Q&A with Sofia Sabbagh

A square photograph of Sofia Sabbagh is set against a banner, with a patterned black and grey design of a zoomed-in photograph of weeds. Sofia wears a dark sleeveless top and a camouflage pattern baseball cap, has curly brown hair, dark eyes, and plays a flute at a grassy campground. ‘Weeds, an interview with Sofia Sabbagh’ is written on the banner, to the right of Sofia's image. The letters of ‘Weeds’ are capitalised, and filled in with the photographed lacework of Maggie Hensel-Brown that is featured on this issue’s cover.

SOFIA SABBAGH is an illustrative artist and community-engaged arts facilitator. She uses arts-based research, storytelling, sensory ecology, and paintings to celebrate the local ecology and explore her role in the environment, as a settler Australian during a time of climate crisis. Her work is informed by her Palestinian and Irish heritage, and the need for land/earth rights via stories that generate hope, belonging, and resistance.

Our Associate Editor L.B. Hazelthorn talks to Sofia about her comic, ‘Picking Mallow, published in #27: WEEDS

Your gorgeous comic, ‘Picking Mallow,’ embodies so many nuances of our theme in #27: WEEDS, highlighting the difference between plants that are unwanted and those which are simply undervalued. What are the benefits of changing our perceptions of weeds?

Hmm, well the benefits change in different contexts.

Understanding the complexity of ecological relationships adds complexity to our understanding of weeds. For example, we are still coming to understand the influence that invasive species have on soil and native fungi communities. It’s also not the weed’s fault that it has spread, but can often be due to a disturbance or introduced species.

Our weeds were introduced with waves of migration, with non-Indigenous folks bringing in the plants or animals they considered valuable. As a migrant/settler Australian, learning why and how different weeds were introduced here helps me to understand the history of where I live, where my ancestors lived, and the influence of migration. Learning about the invasive species feels just as important as learning about the native plants, in understanding ‘Australia’ in its contemporary and novel context.

The discussion of invasive species in Australia should always be tied to discussions of colonisation and appropriation of traditional lands—something you’ve integrated into your work. How have you developed your practice of art-based ecology to reflect this understanding?

I suppose the development was somewhat out of my control. As a Palestinian I was raised to see the colonial nature of Australia, it being parallel to Israel. My art is a documentation of my life experience and what interests me. Our planet is our sustenance and I’ve always hoped that ecological awe and environmental justice can unify people across political backgrounds, though I know it’s not accessible to many. I am probably a hippy for a tree, but I don’t believe that we can have environmental justice without first having justice for First Nations folks.

Plants can carry a lot of symbolism, but they are also ever-present on a practical level. How does your work inform the way you view, define, and approach weeds? I’m currently battling some lush but aggressive lawn grass in my veggie patch—is there a particular plant that particularly annoys you every time it pops up?

Well, lawns are a rabbit hole. Sometimes I consider lawn grass to be a big army of British soldiers, turning our soil hydro-phobic. Being resistant to water reminds me of being resistant to crying, and to our own vulnerability, which reminds me of how emotionally hardened my Mum’s family was when they first arrived here and spread such grass and such a culture.

Knowing the level of environmental destruction introduced species have caused makes it a bit depressing to see weeds in just about any corner of Australia, but each weed has a story that pertains to its value and to the reality of this country. For example, if the lawn in your backyard is couch grass, it is supposed to ease UTIs.

Thank you for your thoughtful questions :)