Catching up with artist Jude Abu Zaineh

A bright pink neon sign against a dark wall that reads In the presence of absence | في حضرة الغياب

Our Head of Programs & Collection — Julie Rae Tucker — recently sat down with Jude Abu Zaineh, the artist behind the exhibition In the Presence of Absence. Read on to hear what they had to say!

Julie Rae Tucker: Could you describe your relationship with Palestine?

Jude Abu Zaineh: I have a distant and exiled relationship with Palestine like many Palestinians of my generation who were born and raised outside of Palestinian. It’s extremely difficult to go back home and visit and see the place where we are rooted just because of the political climate. There are a lot of barriers to entry regardless of your nationality if you are Palestinian or Arab. And that is by design. It is intentional. So I’d say yeah, it’s distant, and it’s exiled, but like many Palestinians that are part of the diaspora, our parents, ancestors have done a really beautiful job of instilling and ingraining Palestinian identity, culture and heritage in us. So I grew up in a very Palestinian home despite not being in Palestine. We celebrate, and we honour so many of the traditions, whether it be, you know, as simple as the foods that my mum or my grandma would cook — so the culture is very alive and present despite the distance.

Julie Rae Tucker: Why choose to title the exhibition In the Presence of Absence?

Jude Abu Zaineh: Mahmoud Darwish is a cultural icon and very revered Palestinian. There’s a draw there and a pull there to someone who’s done a really beautiful job of articulating a lot of these experiences and vulnerabilities in text. I’m obviously a very visual person. That’s my medium of choice, trying to articulate these things visually. So to have someone be able to express these things linguistically in text and to be able to borrow from that just makes my job a lot easier. Selfishly, that was one of the reasons but also because his words just mean so much to me– and I know similarly, they mean so much to other Palestinians and other people who are part of the diaspora or are exiled.

A large mural covers the gallery wall. We notice cut-out images of a cityscape, olive branches, and a pattern of circular orange slices.

Julie Rae Tucker: Can we talk about the Petri dishes? Could you talk a little bit about the call for submissions?

Jude Abu Zaineh: Yeah, that was made last year. I had a lot of motivations for that. One of the things I really wanted to do, and I try to do consistently in my work, regardless of where it is I’m working or exhibiting or whatever locale I’m in, is trying to engage and invite people in the community to participate. Because part of the things that I’m doing in these, more sterile institutional spaces is breaking down the barriers of entry, in whatever ways I know how to. I’m often trying to extend any olive branch I can, whether it be hosting a dinner or something and inviting people from the community to come and participate in those spaces. In this case, I had the call for photo submissions because I’ve been working a lot with my own family archival photos and videos and things like that. I know that for a large part of life of the immigrant, newcomer, and refugee community, those little pieces of family photos are like the little trinkets that you have that are passed down from your grandma, or you know, whatever that something is that reminds you of home– those little things mean so much. And so I really wanted to give people an opportunity to share some of those memories and moments, and also to have an opportunity for them to potentially have themselves quite literally represented in these spaces, so I thought this would be a really beautiful way to honour these stories and legacies in my own way. And that’s how this whole thing just kind of started.

Julie Rae Tucker: Could you talk a little bit about the layering of images, and how the work came about in the Petri dishes?

