Justine Youssef wins this year’s $10,000 John Fries Award

Now celebrating its 10th year, the prestigious John Fries Award recognises the talents of early-career visual artists from Australia and New Zealand, showcasing some of the regions’ most experimental and provocative works.

At the opening of this year’s finalists’ exhibition at UNSW Galleries in Sydney, Copyright Agency announced artist Justine Youssef as the winner of the $10,000 prize. Her performative, video and installation work Under the table I learnt how to feed you, calls attention to personal and collective narratives influenced by neo-colonial rhetoric, feminist lenses and diasporic and material exchanges.

Justine Youssef, Under the table I learnt how to feed you, 2019, installation view

In this work, Youssef documents the women in her family as they ‘arrogate space’ in the courtyard of a Lebanese bakery in South-West Sydney, a site of social and cultural significance for the Arab population in the area.

‘These women’s actions speak to the invisibility of women in public spaces, positing matrilineal gestures as forms of resilience and resistance in the face of ongoing branding, urban development and gentrification of ‘Western Sydney’. Through methods of social engagement, I connect familial histories and local narratives of undocumented immigrant labour with present politics of gentrification and displacement,’ explains Youssef.

The 2019 judges; curator Miriam Kelly alongside Indigenous artist Fiona Foley, UNSW Galleries Director José Da Silva, CEO of Studio A Gabrielle Mordy, as well as artist and daughter of the late John Fries, Kath Fries, found Youssef’s conceptual and aesthetic approach very well resolved and compelling.

‘The work addresses complex collective contemporary concerns of undocumented migrant labour, cultural continuity, matrilineal learning and gentrification through a sophisticated, carefully nuanced lens. The work is simultaneously a celebration, a homage, a documentation and remembrance,’ said Kelly.

The judges also highly commended mother-daughter duo Betty Chimney and Raylene Walatinna, ‘noting the role of intergenerational learning in keeping cultural stories strong, both in paint and in Yankunytjatjara language, bursts from every inch of this vibrant large scale painting.’

Betty Chimney and Raylene Walatinna, Nganampa Ngura (Our Country), 2019, synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 243 x 396cm. Courtesy the artists and Iwantja Arts, APY Lands

Chosen from a broad scope of almost 500 applicants, the ten finalists include Madison Bycroft, Betty Chimney and Raylene Walatinna, Dean Cross, David Greenhalgh, Nadia Hernàndez, Jenna Lee, Hayley Millar-Baker, Elena Papanikolakis, Justine Youssef and The Ryan Sisters. Each finalist receives a $1,000 artist fee from the Copyright Agency.

Curated by Miriam Kelly, the 2019 John Fries Award exhibition is showing at the UNSW Galleries in Paddington, Sydney, from 21 June to 27 July 2019.