Zena el Khalil

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.

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. Her work has also been shown at institutions such as the Mori Art Museum, Japan; Institute du Monde Arabe, Paris, the Boghossian Foundation, Brussels, Royal College of Art, London; National Gallery of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Sarajevo; Barajeel Art Foundation, UAE, the Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen, Berlin; White Box, Munich; and the Fondazione Merz, Turin to name a few.

Zena also conducts a yearly public 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 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. 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. Believing that art, literature and music is the key to peace in the Middle East, she has created a platform with xanadu* to produce, publish and exhibit young and under represented artists, writers and musicians in Lebanon.

In 2006, el Khalil kept a blog during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon; beirutupdate.blogspot.com. It was a humanist personal account of the siege 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, and The Guardian to name a few. 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. With film director Gigi Roccati, she is currently working on turning her book into a feature film. In 2010, they were awarded participation in the Torino Film Lab program “Interchange” Training Program, and in 2011 the “Framework” competitive program in which they won all three prizes given towards the production of their 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; and the Salone Del Libro, Torino, Italy.

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 Financial Times, LA Times, Washington Times, Spiegel Online, La Stampa, Repubblica, IO Donna, and Al Jazeera to name a few.

Zena lives in Beirut with her Jack Russell Terrier, Tapi, and she is a big fan of the colors pink, purple and gold. 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.