Zena el Khalil, a Beirut-based artist and designer of international acclaim, recently presented “Ou Ali Mama3ou Khabar… (And Ali Has No Idea…)”, her new body of work based on the July 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the present condition of Palestine. This month and a half long exhibition features five large-scale mixed media paintings, together with a thematic series of smaller hand-sown fabric collages. Also, opening the journey to the viewer is a multi-media rotating sculpture.
Zena el Khalil’s choice of materials and subject matter derives directly from her surroundings. Her source of inspiration is the cultural clash in which she lives in; the coexistence and schizophrenia of the melting pot of the Middle East: Beirut. While creating “Ou Ali Mama3ou Khabar…” el Khalil focused on a specific object; a flyer that was dropped by Israeli warplanes during their siege of Lebanon in 2006. Her work is a reaction to that invasion as well as the politics of her geographic region. Somehow, through the use of irony and humor, el Khalil finds that working with this image relieves her from the emotional and physical pain experienced during the invasion. The work becomes a form of catharsis, as if with each piece made, el Khalil ingests the negative and churns it into something very far removed from the actual experience. She makes peace with the place that she lives in by taking ownership of the images and emotions violently imposed on her and her community.
The large-scale works contain fragments of the instability of contemporary Middle East. Through the juxtaposition of materials and images, el Khalil finds herself bringing up political questions to light. There are snippets of an Abu Ghraib victim who was tortured by electrocution, toy Kalashnikovs, young soldiers and macho macho men going off to war. El Khalil revisits these images with her signature use of glitter, beads, boa feathers and pink and gold fabrics.
Born in London, England, el Khalil spent her childhood in Nigeria and then attended high school in England. She then went to Beirut where she attained her undergraduate degree from the American University in Beirut. In 2002 el Khalil received her Masters of Fine Arts from the School of Visual Arts in New York.
el Khalil works in a variety of formats ranging from painting, installation, performance, mixed media, writing, and collage. Themes that are central to her work include issues of violence as well as gender using materials found throughout Beirut. Photocopied images of militiamen and women, civilians and family members are embellished with everything from plastic flowers, glitter, strings of lights, keffiyehs, plastic toy soldiers, toy AK-47s, arabesques, beads, fabrics, and other objects that best convey the diversity of the city she takes her inspiration from. She has exhibited in the United States, Europe, Africa, Australia and the Middle East. She has had solo exhibitions in London, Munich, Turin and Beirut. el Khalil currently lives and works in Beirut, on occasion her Jack Russell Terrier, Tampopo, has been known to accompany her to the studio.
el Khalil has remained active promoting emerging and under-represented Arab artists through several projects. While in New York, she was a co-founder and curator of Al-Jisser. She also became the co-founder, director and curator of xanadu* (xanaduart.com). Created as an “ungallery art space/collective”, xanadu* began in New York City as a not for profit organization dedicated to promoting emerging and under – represented artists. Currently, xanadu* is based in Beirut with a small extension on New York City.
During the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 2006, el Khalil immediately began maintaining her blog, beirutupdate.blogspot.com, from her apartment in Beirut. Her blog was a personal account of the siege on Lebanon that lasted for 33 days and its impact on her and the people around her. It quickly received international attention and was highly publicized on news portals such as CNN, the BBC, The Guardian, Der Spiegel Online, The Nation, Counterpunch and Electronic Intifada. Her writing was also included in the anthology “Lebanon, Lebanon” published by Saqi Books. In May 2008, el Khalil was invited by the Nobel Peace Center to participate in a panel discussion on freedom of expression on the internet. The seminar was organized by the Norwegian Board of Technology and The Nobel Peace Center.
In 2008 el Khalil completed her first novel, a memoir entitled “Beirut, I Love You”, now being translated into several languages.