29 // 16.06.21

Say Swear
Justine Youssef & Leila El Rayes

Portrait of a place, in-between spaces, shapeshifting, auto-ethnography.

Many of Spike Lee’s movies – She’s Gotta Have It, Do the Right Thing and Crooklyn – use the landscape, neighbourhoods and subcultures of New York City as the scaffolding for bold characters and storytelling.

Here, Auburn Botanical Gardens, on sovereign Darug land, is the historically loaded site of Justine Youssef and Leila El Rayes’ work Say Swear: This was one way we could find each other if we ever got lost. It is one of this year’s Prototype program where artists look into, rather than at, a place, and link their histories to the histories of others. The video is also the first of a stream of works tracing a chain of connection between community, becoming and belonging.

The artists’ video is a vision of fantastical personas, alternate identities and doubled selves among South West Asian youth. Auburn Botanical Gardens is known as one of the most beautiful gardens in Sydney. Shimmering Koi swim in turquoise waters; Melaleucas thrive in the midst of blossoming cherry trees. Commonly used as a wedding venue by local Middle Eastern communities, the garden is also much frequented by families from across the culturally diverse Western suburbs, who take photos with the resident peacocks and buy soft-serve from the ice-cream truck parked out front.

Before the park’s opening in 1977, the terrain was a garbage dump. The new park’s custom garden beds, Zen pebbles, moss gardens, waterfalls and bridges were designed by engineer Eric Black, who had no connection to any Japanese heritage and designed the space using Japanese postcards as inspiration.

Auburn Botanical Gardens is an example of the perfect paradox of a settler-colonial society: a Ryoan-ji style Japanese garden designed by a white public servant on the wastelands of modern industry, occupying unceded sovereign territory belonging to the Darug people, who used the area now known as Auburn as a marketplace, a site to re-enact conflicts in the decades following invasion, and a law place for ceremony.

It is here that Youssef and El Rayes brought together eight gender and sexually diverse young people in an act of auto-ethnography seeded before the pandemic. The crew acted out their own visions of resistance, love and selfhood – defined only by themselves, and drawing on nostalgic video game conventions remembered from their childhoods – and revealed the layers of the site’s history. The artists worked with the participants to craft elaborate costumes inspired by Mortal Kombat and deeply embedded with the cultural references of their area – a heady mix of contemporary streetwear, firebrand haircuts and traditional music.

A mixed martial arts fighter in a balaclava made of hair extensions heads into battle as a cherub dressed in fluro green showers rose petals and candied almonds pulled from a Louis Vuitton monogrammed handbag. One character dons a stack of six Nike dri-fit caps and plays a tabul drum. Another weeps as they watch a Middle Eastern wedding ritual. A human-sized evil eye issues curses and protections. Clip-on nails blare in fluoro green, socks go with slides, tracksuits reflect the high sunlight, sneakers grow to impossibly cartoonish proportions. The sound of drifting cars floats through. Subcultures merge. Pride blooms.

Read here for an essay by Enoch Mailangi about this auto-ethnographic, community art project.

About Justine Youssef & Leila El Rayes

Currently based on unceded Darug Land, Justine Youssef makes work that is site-responsive, attentive to her origins in South-West Asia, and focuses on moments and places that reconfigure authoritative realities.

Born and raised in Sydney from Egyptian and Palestinian descent, Leila El Rayes’ multidisciplinary practice explores the impact which cultural heritage has on the way in which we view the world and the way in which we in turn are viewed.