Meet the Montreal-based filmmaker who'll be the youngest artist at the Venice Biennale

Video artist Joyce Joumaa explores the politics of her native Lebanon with a knack for storytelling that untangles complicated events.

Joyce Joumaa explores the politics of her native Lebanon with a knack for telling complex stories

Joyce Joumaa
Joyce Joumaa (Photo credit by Clara Lacasse)

Joyce Joumaa doesn't see the fact that she will be the youngest artist at this year's Venice Biennale, the pinnacle of international contemporary art events, as an obstacle. "I don't move forward in life thinking about my age," she tells CBC Arts in an interview. "I think this creates more pressure."

Through her own style of documentary filmmaking, the 25-year-old Lebanese-born artist has rapidly become a recognized talent within a rich lineage of politically active artmaking. Her works connect viewers to Lebanon, doing so with a knack for visual storytelling that untangles complicated events. This includes grappling with Lebanon's colonization and its legacy in the educational system, the state's economic crisis and its relationship to solar energy, as well as the 2018 parliamentary elections and the ubiquity of its monumental campaign posters depicting larger-than-life politicians. 

"When you're talking about geopolitics or politics in general, it is never about one single thing," says Joumaa about tackling intricate issues through film. "It's always a series of webs. I feel like working with moving images, I can't just land on one technique. Each one I use represents a layer that makes up the complexity of the topic."

Based in Montreal since 2016, the past few years have been a whirlwind of accomplishments. This includes being a finalist in 2023 for the prestigious Prix Pierre-Ayot, which is awarded to a promising up-and-coming artist in the city.

In كیف لا نغرق في السراب /To Remain in the No Longer, an experimental film she created with the support of the Canadian Centre for Architecture's emerging curator residency, Joumaa focused on architect Oscar Niemeyer's failed international fairground in the Lebanese city of Tripoli. Turning toward the past to better understand Lebanon's current socio-economic crisis, the film is as beautifully composed as it is critically incisive.

A still from the film To Remain in the No Longer (2023) by Joyce Joumaa.
A still from the film To Remain in the No Longer (2023) by Joyce Joumaa. (Photo courtesy the artist)

As part of the Biennale College Arte, a program that offers young talent the opportunity to present their work on the world stage, Joumaa will be in Venice this April to present a new project. CBC Arts spoke with her in Montreal to learn how her upbringing in Lebanon influenced her practice, why she gravitated toward filmmaking and how she goes about building dynamic artworks that have won her a place in what many consider the most important art event of the year.

Tell us a little bit about your childhood and what your early artistic influences were?

I grew up in Tripoli, which is a very interesting city in Lebanon, because even though it's the second-largest after Beirut, it does not get the benefits of a large metropolis. When I turned 16 and was old enough to take the bus to Beirut, I would go gallery-hopping for the day or over the weekend. In some ways, studying art was a reaction to my lack of exposure to it growing up. This is one of the problems with Lebanon, everything is centralized in the capital. 

The people who shaped my understanding of contemporary art are the main Lebanese artists you might know of: Akram Zaatari, Walid Raad, Mounira Al Solh and Mona Hatoum. These great post-civil war artists were exhibiting in Beirut when I visited, and their work was very much tinted by the geopolitical landscape in Lebanon. In Canada, people often remark that my work is political. I think this is a direct effect of this exposure.

What is it about film and video that attracted you initially?

I remember having a moment of epiphany when I saw one of Akram Zaatari's works called Letter to a Refusing Pilot. It is about this Israeli fighter pilot who refuses the order of bombing a school in Lebanon [during the war in 1982] and instead dumps his bombs in the water. It was shown at the Lebanese Pavilion in Venice in 2013. When I first saw this work, I knew that this was exactly what I wanted to do: to showcase stories that have their roots in a certain political tension without being overtly explicit, to talk about something in a poetic and metaphorical way.

Film had this added value of fully exploring the subject matter, rather than finding refuge in a single representational image. That's also why I became interested in documentary-making specifically.

You moved to Montreal in 2016 yet you continued to regularly produce work about Lebanon. How do you wrestle with the distance? And how has your adoptive city shaped you?

When I moved here, I decided not to completely let go of Lebanon. I've committed to going back every year, except for the first summer of the pandemic. I don't feel like I've left, I'm still familiar with the way things are moving over there.

On the other hand, Montreal has shaped so much of who I am right now, and there's a lot that I take from it and its people. This city has a very nice warmth, and that allowed me to settle here comfortably.

In your practice, you look toward the past to make sense of the present. Can you walk us through your process?

My work is mostly focused on histories, even though I did not experience them myself. For example, in this upcoming exhibition at the exhibition centre Plein Sud, I am investigating history textbooks in present-day Lebanese curriculum. These books have a narrative that reflects how the Ottoman Empire colonized Lebanon, but there is a lack of exposure to more contemporary events, like the Lebanese Civil War.

As a student, I was not fully exposed to our history and what made our country the way it is now. I feel like my approach is the result of wanting to understand the present moment in Lebanon.

You will be exhibiting at this year's Venice Biennale. How have you taken on this opportunity?

I feel a double privilege, to be one of the four Canadians showing at the Biennale, but also to be surrounded by these major contemporary Lebanese artists who set the groundwork for conceptual art in Lebanon.

A still from the film To Remain in the No Longer (2023) by Joyce Joumaa.
A still from the film To Remain in the No Longer (2023) by Joyce Joumaa. (Photo courtesy of the artist)

Regardless of the scale or the hosting institution, I think the best way to approach these opportunities is to see them as if they're just ongoing research projects I want to work on. It's both exciting and overwhelming!

Joyce Joumaa is represented by Galerie Eli Kerr in Montreal, where she is currently in the group exhibition Saint-Laurent, running until April 14. Her film السراب /To Remain in the No Longer (2023) will be screened at the Images Festival in Toronto on April 12.


Didier Morelli is a Fonds de recherche du Québec (FRQSC) Postdoctoral Fellow in the department of Art History at Concordia University in Montreal. He holds a PhD in Performance Studies from Northwestern University (Chicago, Illinois). Associate editor at Espace art actuel, his work has also been published in Art Journal, Canadian Theatre Review, C Magazine, Esse Arts + Opinions, Frieze, Spirale, and TDR: The Drama Review.