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On the Power of Bearing Witness

Lebanese artist and writer Zena el Khalil discusses her new exhibition at Beit Beirut and why remembering is key to reconciliation

A few years back, Zena el Khalil was a fixture on the Beirut exhibition scene, displaying colourful, pop-art inspired paintings and sculptures that explored Lebanon’s history of war and violence and its ongoing political struggles from an oblique, satirical angle. After a hiatus of five years, during which she took a complete break from exhibiting in Lebanon, she is presenting a completely new series of work at Beit Beirut, a former snipers’ nest on the Green Line that divided Beirut during the 1975-1990 civil war, now transformed into a museum of memory.

“In the past, I was working more with irony, with feminism, and now I want to work on a more universal level, so really working with the concept of healing, because in Lebanon we still haven’t done that,” she says. “We haven’t had a moment to reconcile with our history, with the war. There’s a lot of pain and nobody talks about it. So that became the motivation behind using Beit Beirut.

“I stopped exhibiting because I needed time to develop things and focus on understanding this new direction that was beginning to call out,” she adds. “About five years ago I started working in locations that had endured violence or trauma, places where massacres and environmental disasters happened. I’ve been working on-site conducting what I call healing ceremonies, and the end product is paintings.”

Entitled Sacred Catastrophe: Healing Lebanon, the exhibition is curated by Janine Maamari and Beatrice Merz and features paintings, photography, videos, sculpture and a sound installation. Opening on September 18 and running for 40 days, it will be accompanied by a programme of workshops, conferences, performances and debates.


“I’m going to be leading a daily ceremony for peace on location that’s open to the public,” El Khalil says. “I use the word ‘peace’ in a very general way, so it could be self-healing… or it could be sending out peace to Lebanon, to the world. It’s an opportunity to re-introduce these words: love, compassion, forgiveness, peace into our daily vernacular, because we don’t use them nearly as much as we could.”

The inspiration for her healing ceremonies came from her family home in south Lebanon, which was used as a detention centre by the Israeli army for over 20 years. She has since performed ceremonies in sites of tragedy across Lebanon.
“I use all the natural elements in the healing ceremony. I burn things that I find on location. It’s a symbolic transformation of the space. From the ashes, I create a special ink on-site and that’s the ink I use to paint with, so each painting is completely unique,” she says.

El Khalil dips pieces of cloth – mostly kuffiyehs – into this ashy ink and then strikes the canvas to create abstract patterns. Alongside her paintings, el Khalil will exhibit an enormous installation, taking up the entire second and third floor. Accompanied by a soundtrack featuring a poem written by the artist and ambient sound recorded in the places she has worked, the installation – made up of 17,000 pieces of vertical wood, one for every person estimated to have disappeared – will stand in remembrance of those who vanished during the war.

“It’s not a memorial because we’re not ready for a memorial. We don’t know what happened to these people,” she says. “It’s for us to remember and it’s an opportunity for the family members who lost someone to reconcile with their loss… Bearing witness is one of the strongest tools we have for peace and reconciliation.”

Sacred Catastrophe: Healing Lebanon runs from September 18 to October 27 at Beit Beirut

By Irene McConnell


Featured image: Grand Hotel Sawfar 1. Ash, ink and pigment on canvas. 240 x 145 cm. 2015.

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