Jude Abu Zaineh: I’ve been working with this process for quite some time. I’m very curious about the sciences. I’m very driven by the sciences. I say this all the time. I’m an artist first and foremost. I’m not a scientist, but I’m curious about the sciences and curiosity is what drives me to engage with making artwork in this way. So when I’m in any of these lab spaces, it’s a similar mentality or ideology that’s going in my head– that these spaces have historically been for, and by, white male audiences, and here I am, a young Palestinian woman, transgressing these spaces. I’m going in there, and I’m kind of flipping it on its head. I’m playing in spaces where very serious scientific research is happening. And sometimes I’m in spaces where it’s not so serious, and it’s great. I get to just go in and play and do whatever it is that I feel is necessary to move my work forward, which is exciting. The layering of images takes place because I’m also thinking about the nuances and the complexities of the layering of all of these stories and experiences that we all have. It’s not straightforward. It is a very meandering or complicated journey. There’s a constant push, pull, a back and forth, there’s a tension where, when you’ve migrated or moved somewhere new, you feel an affinity, obviously to your ancestry and your cultural identity — your nationality, your homeland — but then also you’re trying to maybe conform or assimilate or fit in with whatever your new homestead is. I think that there’s something to be said about the layering of images. When I’m working with transparencies, you can see the old and the new. You don’t quite get rid of the origin. It’s always there. It’s always present. It just might morph and evolve into a new way of thinking. And this hybridity is kind of what I’m interested in. Even for myself on a personal level, outside of as an artist, just as a human, as a person. I’m leaning more and more into this hybrid identity. I also feel like this conflict about that, because part of me feels like, am I straying too far from my origin? Am I leaving behind the traditions that are so ingrained and instilled in me and the parts of my culture in my identity that I love in order to fit in to assimilate? And so these are these questions, tensions, and conflicts that I have on a personal level that are always there, and it’s always morphing and evolving. I don’t want to overstep and speak for anyone else, but I know that this is also a shared experience. It’s not just me, I know that a lot of us, regardless of our background or cultural upbringing, who have moved around or who have more than one place that they feel connected to, and sometimes not connected to, that these questions are a constant thing. Some days I feel like I belong, and some days I feel like I don’t. It just depends on what’s happening or, you know, whatever is happening in the world, I guess. And so, I feel like the Petri dish is a perfect container to illustrate those complexities. When you think about what happens on the most basic scientific level when you’re culturing things in a Petri dish, you’re taking something from a different environment. You’re purposefully placing it in a new environment, and you’re now enclosing it and saying, “go, do your thing. Let’s see what happens”, and in that timeframe of whatever you decide, you’re going to see a lot of change. You’re going to see different colonies and different communities growing, and some dying, and some doing really beautiful things, but there’s also this tension, where it is both grotesque and beautiful, what you just see literally happening in the Petri dishes. For me, that metaphor, and that visualization is so aligned with a lot of these experiences that I’ve personally felt and when I speak to my friends, family, and people in different communities that I engage with about these tensions, about how bittersweet these migratory experiences are because it is both beautiful and really heartbreaking. You have to move away in order to continue living and to be as fruitful as possible, but in that leaving, you are also grieving. All of these things I feel just become encapsulated so perfectly in that bioart or science-art space when I’m working on the Petri dishes. I love just how complex it becomes, but also how simple it is at the same time. So I think it’s all of these kinds of binaries that I’m interested in… And the Petri dish just does all of that at once for me.

A cluster of green, yellow, and brown petri dishes features family album photographs, layered with images of food, flowers, and plants from South West Asia and North Africa. The petri dishes are installed across the gallery wall and are supported by three small nails each.

Julie Rae Tucker: That just blew my mind. There’s so much to say. You said so many things that I want to comment on. First, I’ll say, as a person that’s from a First Nations community, I’m very familiar with the idea that you have to leave. Like you’re part of that community, but you’re not part of that community. And there’s a longing there. I’ll never feel like I belong, really. So just on a personal level, I never thought about the aesthetics of a lab before and how much it matches Art Windsor-Essex, a contemporary art gallery. It basically has the same aesthetics as a laboratory. It’s like all these white walls. It’s very sterile, very well kept. Everything has a place. It’s orderly. What happens when you go in and disrupt all of that?

Jude Abu Zaineh: Exactly.

Julie Rae Tucker: And then I just think of something that I discovered in the last few years about Windsor. So I was, you know, looking at what I’ve been growing, looking at the names of, like, native plants, and I came across this weed that grew in my garden, and it’s called purslane. And so I was at the market, and I was like, oh, that’s the weed that I found in my garden, and they’re selling it as food. So I look up the origins of purslane, which if you look in every crack in the sidewalk in Windsor and Detroit, you will find purslane and its origin is actually in the Middle East and India. It’s a food that has been brought here and has flourished like it’s grown into these communities all over Windsor-Detroit.

