Poline Harbali Montreal artist exhibition

Montreal artist Poline Harbali explores the body, migration and tattooing in her new exhibition

They wrote the countries borders on my skin is at Fais-Moi l’Art gallery from Nov. 5 to Dec. 30.

During Quebec’s provincial election this year, immigration was a focal point of the discourse. 

The five party leaders battled over everything from how many immigrants the province should accept yearly to how best to integrate them, and Premier François Legault was in hot water time and time again for false and incendiary comments made by himself and his candidates. 

When politicians pontificate about numbers and statistics, it buries the fact that behind the numbers are real people, with real and varied but in some ways shared experiences. 

In the exhibition They wrote the countries borders on my skin, it’s those stories that are brought to the forefront by Montreal artist Poline Harbali. This multidisciplinary exhibit uses tattooing, photography, sculpture, installations and archival documentation to explore the migrant experience, and specifically how it is felt in the body for women and non-binary people.

They wrote the countries borders on my skin by Poline Harbali

Over the four years Harbali spent working on the project, she developed close bonds with 10 people who had migrated from all around the world to Montreal, talking with them about their experiences and, finally, tattooing them. They wrote the countries borders on my skin documents those years of encounters, collaborating with the participants all the way to the final step.

For Harbali, the theme of the exhibit reflects her own experience as a migrant. 

“I was stuck going through a complicated situation in my migration experience, and I was in a period where I had no papers or work documents,” she explains. 

With no community here, no job to occupy her, she began working on this project, not knowing what shape it would take at the end.

“My main goal at first was to meet other people experiencing similar situations as me, to develop connections and break out of the social isolation that is a major part of the migration experience,” says Harbali.

At first she spoke to people of all genders, but she came to notice commonalities in the experiences of women and non-binary people, specifically around the body in the migrant experience. So, she decided to hone in on that.

“It really reflected my own experience as a migrant.”

For the Franco-Syrian artist, the first time she ever felt the desire to get a tattoo was in that dark period after coming to Canada, going through the long administrative wait times to sort out her situation. 

“I think the migrant experience can be extremely passive at times. I wasn’t working, I didn’t have a lot of friends, I really didn’t have anything going on. I had this desire to feel a sense of control again, over my life and my body. I also wanted to experience a strong sensation, because those administrative wait times are really idle and lethargic.”

They wrote the countries borders on my skin by Poline Harbali

Her first tattoo was a symbolic, cathartic act – and a political one, too.

“The exhibition is really about the act of tattooing, not the tattoos themselves,” she emphasizes. “It’s about the experience of reintegrating our body, and making a political statement of doing so in the time we’re living in.”

They wrote the countries borders on my skin is an exhibit in two parts: one, the collaboration with the participants over years of meeting and discussing, and two, getting tattooed. 

She took notes of their encounters, and kept all the sketches and drawings they worked on. When it came time to get inked, Harbali filmed the process — not the tattooing itself, but the participants’ faces through the experience. 

Harbali now has a practice as a tattoo artist, but before this project she had never tattooed before.

“I considered working with an artist, but I wanted the intimacy that I had developed with the participants to continue through the duration of the work. I didn’t want to bring an outside person into the situation. So, I learned how to tattoo.”

They wrote the countries borders on my skin by Poline Harbali

As the exhibit’s been planned for about two years, it’s a coincidence it’s happening on the heels of an election campaign so divisive on the topic of immigration.

“I’m really happy the exhibition is coming out now, after the election,” says Harbali. “It sheds light on what it is to be an immigrant, and I think that’s important.

“I hope it shows people that personal, intimate experiences have a political impact, and that political decisions can either foster or destroy that personal intimacy,” she continues.

And importantly, she wants those who are unfamiliar with the difficulties the migration experience entails to learn something, and those who have a personal connection to immigration to feel seen and have a place to share their stories, and be understood. 

“I want people to come to get to know the stories of these participants. My main intention of course was to tell their stories, show their individuality but also how their experiences are shared in one way or another by a lot of people in Montreal, where a quarter of us are immigrants.”

This article was originally published in the November 2022 issue of Cult MTL.

They wrote the countries borders on my skin runs at Fais-Moi l’Art (900 Cherrier) from Nov. 5 to Dec. 30, with the vernissage on Nov. 5.

For more Montreal arts coverage, please visit the Arts & Life section.