They wrote the countries borders on my skin: Interview with Poline Harbali

By Clare Chasse & oualie frost

January 22, 2023

They wrote the countries borders on my skin is a multidisciplinary exhibition by French-Syrian artist Poline Harbali that was exhibited at FAIS-MOI L’ART in Montreal’s Plateau-Mont-Royal borough until December 30, 2022. Working with other female and non-binary immigrants over the last four years, Harbali, an immigrant herself, used tattooing and embodiment as the launch point for her show.

After making sure to grab a glass of wine at the vernissage, Yiara contributor Clare Chasse and oualie frost met with Harbali to hear more about the unique premise of They wrote the countries borders on my skin.

Clare:  Would you mind going into the process of how this started? Because four years is a long time to be working on something and have it come to fruition.

Poline: I started this project four years ago when I was in the middle of my immigration journey. I was in a bad situation without documents and I was pretty alone.  I couldn't work, I didn't have any money. I felt that I needed to build a project…

At the beginning, I had no idea what kind of project I wanted to do. The first part was more about meeting people in the same situation as I was in—to meet people, to exchange, to feel that I had a social life also. At the beginning, the project was open to all genders. Then after meeting a few people, I figured out that all the women and non-binary people had something in common in the relationship [they had] with their bodies in the public space.

As women and non-binary people, everybody talks about our bodies; that's something very important. Something in common which came out of that was the act of being tattooed for those people. It was a way to reintegrate their body. I felt that was also my experience, but I didn't know the words. So it became the focus. It was because of them that I found out that was my topic.

Clare: So that’s where the tattoo process emerges?

Poline:  Yes, the first two years were about…I didn't know how to do it at this point. At the beginning of the project, I thought about working with a tattoo artist, but I really loved the relationship that I had created with the subjects, so I felt that introducing a new person into the project would be maybe less intimate. I decided to learn to tattoo to be able to do it by myself. The first part was meeting them; I had questions to ask them, but it was more about talking together—about their immigration journey, their challenges, their stories. The second part was about tattooing, and after that, for about three years, I collected archives and documentation. I documented absolutely everything about the process, but I didn't know what I wanted to do with it. After a few years of doing it, something came out, something about skin.

Skin holds a heavy presence in the exhibition. In one room, a large patched-together strip of bio-manufactured skin hangs from the ceiling above a dirt-strewn waiting area of mismatched chairs. In the other, a tattoo table  stands to the side, wrapped in this same skin rather than the usual vinyl. And of course, we cannot forget the heavy yet visibly shrouded presence of tattooed flesh, strung up like a tanned hide on the back wall, that the show revolves around.

oualie: Creepy is my interest. So I found the skin tattooing table and the disembodied hanging skin very interesting, especially from a displacement perspective. A lot of elements in the show are not within the places you would normally see them in. I wanted to ask you as well, about presenting the personal when you’re working in the art world.

My friend is an immigrant and was working with other immigrants as well, and she said it was so important to spend such a long-time building relationships with these people. She felt like she could really work with them rather than extracting them.

Poline: It's not to say that I'm connected to the art world. It's not that; I do arts, but I don't really have a community of artists in my life. Art is something that I do. But that's not like my life. Meeting all of those people. I mean, most of them became very, very close friends. It was, for me, like the most important part of the project. And, in fact, it's the first time in my practice that I introduced the stories of others, because my practice is more based on my own story, family stories. It was very stressful for me too—I wanted them to feel seen and to be shown as I understood them, but it's not a documentary. It's documented. But I mean, I transformed all of those materials by myself, so the point that was very difficult for me was to be able to pay homage to their histories and then do an intervention on this without masking their stories.

Harbali is correct about the project being a practice of documenting, not documentary. The tattoos settled onto participants' bodies are never directly shown. Instead, they are made tangible through the sketches and stories and sometimes bloody red art on the walls. We don’t see the actual bodies at all beyond a series of portraits and close cropped videos of each subject's eyes as they are tattooed.
Clare: So is that where the elements of embodiment, like earth, soil, and skin come in? They seem to be speaking to a dual emplacement of grounded/foundationless bodies and stories. As in we as people, friends, and immigrants are in communion; connected and solidified here. But not completely. There's still the very ephemeral element of everybody’s unique history. Your subjects belong to these places where, for multiple reasons, they can no longer stay or return to.

The soil Clare refers to is dark, damp, and strewn in small piles all around the “waiting room” chairs.

Poline: Yeah, for example, the soil for me, it's like we don't know if the soil is the soil from here or from there… there’s something a bit ambiguous about it.

oualie: Unknowable?

Poline:  Yeah, but it's soil anyway.

Clare: Like the body.

Poline: Yes! So the idea was not to do something too literal or narrative because their stories are there already, and speak for themselves. It was more about experiencing something visceral.

oualie: Especially considering the experience of pain throughout the tattoo process?

Poline: It was about reintegrating our bodies, but also suffering as a result of it. The balance of that.

Clare: Considering how involved you are in the process, you don’t actually display yourself the way that you display the subjects. Was that intentional?

Poline: That was something that I questioned. I didn't know if I wanted to be included as a participant. Many of my own tattoos that I did are related to my immigration process. But at some point, I felt that documenting myself as a subject was not really balanced because I think I am in every part of the project. I felt that it was more intimate to show my process. In documentation with people, we have to never forget that there’s always someone who is portraying them; it’s not the truth, it's just  my vision. So I wanted to let them shine with their stories, because they were very strong by themselves, and I didn't want to put myself into that. But I'm still in the project through the process of creation.

oualie: I’m curious about your decision to not show the final tattoo results and more just to allude to them. You document the eyes of your subjects as you tattoo them, but we never see the actual result. Is there a reason why you chose not to include photographs of the final tattoos?

Poline:  Yeah. The first thing is, as you mentioned, I wanted to focus on the experience they felt in their body and not the result of the experience. So that was the first point. And the second one is—actually, you can more or less, see the tattoos on the skin map that I drafted. Yet, you can't really see them because they printed ‘red, large, loud’. And the focus on the eyes—I think during a tattoo session, the most expressive part of the body is the eyes. It's not the bloody skin, because we all have the same blood. We all have different expressions during the tattoo. Some of them are laughing, others like, “Oh, my God, I'm gonna die.” Or they're otherwise just very stoic.

Clare: And past this project, you still tattoo right? Has that process changed for you?

Poline: I do still, but not in the same way. It's very demanding, I just couldn't. Many of my clients are still immigrants, and many of the tattoo topics are related to what I do because I guess my work is very related to this work in general. Just never in the same conditions.

It seems that Harbali has managed to successfully do what her project set out to do, even beyond the reaches of her process. Through it, she found that others were able to relate it to a sense of community and footing during a time of isolation, and a way to support herself. Just as tattoos slowly settle in with the ink, slightly blurring and changing with age and healing, so do her participants as well as herself. These stories solidified by history and action  are not stagnant, but ever-shifting along with the bodies that carry them.

To find Poline Harbali’s work:

Instagram: @poline_harboli
Website: https://cargocollective.com/harbali

All images included courtesy of the artist.

An undergraduate
feminist art & art history