Jude Abu Zaineh: I love that. And I feel like it’s those moments in these crevices and in these cracks, where there’s life, and there’s opportunity. That’s what I’m really interested in capturing. What does that look like, and how do we nurture it? How do we oppose it? These are the things that I really just want to tease out ad nauseam in my work, or what I’m leaning into more and more, I used to shy away from it. I used to be afraid of it because I just couldn’t understand it. I couldn’t make sense of all of these tensions and all of these almost opposing dualities, and how do you fit into all of these things? And now, I think also as I get older and I’m more, and I say that very loosely, more secure in my identity and my place in the world and what I can offer. I feel more comfortable asking all of these questions in my work. And I’m also becoming more and more comfortable with not necessarily finding the answer, the “end all, be all”. I’m okay with that. That’s something that I’m leaning into, which I don’t think I could have arrived at when I was younger, or years ago in my practice; it just felt so necessary to have an answer, a conclusion. Now I think that there’s opportunity in that hybridity and in that ambiguity of constantly moving and meandering between all of these different spaces of identity.

Julie Rae Tucker: Yeah, I feel like you’re just like a gardener planting seeds. We’re in these different places and, you know, tending them. And yeah, that’s exciting.

Jude Abu Zaineh: I’m tending them, but I also don’t know what they’re going to look like exactly once they’ve fully bloomed, but I know that they are going to bloom. Yeah, years ago, I wouldn’t have been okay with that unknown or not having a definitive answer, but now I’m okay with it. I think that there’s power in that because you can’t control everything, right? I also think that as I’m moving to all of these different communities and engaging in all these different conversations, I’m able to, in a way, cherry-pick the best of all of these places and the best of all of these people — the best of everything — and kind of put it in this new container of this hybridity that I want to occupy and be part of. That’s what I’m trying to refer to also when I talk about these hybrid identities or these hybrid spaces. They are constantly changing, growing, evolving, transforming. There is constant change, and that’s what I’m leaning into more and more. Being more comfortable as I grow and move through the world. Whereas before, I wasn’t as okay with that. I knew I wanted stagnation in a way because, for me, stagnation is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s that I’m paused. I’m grounded. I’m rooted. For someone like me, who is exiled, who is part of a diaspora, that’s constantly just the way that my life is, on a personal level and the things that I’m pursuing, there is constant movement. That was something that I really struggled with, and I still do — that’s not to say that it’s completely resolved. I still struggle with it, but I’ve also accepted it. And I think that there’s power in that acceptance because it means I get to make it what I want for me.

A cluster of green, yellow, and brown petri dishes features family album photographs, layered with images of food, flowers, and plants from South West Asia and North Africa. The petri dishes are installed across the gallery wall and are supported by three small nails each.

Julie Rae Tucker: Could we talk about your piece Bit-hoon (this too shall pass //dreaming of Jaffa? How do you say it?

Jude Abu Zaineh: So it’s like there’s a dash in between the t and h. Bit-hoon. “This too shall pass”. I know that I’ve heard that a million times. And Jaffa is my mom’s hometown. That’s where my mom’s side of the family is from. And so I just was really interested in pulling these archival photos of Palestine and from Palestine. Before all the destruction and before it was completely ravaged, and really presenting imagery of this very beautiful country in this beautiful place.

Julie Rae Tucker: There’s a Venice feel to that photo.

Jude Abu Zaineh: Yeah. Because it’s a very prominent city by the sea and by the water. And so there’s a lot of water ports and it’s very connected to, what’s the word I’m thinking of? Like, just the economies around being a port city or a city on the water, you know? It’s very tied to the fishing industry. All of those things, everything about it is tied to being on the water. But you don’t really get that representation of Palestine or parts of Palestine in New Age media, especially Western media. I was very, very meticulous and very intentional about selecting these images from the archives that I pulled from in the work that you see around the exhibition. And I pull from that image also in the big vinyl piece. You’ll also see some snippets in the Petri dishes. The selection of these images is very purposeful. I wanted to present photos and experiences of and from Palestine that were beyond the very narrowed perspective that Western audiences have seen and only know of Palestine; that we’re terrorists, that the only thing we do is throw rocks, that it’s just this gray, weathered sand, desolate, right? Just nothing. And that is the case. In some places that nothingness is because of occupation. Not because that’s what Palestine is. And not because that’s what Palestine wants. And so, that was very purposeful. It also then became an ode specifically to my mum and that side of my family, and a way to honour her legacy and the legacy of some of my ancestors by having photos specifically from that town or that city, as opposed to anywhere else in Palestine.

