It’s early May in Beirut and Zena el Khalil is sitting across the table from me. A thin streak of red in her long, dark hair, she is ordering mezze and sipping drinks with a friend as they immerse themselves in deep, contagious laughter. It is 1.30am. We are in Hamra.
The Lebanese artist, writer and cultural activist has spent the day cocooned in her studio, her hands hinting at the blackened labours of the day. Only now has she entered into the world outside. Talkative and bubbly, she nevertheless divulges little of what she has been doing.
Fast forward six months and the fruits of her labour are now there for all to see. Gone are the pink Kalashnikovs, the glitter, the photocopied images of militiamen, the plastic flowers and the calling cards of pop art that she once called her own. In is something else altogether. She has set fire to the white veils worn by Druze women, created ink from their ashes, and sought to delve deep into her family’s past.
“This exhibition is not very different to the work I was doing before,” she insists of From Mirfaq to Vega, which runs at the Giorgio Persano gallery in Turin, Italy, until 10 January. “The same principles are there. The motivation is the same. It’s just a different perspective. I am on a constant search to investigate light. The light we all come from. The light we are all a part of. In this particular case, I started from destruction.”
The destruction she refers to centres on the town of Hasbaya. It was there that her father’s home was transformed into the main headquarters of the Israeli army after its invasion and subsequent occupation of south Lebanon in 1982. The rooms he grew up in were converted into prisons, bedrooms became interrogation chambers, and sniper bunkers circumnavigated the property. It took el Khalil and her family years to reconcile with the subjugation of their personal space, but out of this reconciliation has emerged an artistic project that has at its core her own personal history, land and ancestry.
“When the decision to pull out of Lebanon was announced, 22 years of Israeli occupation was dismantled in a matter of 48 hours,” says el Khalil, a TED Fellow and author of Beirut, I Love You. “As soon as they left, we drove down to see our home. It was the first time in my life I was able to visit the land of my ancestors.
“Indications of their presence were apparent in our home. There were two things that stood out the most. One was a long line of reinforced concrete blast, or ‘T’ walls, each one weighing close to two tonnes. These were lined up and used as a shield. The second was blue rocks. The path leading from the main entrance of the compound to our home was lined with rocks painted with the signature Israeli army blue colour. I picked one up in May 2000 and saved it. Both of these objects are present in the exhibition today.
“In order to reconcile and move forward, we have to understand and validate our past. This occupation happened and my grandfather died without ever being able to return to his home. These facts are true. These stones and rocks are a physical connection to a story fading fast into the past. These relics are affirmations of a specific history that must be told.”
With installations, videos and large canvases, el Khalil has created a personal understanding of the tragedy that is the Middle East. In relation to her previous work within the realm of pop art, it is more a rebirth than an awakening, with a single poem tying the show together. Present across the exhibition’s paintings, sculptures and soundscape, the poem – Ya Dirati(My Home) – includes the lines ‘My homeland, don’t blame us. The blame is on those who betrayed you. We quenched the thirst of our swords with blood of our foes. Unlike the traitors, we’ll never cheapen you for a price. Dear God, make me endure my misfortunes’.
“There are museums all over the world dedicated to telling the stories of wars and tragedies,” says el Khalil, whose work has been exhibited internationally. “We don’t have such spaces in the Middle East, nor anywhere in the world dedicated to telling the story of the contemporary Arab people and the wars we are enduring.
“I had to start somewhere. I started with myself, being the family archivist, to start building a database of our lives, histories and experiences. With my work, I have included poetry that had been passed down to me through oral storytelling by my grandmother. I have included a story of an oak tree my father used to play in as a child. I have included my hair and nails. I have used my body to paint with in site-specific locations where violence incurred on my family. By starting with the most personal, maybe we have a real chance to share our stories and subsequently, a shift could happen in the public eye. We could move from numbers to people. From a war on resources, to the slow destruction of an entire culture.”
El Khalil tells me a story of driving down to Hasbaya for the first time. It’s a story of her ancestors and Asmahan, a beautiful, iconic singer who died in mysterious circumstances at the end of the Second World War aged just 31. She tells me of Asmahan’s uncle, Zayd al Atrash, who along with El Khalil’s great grandfather, Fadlallah al Atrash, composed the poem mentioned above, and which Asmahan subsequently turned into a song. The very same song that her grandmother used to sing to her as a child. “It is not so much about the lyrics, but rather the ancestral heritage,” says el Khalil. “The Druze are a strong and prideful people of the mountains. For them, land and honour is an extremely important part of their cultural values.”
Everything in the exhibition began with the concept of home. ‘Homes that once were, homes that were lost, and the people who destroyed them’. It’s because of the project’s personal nature that el Khalil needed the time and space to immersive herself completely in the work. She also needed to spend time on location, with the paintings all made on site-specific locations, sometimes within the houses, sometimes outdoors, but always in a place where a great violence occurred.
“The first step in creating my materials to work with was to actually spend time in these abandoned houses. I picked a house; one that was destroyed during the same period as my mother’s, but was never rebuilt. I spent time in this house, thinking about its history. The people who used to live there. The emptiness the house felt after they left.
“What happens to a space when it is no longer occupied? What happens to a home that was once witness to families and love and arguments and births and children running around and cooking and cleaning and cheating and making love? What happens to a house that was once a witness, which absorbed and sheltered energies? What happens when the energies leave? What happens to an abandoned house that is no longer loved? How does it feel to witness the bombardment of Beirut alone?
“The journey began with setting fire to the white veil worn by the women of my region. From the ashes, I created ink that investigates the absence of light. Through paintings, drawings, video, sound and sculptural works, I question the unseen and the unknown. The dark particles that constantly pass through us. The majority of what surrounds us, we cannot see. Today, like my mother and father, I do not have a home that exists from my childhood. Every home my grandfathers built was destroyed, bombed or occupied. What exists today are reconstructions, with some objects that somehow remained as witnesses to the violence around us.”
El Khalil tells me another story. It’s of an oak tree that her father used to play on as a child. During the occupation, the Israeli army built a bunker next to it and after they left the challenge was to disassemble the concrete structure without destroying the tree. For the exhibition she constructed three trees where the branches are ‘Ya Dirati’. The branches move in slow circles and light is projected onto them. The shadows of the calligraphy fill the same space, while the trees become prayer wheels, bathing viewers in light.
“Time passes quicker than we can ever imagine. I am desperately trying to archive stories that inform me of my heritage,” she says. “We have a tradition of oral storytelling in this part of the world, as well as with my family. But these ‘hakawatis’ are leaving us, faster than I can paint, draw or write. I am now trying to put a face to the names I grew up with. Trying to replace the stone foundations of the homes my grandfathers built. In order to move forward – in order to reconcile – we have to know our past.”
* Published in Selections, December 2014