An artist of Beirut: Zena el Khalil


An artist of Beirut: Zena el Khalil

Even from the outside, I know immediately which apartment belongs to Zena: the open door framed by a cascade of pink lights, the scent of cardamom-laced coffee wafting invitingly down the staircase.

Beirut-based artist and writer Zena el Khalil tells me she likes to use pink in her work, despite hating it as a colour, because “it defines our generation of materialistic culture.” This “broken red”, as she likes to call it, is “quick, shallow and superficial: like cotton candy.” And so she has reappropriated this symbol of contemporary society and made it her own; all the better to critique it.

This sort of cultural subversion is typical of el Khalil’s work, which is strongly tied to popular culture through its use of mainstream iconography. Part of the reason for this, she tells me, is that she feels that “art is very elitist”, and so that by connecting her art to the everyday world around her, she is making it more accessible to the ordinary citizen.

“If the visual elements brought together here are contradictory, it is simply because they reflect the contradictions and tensions of the modern era. These contradictions have to remain open like a crack, like a gash.” Maya Ghandour Hert on el Khalil.

At first glance, you may be forgiven for thinking el Khalil’s work to be nothing but an exercise in kitsch; her studio a mesmerising sea of glitter, sequins, baubles and plastic – all in varying shades of pink. But the seeming frivolity of her chosen medium is in stark contrast to the images of violence and war also abundant in her work. Zena el Khalil is an artist working in a war zone; a place where instability is the status quo and every moment could bring a new wave of disaster. Greeting me at the door of her studio, el Khalil’s eyes are tinged with red, and she seems distracted. Pouring me a cup of thick black coffee, she apologises for not being more alert and explains she didn’t sleep the night before because there was shooting in the next neighbourhood – right outside her sister’s building.

“My sister spent the whole night hiding in the basement with her baby,” she says, “I was so worried I couldn’t sleep. I could smell the gunpowder even from here.”

This is the reality of living in Beirut; a city ravaged by long-held hatreds, its buildings as scarred and empty as its residents. This is the reality that inspires much of el Khalil’s work, as well as her recent memoir Beirut, I Love You.

“Writing Beirut, I Love You was a healing process for me,” she tells me, “it was my personal way of dealing with everything that had happened to me in this city, as well as the death of my best friend Maya.”

Writing is another form of emotional outlet for el Khalil, who rose to prominence in 2006 for her blog documenting the Israeli attacks on Lebanon. She says she took to writing partly to express her feelings at living in a city under constant bombardment, and partly to express her feelings about her friend Maya’s diagnosis and eventual death from cancer. She was only 30 years old.

Men, Men, Men…. – mixed media on wood, 2007.

“Beirut is very inspiring. I write better when I’m here, I create better, I live better. But there’s a price to pay.”

With the help of her husband, filmmaker Gigi Roccati who also shot an award-winning short trailer to the book, Beirut, I Love You is set to be turned into a film. El Khalil tells me she has just finished writing the script.

“I’ve had to change quite a lot of the book to make it fit the film, it’s been difficult, but enjoyable too. The film is a lot more about the journey of the two women, Zena and Maya, and their attempts to stay afloat in post-war Beirut.”

But, she tells me, part of the difficulty she has had in creating the film script stems from her very own artistic process she used in the book itself.

“The book is all about the thin line between reality and dream; how you can think something is true or that it actually happened when in fact it’s a memory you have created. I did that a lot in the book: took separate incidents that happened in real life and stitched them together to make a new memory. The problem now is that the new version is as real to me as the ‘real’ version. Sometimes I don’t even remember which is which.”

This blurring of reality and dream is reminiscent of el Khalil’s own beliefs about “the unity of things”. A Druze by birth, el Khalil has a strong sense of spirituality and of the ephemeral nature of reality.

“As Lebanese we’re constantly playing with our memories, either trying to forget or to remember.”

But memory can be a difficult subject. El Khalil writes in a book about her work that when she started creating her work it was “so that people can remember”. But now, she says, “I am caught up in existential unrest and I find myself creating images and forms because I cannot physically do anything else.”

Sitting in el Khalil’s glitter-filled studio, perched high above the cracked streets of Beirut, it seems the artist perfectly embodies her city. Complex, confusing, enthralling; broken and beautiful. Surveying me over her cup of coffee, her red-rimmed eyes a testament to the anguish of the night before, Zena el Khalil is a woman of her own creation; or rather, a woman of Beirut’s creation. And that suits her just fine.

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Zena el Khalil was born in London in 1976 and has lived in Nigeria, London, New York and Beirut. She is an installation artist, painter, curator and environmental activist currently living and working in Beirut. For more information, visit her website.

Emanuelle Degli Esposti is the editor and founder of The Arab Review. She has written about the Middle East and Arab world for numerous publications, including the Economist, the New Statesman, the Telegraph and the Sunday Express.

Main image courtesy of Gigi Roccati, other images courtesy of Zena el Khalil.