Chrisoula on Art, Humour and Palestine

by mkrayem

The third lovely lady in our Five Days of Fabulous is Chrisoula Lionis.

She and I met through my best friend (who’ll pretend she’s not jealous that I’m befriending her friends but totally is- which is obviously what happens when you move interstate and leave me to my own devices!). I can’t say we instantly hit it off because we only really saw each other in the presence of a whole bunch of other people for a long time. But there was this one time (not at band camp) where there weren’t a whole bunch of other people around and my massive intellectual crush was well and truly under way.

Aside from being insanely intelligent, she’s also ridiculously nice and honestly that’s what the young’uns refer to as a winning combination.

So if you have the slightest interest in humour, Palestine or intelligent women, you should definitely check out this interview.


Name: Chrisoula Lionis

Age: 28

You’ve just finished a PhD (if there was a font for high pitched, I’d have used it!), give us the short version of what you explored?

Even after submission, this question is still a tricky one! The thesis looked at the emergence of humour in Palestinian art and film. It tracked shifts in Palestinian national and collective identity over the last century and argued that the failed ‘peace process’ is responsible for the proliferation of humour in Palestinian visual culture over the last two decades.

I love how you distance yourself from it by referring to it as ‘the thesis’. Ominous. What was the first thing you did immediately after submission?

I was in complete denial. I took a deep breath and had one of those ‘is-this-really-happening’ moments. Then, bizarrely, I went straight back to work in an effort to pretend that nothing had just happened. Unfortunately, it was a real anti-climax. The kind every previous PhD student had previously warned me about.

So the ceiling didn’t crack open and shower you with a tonne of confetti and balloons? Nobody popped open a massive bottle of champagne that senselessly sprayed unsuspecting onlookers? I mean I don’t drink, but I’ve seen it in the movies and it looks sticky but obviously festive. How did you come to choose your thesis topic?

My initial research into Palestinian art came through an observation almost a decade ago, that although Palestinian art had emerged in the global art scene, it had done so without adequate extensive scholarly analysis. My first in depth research was during my honours year when my thesis traced the theme of exile in Palestinian art and looked at the work of Mona Hatoum and Emily Jacir.

Following that research, I was frankly pretty depressed having spent the last year totally immersed in the facts and figures of the conflict.  In retrospect this might seem like a cheap remedy for how I was feeling, but I found myself increasingly drawn to Palestinian art and film that was funny. Through this process, I also discovered that there was a lot of this content around and year-by-year this content only increased.

I then asked myself, what on earth is going on here? Why use laughter to talk about trauma and the ongoing effects of the occupation? What does humour do that other forms of expression can’t? Is it a better tool for talking about trauma and an issue that is often prone to censorship? When is it appropriate to laugh? Who laughs at particular content and who doesn’t? And, well, the thesis was an attempt to answer those questions!

I too find the use of humour really interesting. My honours thesis, in part, looked at how humour can be used to discuss/combat racism. It’s such a powerful tool that is often dismissed as being too ‘soft’ or not intellectual enough. But now I’m nostalgic and almost regretting the direction my PhD has taken, so let’s change the subject. You’re obviously very interested in art. I have ZERO understanding of ‘modern’ art, but I often pretend to nod along and say pretentious things anyway. Can you give us a crash course in things NOT to say or little things we should pay attention to that might make us sound like bigger tossers next time we’re at an exhibition?

Good question! Ok, first things first – avoid the term ‘modern’ art if the art you’re looking at art beyond 1940. Similarly, avoid the term ‘postmodern’ – because the HSC visual arts curriculum has produced students who don’t know what that means but throw it into conversation at any given opportunity.

As for exhibition tips, the most honest thing I can say is to be genuine about what you like and why. Some works will connect with you and others won’t and that’s totally fine. You don’t need to love everything you see! Also, if you want to get the most out of a show, do a little a bit of reading/googling before you arrive. This will not only allow you to cultivate a deeper appreciation for the artists and works you’re looking at but also make you look clever in front of your friends. You’ve probably already noticed this, but looking clever is, for many people, an essential part of the exhibition experience!

That’s really great advice. Since you’ve proven yourself worthy as an advice-giver (have you considered a column?) I’m going to ask you for some more advice this time for people considering postgraduate hell?

I have three pieces of advice.

Firstly, love what you study. Invest in it emotionally because this is what will allow you to see it through to the end.

Secondly, prepare to lose your mind. Embrace this prospect and do not think you can evade it. I think it is part and parcel of the experience and when you come out the other end it will only serve to amplify your sense of relief and accomplishment.

