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Anti-disciplinary artist Ghinwa Yassine confronts patriarchy through her trauma-informed practice

Ghinwa Yassine
Ghinwa Yassine's major vocation is her art, but she's also bringing people from across Southwest Asia and North Africa together as director of strategy with the MENA Film Festival in Vancouver.

We often hear about interdisciplinary artists. But Ghinwa Yassine likes to describe herself as an anti-disciplinary artist. It’s because she believes that specific and rigid disciplines impose limitations around how people view art.

“So, in my work, I’m trying to blur boundaries between disciplines—and also to kind of relieve art from the idea of mastery,” Yassine tells Pancouver over Zoom.

Yassine was born in Beirut and was working in Dubai before immigrating to Vancouver in 2017. Her art incorporates film installation, performance, text, and drawing to confront patriarchal systems that she experienced as a young person. She also tries represent what it means to be a “marked body”.

For example, in KickQueen, Yassine explores the role of women in 2019 uprisings in Lebanon. She says it’s really about the bodies of women who were in the majority in a series of protests that year.

Yassine points out that women have done this in the past but they’ve been erased from history. She also maintains that patriarchy attempts to make women believe that they are helpless.

“The books have not told any of those on-the-ground stories,” she says. “So it’s me, searching for that woman inside of me and asking others to find that woman inside of them.”

This installation includes a kinetic sculpture with sound, an experimental film, and metal-printed photographs. On her website, she describes KickQueen as “a magic potion against forgetting”.

“It asks us to remember what it means to kick an armed man in the crotch and how this gesture might live in an embodied collective,” Yassine’s website states. “To Lebanese women: Lebanon will not change until YOU kick patriarchy in the crotch.”

To her, the notion of mastery is a linear way of working. In her view, it means that outcomes are almost expected beforehand. Moreover, she sees mastery as a patriarchal concept. Yassine prefers functioning in a more open way as an artist without pre-determined outcomes.

KickQueen
In KickQueen, Ghinwa Yassine urges Lebanese women to kick patriarchy in the crotch. Image by Ghinwa Yassine.

Yassine exhibits art in several countries

She came across the term “anti-disciplinary” in an article in the context of anthropology. She feels that it best represents her artistic practice.

“It’s about some kind of non-identification with a specific direction or school,” Yassine says. “I cannot deny that I am inherently feminist and my work is inherently feminist. But I think I have a problem with anything that includes gender within the word itself.”

Therefore, she prefers other terminology, perhaps “queer ecologies”, to capture the intersection of feminism and queer theory. “They both resonate very well with me,” she adds.

For centuries, mastery has been associated with western art. Yassine points out that mastery is also embedded in the history of Islamic art, including architecture.

Yassine characterizes herself as “self-taught”. Her works have been exhibited not only in Lebanon and Canada, but also in the Netherlands, the United Arab Emirates, Iran, and Croatia.

She originally trained in graphic design at the American University of Science and Technology in Beirut. Later, she earned a master’s degree in video design from the University of the Arts Utrecht and, more recently, an MFA in contemporary art and interdisciplinary studies from SFU well into her artistic career.

Yassine also uses another phrase to describe her art—“trauma-informed”. And she speaks frankly about the risks of traumatizing audiences.

“So, I’ve done some training because I want my art to have a balance of expression—and maybe even beauty,” she acknowledges.

Nevertheless, Yassine admits that her intuition doesn’t necessarily take her toward beauty. Rather, she often focuses on resistance over aesthetic purposes.

Talk to Strangers
Ghinwa Yassine appears in many of her projects, including Talk to Strangers (above). Image by Ghinwa Yassine.

Human brain responds to war

As someone who lived through Israel’s bombing of Beirut in 2006, the artist has a great deal to say on the subject of trauma.

“The Lebanese people almost have two brains,” Yassine says. “One is active when we’re dealing with day-to-day problems.”

According to her, the “second brain” shows up in response to war. For example, she recalls going out and having fun with her friends in a bar as she could hear the bombs raining down on her city.

“I think we create a reality that is both healthy and very destructive because part of our body is simply not able to comprehend or exist in the fear [of war],” Yassine states.

Moreover, she emphasizes “traumatic amnesia” in her work. As an example, Yassine mentions that she was born in the midst of the Lebanese Civil War. Yet she has no recollection whatsoever of what was happening when she was very young.

She founded Arts Embodiment, which offers creativity education and consulting services. Its goal is to “inspire curiosity through embodied awareness”. Arts Embodiment also highlights the importance of “somatic fearlessness” as a precursor to creativity.

“Academia avoids talking about healing at all,” Yassine says. “And coming close to the word at all is a no-no in the world of art because art is more philosophically driven rather than emotionally and humanly driven.”

Yassine, on the other hand, says that she has no choice but to be a subject in her art.

“It’s a compulsion and it’s also a compulsion to heal through my art,” she declares. “But when I’m making art, it’s not just about me.”

Yassine insists that it’s also about bodies of other women, war, and history.

MENA
Ghinwa Yassine (centre) co-founded the MENA Film Festival in Vancouver.

From the personal to the collective

This is reflected in the evolution of her practice. Her first project, the mixed-media Home Suspended, was far more personal.

The collection of three videos focused on the feeling of suspension. An unbalanced room featured ropes hanging from the ceiling, carrying a bed, chair, nightstand, lamp, and other objects.

In subsequent projects, Yassine moved from the personal to the collective, as manifested in KickQueen. But she emphasizes that throughout her projects, the body is a constant.

This is also the case in her newest work, How far can a marked body go?, in which she appears and then disappears.

“It’s this agency in the body of a woman that we’re waking up to,” Yassine says.

She was working in the corporate world in Dubai when she decided to immigrate to Canada. Yassine candidly states that she just didn’t fit in there before adding that there are many people like her in the Arab world.

In addition to being an artist, Yassine is strategy director of of the MENA [Middle East North Africa] Film Festival in Vancouver. Through this organization, she’s trying to create the community that she wishes to see in Vancouver—one that is not as biased, closed-off, and fearful of the other as what one might find within communities based on national origin.

She notes that colonialism has exacerbated those types of divisions in the Arab world.

The film festival is non-sectarian, bringing together filmmakers, actors, and audiences whose family roots are from across Southwest Asia and North Africa.

“I feel it’s liberating to rise above the very local thing and to actually imagine a possibility where the values of our cultures meet, rather than our political positions,” Yassine says. “So for me, MENA is about generosity, celebration, food, culture, art, joy—and these are the things that sometimes we struggle with as immigrants and new citizens.”

Yassine acknowledges that she’s making art about Lebanon while living outside of the country. This means that she’s representing people while she’s not there, making her conscious of the risk of cultural appropriation.

Yet at the same time, she feels a responsibility to do this.

“But I also feel there are big challenges within the arts community for my art to be understood or valued in the way that it could be if I am in the Arab world,” Yassine states. “And in the Arab world, it might be rejected because it’s a bit too challenging.

“Maybe what I’m trying to say here is that I would love for people in Vancouver to have more curiosity,” she adds. “It’s as simple as that.”

The MENA Film Festival in Vancouver will hold its inaugural MENA Industry Night on Friday (February 10) at the VFS Cafe.  Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter @charliesmithvcr. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia.

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Pancouver editor Charlie Smith has worked as a Vancouver journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.