Cedrus Iibani on the Anzac Memorial in Orange

A gateway or a key: Justine Youssef

Event
3 March 2022 – 28 August 2022 Powerhouse Museum

You are invited to register for the opportunity to receive, via the post, one of a limited number of vials of cedar hydrosol as part of the artwork A gateway or a key. The work, created for Eucalyptusdom by Justine Youssef, carries ideas from the exhibition space into the home. It opens conversations between the river red gum (Eucalyptus camaldulensis) and the Lebanese cedar (Cedrus libani) to consider their co-option as instruments for occupation.

Youssef will distil the cedar hydrosol, with techniques central to their art practice and based upon traditional methods inherited matrilineally, using materials harvested on Wiradjuri Country from trees along Anzac Memorial Avenue in Orange, NSW. The cedar needles, cones and flowers will be harvested after Eucalytpusdom closes on 28 August 2022, then distilled and shipped to randomly selected recipients in the Spring.

REGISTER HERE

Artist statement

A gateway or a key uses scent to unlock pathways between the nationalist introduction of the river red gum to occupied Palestine and the Lebanese cedar to Wiradjuri Country. The hydrosol produced for the work will be distilled by hand, using needles, cones and flowers harvested from Lebanese cedars that stand along Anzac Memorial Avenue in Orange, NSW, on Wiradjuri Country — unlocking properties of the plant that were lost when it was stolen nearly 100 years earlier.

In 1923, more than 200 Lebanese cedar saplings were planted at the Orange Anzac Memorial, a monument to nationalist ties. The trees were gifted to the Federation of Australia by the Republic of Lebanon in an act of performative diplomacy to normalise relations, though that came undone with Australia’s 1941 occupation of Lebanon by soldiers fighting for Word War II Allied forces.

The saplings had been uprooted without custodial consent from Arz el Rub (Cedars of God) in Bsharri, Lebanon — one of the last vestiges of virgin forests more than 6000 years old. Arz el Rub and its cedars are sacred: home to gods, sites of ascension, oracles, and gateways to the spirit realm. In the region, the doors of sacred spaces are made of Lebanese cedar wood, and all parts of the tree are used medicinally and in practices that cleanse and purify.

Much like the eucalypts across Oceania, Lebanese cedars are keystone species in Mount Lebanon. If they were to cease, so too would all other organisms across the ranges.

Beginning in the 1860s, river red gums were imported to Zionist colonies in Palestine from the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria, on the Kulin Nation. They were cultivated to colonise; planted to dry up malarious swamps and sow borders demarcating stolen territories to afford further access to land.

It was not long before the river red gums defied Zionist plantation enclosures and diffused beyond borders, across to south Lebanon. Today they continue to thrive on these lands, though their thirst for water yields an aggressive ecological toll on the forests they encroach upon. In urban Beirut there have been various instances of eucalypts tearing up plumbing infrastructure and proving impossible to uproot.

Lebanese cedar and river red gum have both been used as tools to affirm splintering national identities. The eucalypt is an unofficial Australian icon, in part due to economic botany, while the Lebanese cedar appears as an official emblem on the flag. Both function as sacred and medicinal in their native lands, while also being used as instruments for occupation in others.

The title draws on the role of Lebanese cedars as sacred gateways, as well as computing terminology, whereby ‘gateway’ describes a utility that acts as a translator between dissimilar networks or protocols while the word ‘key’ describes a field used to retrieve and sort data, unlocking information.

This work was created across sovereign Dharug, Wangal and Wiradjuri Lands, with gratitude to their rightful custodians and respect to their Elders, and to the custodians and Elders of the many Countries that this work reaches.

With thanks to Layla Feghali, Dara Gill, Hyun Lee, Emily McDaniel, Latai Taumoepeau and Donnalyn Xu.

About the artist

Justine Youssef works across mediums from scent to video. Recent exhibitions include: Under the table I learnt how to feed you at Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney (2022); Lovesick Puppy with Utp (2021); and All Blessings, All Curses at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, Sydney (2018). They have exhibited widely, including through CARPARK, Brisbane (2021); PHOTO 2020, Melbourne (2020); and Salamanca Arts Centre, Hobart (2020).

Youssef lives across unceded Wangal and Dharug lands in Sydney, Australia.

They were a Parramatta Artist Studios resident from 2019–21 and the 2019 recipient of the Copyright Agency’s John Fries Award. They were co-director at Firstdraft, co-founded the artist-run space Pari, and have organised various educational programs for the National Association for the Visual Arts. Their first work made in response to a site they have never visited, With the toughest care, The most economical tenderness, is currently being exhibited with the Hawai’i Triennial 2022.

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