be on the right side in politics. I think in art one needs to free themselves from the moral imperative, not necessarily to be immoral, but to leave that question altogether and to instead ask a question rather than find an answer.

And activism, being a politically active human, is about finding the right answer, and it's about coming up with the right decision. But in art, one needs to free themselves from that and be more interested in what the question can inspire in a more symbolic realm, or fictional realm, or artificial realm, or aesthetic realm. Because the interesting thing for me is what emerges from intersections between politics and science, between politics and artificial intelligence, and between politics and aesthetics. More than a political issue itself. That, I would relegate to journalism or storytelling or activism. And I prefer to uncouple the two, activism and art. 

Find more about the artist here.

Cover image:

When you pour something it carries the memory of its mold by Ghinwa Yassine. Image courtesy of Devan Scott

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Ghinwa Yassine is an anti-disciplinary artist based on the land of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh people, so-called Vancouver. Her work uses various media, including film, installation, performance, text, and drawing. Yassine’s work confronts the ideological and patriarchal systems that she grew up in while exploring collective feelings and what it means to be a marked body. She seeks a radical historicizing of individual and collective traumas where embodied memories are put into question. Using hybrid forms of storytelling, where story manifests as somatic experiencing, ritual, and gesture, her projects are portals to factual/fictional dimensions that activate collective memory.

Yassine holds an MFA in Contemporary Art - Interdisciplinary Studies at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, an MA in Digital Video Design from the University of the Arts Utrecht, and a BA in Graphic Design from the American University of Science and Technology in Beirut. Her works have been exhibited in the Netherlands, Lebanon, UAE, Canada, Iran, and Croatia.

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