Finally, work steadily the whole way through. Your mind, body (not to mention family and friends) will thank you for this. I give that last piece of advice out of bitter experience, wishing now that I had paced myself throughout the PhD process. Unfortunately, I’ve always been better at sprints than at marathons but the PhD taught me patience and perseverance and for that I am grateful.

It’s such sound advice (the last point in particular) but really so hard to do, especially since I swear it took me three years to understand what I was supposed to be doing. How do you stay focused?

I think primarily the understanding that I am so blessed to have had access to education. I am thankful for this each and every day and try to work hard in an acknowledgement of this relative luxury.  Beyond that, I constantly repeat the mantra that ‘this too shall pass’. This allows me to think about the next ‘thing’ – project, piece of research, long-term goal etc. and to acknowledge that whatever I’m doing is not the be all and end all.

That’s the hardest thing about the PhD isn’t it? Keeping it in perspective when it becomes your world. What’s your favourite work of art and why?

You didn’t warn me that you would be dishing out THE single most impossible question to answer. There are so many works that I love and that each hold a particular place in my heart but if I was forced to choose a single work it would be Emily Jacir’s Untitled from 2003.

It is so simple, pared back, modest and ‘quiet’.  Essentially it is a bunch of books about Palestine/Palestinians jammed into the niche between two walls. Even though it a super simple installation, the work encapsulates the problems with narrating Palestinian history and memory. The work illustrates the diversity of Palestinian experience and the tentative place of Palestinian history in the archive. It also evokes an understanding of the impossibility of narrating history and experience in a single text. The work literally depicts the idea that texts exist in solidarity with one another and a pluralistic approach to the representation of experience is the only way to keep the Palestinian story afloat. Genius.

Do you know I already have a massive intellectual crush on you? And it just got massiver (sure it’s a word) with that explanation. Last year you curated the brilliant ‘Beyond the Last Sky’ exhibition. What inspired that?

The exhibition took its name from a verse in Mahmoud Darwish’s poem ‘The Earth is Closing on Us’, and Edward Said’s 1986 book ‘After the Last Sky’ which used documentary modes as a verification of Palestinian experience. Conceived as an evolution of Said’s book, the central curatorial rationale behind ‘Beyond the Last Sky’ was the idea that the representation of Palestine has been saturated by the documentary and that art has acknowledged the limitations of this mode of representation and actively moved away from it, turning instead to humour.

The show obviously came out of my research into humour in Palestinian art. The show was the first exhibition solely dedicated to contemporary Palestinian photography and video in Australia and I wanted to seize this opportunity to fracture projections or misconceptions people might have of contemporary Palestinian art.

I also wanted to make people laugh, giggle or in the least chuckle! The thing is, the work shown in ‘Beyond the Last Sky’ was a showcase of some of the best Palestinian artists working today and many of them had never been shown in Australia.

I also worked with the National Institute for Experimental Arts at COFA, UNSW to bring out the Director of the International Art Academy Palestine, Khaled Hourani to Australia as part of the ‘Beyond the Last Sky’ symposium. I was also very lucky to work with the Australian Centre for Photography who completely embraced the curatorial rationale of the show, loved the works and were overall an amazing team.

It was such a fabulous exhibition and the symposium was also really interesting too. I loved it and I promise this isn’t one of those pretentious things I say when I don’t understand art! Ok I feel like this has been a really serious interview so let’s try and be trivial (though given the content it’s a bit hard). What’s your favourite food?

Oysters, olives (yup, I’m a walking stereotype) and dark chocolate.

No word of a lie, last night I ate my body weight in olives. Ok maybe that is a lie. That’s to say that I too love olives. What’s one thing you can’t live without?

Reluctantly, at present I’d have to say cigarettes. I understand that this answer is a little bit ‘un-Australian’, tasteless, bad for my health, supporting evil multinational companies and an acknowledgement of my social leprosy. Still, at least for the time being, it’s the truth.

When we’re better friends, I’ll stand before you with my hands on my hips and tell you things you already know about the effect of cigarettes on your health. And I’ll continue to make that same speech (with the same intensity of animation) every time you pull out a packet of cigarettes. Just something to look forward to. What’s that? You’re not free for coffee next week. Right. OK. Sure. We can reschedule. What’s one thing you’re looking forward to right now?

I am going to Greece and Palestine in July. I can’t wait to be in the sunshine – preferably with a bowl of figs!