Zena el Khalil, born year of the Dragon, has lived in Lagos, London, New York City and Beirut. A visual artist, writer and cultural activist; she holds a Masters of Fine Arts from the School of Visual Arts in NYC and a Bachelor of Graphic Design from the American University of Beirut.
El Khalil works in a variety of formats ranging from painting, installation, performance, mixed media, collage and writing. 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, colored keffiyehs, plastic toy soldiers, toy AK-47s, arabesques, beads, fabrics, and other objects that best convey the diversity and chaos of the city she takes her inspiration from. At best Zena’s work is a creative offering she makes to help maintain balance and order in the world around her. She believes that every form of creative invention is evidence that a person is spiritually alive. That it is a valid human experience; a true moment, a word, a sound, an act, a sculpture- all the process of being alive; all the affirmation of existence. In her words, “All spiritual. All holy. Every act we do or word we utter, we are absolutely responsible for. We are absolutely responsible for being alive. I am and I am grateful for, only being, a fragment in the cosmos of things… the great unbendable universe. The deeper I look into myself, the more I find that I am connected to something much greater. And this comforts me… knowing that everything I feel or make is a catalyst in someone else’s mind. And the more I let go to experience these beliefs, the closer I become to you. We are one, without being numerical. By painting and sculpting these images, I am fighting for life. I am fighting for your life. I am fighting for my life.”
El Khalil has exhibited internationally, including New York, San Francisco, Miami, London, Paris, Tokyo, and Dubai. She has also held solo exhibitions in Lagos, London, Munich, Turin and Beirut
“It is not portraits that Zena el Khalil creates with her clever, suggestive and realistic brush, but rather archetypes or allegories, modern icons that speak of women’s strength, pride, resistance, solidarity, even perhaps rebelliousness. Zena is fascinated by the place they’ve always held in society. 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. Collecting, cutting-out, drawing, attaching, pinning-up, installing, laying-out and exposing are the various means she uses to give life to her mixed media work. In this space, gaps slip in, gaps that are often worrying, sometimes funny and almost acidic.” – Maya Ghandour Hert 2010
Zena also conducts a yearly performance entitled, “The Pink Bride of Peace,” where she participates in the Beirut International Marathon wearing a big pink wedding dress. She uses this opportunity to pair up with local NGOs to raise awareness on issues in Lebanon pertaining to animal rights, civil marriage, and to spread love, peace and positivity in a region that is volatile and unstable. The performance started in 2003 and continues to this day.
Zena el Khalil also actively promotes emerging and under-represented Arab artists through several projects like xanadu* (xanaduart.com), based in Beirut, with a small extension in NYC, of which she is a founder and co-director of. xanadu*, a non-profit art collective, began in New York City as a direct response to the 9-11 attacks; el Khalil set up this platform to help give a voice to artists during a time of extreme xenophobia in NYC. In 2006 in Beirut, she organized the first art exhibition to only exhibit young women artists, in partnership with the International Museum of Women’s program Imagining Ourselves, of which she was part of their Global Advisory Committee. She was later instrumental in producing the first magazine dedicated solely to comics and illustration in the Middle East, Samandal. She also created a publishing line to support and publish young poets in Lebanon. El Khalil has also curated exhibitions outside Lebanon including “Beirut Live” in London, and “Ricordando Cesare Roccati” at the Fabbrica delle E di Libera in Turin, Italy. Most notably, she co-curated “Nafas Beirut”, an exhibit that opened one month after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon ended in 2006, featuring works made during the attacks.
Also in 2006, el Khalil began a blog at the start of the Israeli invasion from her apartment in Beirut, beirutupdate.blogspot.com. It was a humanist 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, 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 over the internet. The seminar was organized by the Norwegian Board of Technology and The Nobel Peace Center and the panel discussion included Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia.
Soon after, Zena completed her memoir entitled “Beirut, I Love You”, now translated into several languages including Italian, Spanish, Swedish, and Portuguese. She is currently working on turning her book into a feature film. In 2010, she was awarded participation in the Torino Film Lab program “Interchange” Training Program, and in 2011 the “Framework” competitive program in which the Beirut, I Love You team won all three prizes given towards the production of the film.
El Khalil is regularly invited to lecture about her artwork, book and activism. Some events include, The Guardian Hay Festival: Segovia, Spain; the Edinburgh International Book Festival, UK; the Hay-On-Wye Festival of Literature, Wales, UK; the Salone Del Libro, in conversation with Francesca Paci and Marco Philopat, Italy; Moderator for panel discussion with Beirut 39 “Rock The Casbah: Responsibility, Commitment and Art”; the University of Westminster, London UK; the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), UK; The Leighton House, UK; and several times at the American University of Beirut and the Lebanese American University.
El Khalil is also often in the media and her work and projects have been covered by The New York Times, El Pais, The Times, The Guardian, The Financial Times, LA Times, Washington Times, Spiegel Online, La Stampa, Repubblica, IO Donna, Kunst Magazine, Time Out Magazine, ArtNet, Frankfurter Allgemeine, the Daily Star, Canvas Magazine and Electronic Intifada. She has also held radio interviews with the BBCs, “Women’s World”, “The Strand”, “Outlook”, “The World Today” and “Radio Five Live”. She has also been featured on Al Jazeera’s TV arts program, “Artsworld”.
Zena lives in Beirut with her Jack Russell Terrier, Tapi. She once held a brown belt in Shotokan karate and participated in national competitions while she lived in Nigeria as a child. She believes that listening to Fela Anikulapo Kuti’s music as a teenager helped her develop into the international rabble-rouser that she is today. Her daily mantra is Gandhi’s “be the change you wish to see in the world.”
In 2012 she was made a TED Fellow.