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. In 2012, Zena was made a TED Fellow.
El Khalil sees her work as a by-product of political and economic turmoil as she chooses to focus on issues of violence, gender and religion and how they find their place in our bubblegum culture. She aims to expose the superficiality of war; creating alternate realities and her weapons of choice are love and humor. She takes inspiration from materials of every life in Beirut, using everything from martyr paintings of suicide bombers to sexy lingerie and plastic surgery. For her, consumerism and war are one and the same-- they are bitterly related, fueling each other. Zena dances on a thin line of uncertainty; indeed every day in Beirut seems as if it could be your last. This intensity of passion and energy is the source of her production: when you’re constantly courting death, you learn how to appreciate 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. 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. Her exhibition, “Ou Ali Mama3ou Khabar” was commended by the Freedom To Create Prize and she was also a finalist for the Sovereign Asian Art Prize.
Zena also conducts a yearly performance entitled, “The Pink Bride of Peace,” where she runs throughout the streets of Beirut also participating 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 such as human and 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.
In 2006, el Khalil became one of the first largely followed Middle Eastern bloggers through her blog: 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, and the entire G2 Supplement with The Guardian, to name a few. Her writing was also included in the anthology, Lebanon, Lebanon, (Saqi Books) and Beirut Noir (Akashic 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.
Soon after, Zena completed her memoir entitled Beirut, I Love You, now translated into several languages including Italian, Spanish, Swedish, and Portuguese.
El Khalil is regularly invited to lecture about her artwork, book and activism. Some events include, The Guardian Hay Festival: Segovia, Spain and Hay-On-Wye, UK; the Edinburgh International Book Festival, 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 Guardian, The Financial Times, LA Times, Spiegel Online, Repubblica, Time Out Magazine, and the Frankfurter Allgemeine, to name a few. She has also held several radio interviews with the BBC and has been featured on Al Jazeera’s arts program, “Artsworld”.
She has given several TEDx talks, including TEDxAmsterdamWomen, London School of Economics and TEDxHyderabad.
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. Through xanadu*, El Khalil also created a publishing house to support and publish poets and writers based in the Middle East.
Zena once held a brown belt in Shotokan karate and was national champion in her category of Kata and Kumite competitions in Nigeria. She believes that listening to Fela 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.”