Zena El Khalil is is a Lebanese artist, writer, and activist.
For me – she’s one of the rare people (together with Mariel Clayton) that actually made Barbies/dolls fun. She really played with them, in her work – dolls mean something, there is a message, and – very important – plenty of humor.
But it’s not just about the dolls. 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.
She has exhibited in the United States, Europe, Africa and the Middle East, and is very active in 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*. 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.
Zena is known for her activism and writing too. She was in Beirut during the Israeli invasion of 2006, which gave birth to her blog Beirut Update, and her voice echoed strongly, all over the globe. Talking about that experience she stated: The first night the bombs started falling, I really thought I was going to die. And I wanted to make sure the whole world knew exactly how and why. The media were very slow to report on what was going on and I thought I could do my part, or at least tell my own story. I wrote all through the night, and in the morning I sent the email to every person in my address book, even people I hadn’t spoken to in years. I managed to sleep for a few hours, and when I woke up, my inbox was flooded…
And about how it all ended: I stopped blogging the day the invasion ended. It was a war diary and I wanted it to stay that way — a testament to what had happened. I saw it as a painting, and it was pretty much complete. I only went back to post an article after Maya passed away. A lot of people became very connected to her through my writing, and I knew I had to share the sad news with them. A month later, a friend of mine was almost killed in the West Bank during an Israeli raid. I posted her letter, but then knew it was time to stop. There were always going to be moments like that, and I really wanted the blog to be what it was and nothing more. The painting was now complete.
All in all – Zena’s smart, honest, funny. She observes, but doesn’t claim to be all – knowing, she’s ambitious but not pretentious. And that’s how her art works too.
She walked around Beirut as a pink bride, and in her wor(l)ds – pink is like cotton candy. It’s fluffy and sweet. Too much of it, though, will leave a bad pain in your stomach. It’s quick and superficial. Barbie, GI Joe politics, and Cherry Cola to me represent a generation completely embedded in consumer culture. We are the pink generation.
Sounds fair enough to me!
P.S. She has written a book – Beirut, I love you, so check that out too.