Julie Rae Tucker: What’s the significance of adding the phrase “this too shall pass” over this image?

Jude Abu Zaineh: The word “bit-hoon” is — one thing I love about the Arabic language is it is very poetic, and you can pack so much meaning in just a singular word. That’s not something that I’ve really experienced in English, but I have experienced it in other languages. Even my best friend Anika and I talk about these things because of her German background. And so similarly with German, you can get these one word — I’ve heard they had a word that’s like “the joy of somebody seeing someone’s demise.” It’s funny because that’s the word that she always brings up when we’re talking about this sort of thing. In Arabic, there are these singular words that are very big, meaningful things. And so “Bit-hoon” in Arabic is one word, and it can be applied to so many different situations. But generally speaking, it means that this too shall pass and everything will be okay. It’s sort of this hopeful expression that, you know, you’ll get through this. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel. So you can say it, you know, if I’m consoling you about something, I can just say, you know, bit-hoon and pat you on the back like so.

Julie Rae Tucker: Is “bit-hoon” something that you’ve heard a lot?

Jude Abu Zaineh: Yeah, you know, or about like, just things that seem larger than life that you’re just trying to understand and get through. When I really started working with this word or this phrase and incorporating it in my work — because this is now the third iteration of creating this piece out of neon — this is made by me, it’s my handwriting. It’s also based on the inflections of how I write and my handwriting. This is this growing series that I’ve been playing with, where it really started, peak pandemic time, where everything was shut down, and it just felt like we were in this depth of isolation, and I know that there’s collective trauma, like this isn’t just about me, or like the Palestinian experience, it becomes a more encompassing thing on a global level. And it was also at a time when I was really diving deep into my journey with glass bending and making neon pieces. There’s a big learning curve with glass, unlike other mediums and other materials when you’re working with it. It’s very temperamental. So much of it working in your favour or not working in your favour has to do with even, like, your energy. If I go into the studio and I’m working on the burner, with the glass, and my energy is frazzled or tense or whatever, even the slightest infliction of my arm when I’m bending or doing something, it’s not going to translate. The glass will shatter a little and even break. It feels very precarious. And so I have to go in very intentionally when I’m working with glass and with neon, not in the same way that I can get away with if I’m having a bad day and working in any other medium. You can get away with it. You cannot get away with it with glass. It’s not forgiving. If you make a mistake, that’s it. It’s dead to you. You have to start over. It’s not like paint where you can paint over something that you painted wrong, or you’re working with a pencil or whatever, and you can erase it and go over. It does not work that way.

Julie Rae Tucker: You know, the only comparison I can think of is cooking.

Jude Abu Zaineh: Yeah, it’s funny that you mentioned cooking because a big part of my work, especially when I’m in the lab, I really get in the mindset or the framework of cooking. And I really think about the dualities of when I’m in the lab and when I’m in the kitchen as very much the same. I’m working with a recipe I have to follow, a specific methodology. There is a way of cooking where you follow the recipe to a tee. I think that’s more important with baking because it is very scientific versus when you’re cooking and you can kind of work intuitively or by feeling. Adding, you know, a pinch of salt or “I’m adding this to taste”, or I follow it based on relying on my memory of “oh well, my grandma makes it this way.” I remember a very specific smell. Once it hits that smell, that’s how I know it’s right. So it’s not really based on hard measurements but rather a feeling. And sometimes, I try to approach that feel and that intuitive way of moving in the lab space when I’m doing things which is, intrinsically, not the scientific method. I think that there’s something to say that Indigenous knowledge, is a lot of the time, intuitive. It’s based on feeling and based on intergenerational knowledge and continuity through language. We pass knowledge orally.

A green-tinted photograph of a city on the edge of the water is framed in a large wood frame. A neon sign reading Bit-hoon (this too shall pass) is installed over the background image.

Jude Abu Zaineh: In the Presence of Absence is on now until September 11, 2022. We invite you to come and visit this beautiful exhibition before it closes!

Photography by Frank Piccolo, GXZ Design Inc.

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Art Windsor-Essex

Art Windsor-Essex

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Art Windsor-Essex (AWE) is a non-profit public art gallery that uses the power of art to open hearts and minds to new ideas. Change happens here.