Sticky from the heat, Zena el Khalil’s apartment shimmers like a mirage before me; the open door is framed by a cascade of pink lights, while the scent of cardamom-laced coffee wafts invitingly down the crumbling staircase and mingles with the traffic fumes outside.

Beirut-based artist and writer Zena el Khalil seems to personify all the confusion and wonder of her chosen city, the city she calls her “beautiful vampire”. Pale and wild-haired, she appears as a strangely serene figure sitting amidst a haphazard jumble of sequins and glitter that reflect the rays of the midday sun and send it sparkling around the room.

At first glance, you may be forgiven for thinking el Khalil’s work to be nothing but an exercise in kitsch, as her studio is a mesmerising sea of glitter, sequins, baubles and plastic – all in varying shades of pink. But the seeming frivolity of her chosen medium is in stark contrast to the images of violence and war also abundant in her work. Zena el Khalil is an artist working in a war zone; a place where instability is the status quo and every moment could bring a new wave of disaster.


It is this contradiction between beauty and instability that is brought into violent relief by the self-conscious gaudiness of el Khalil’s art. “Lebanon was, and always will be, the mistress of hysteria. Lebanon was, and always will be, schizophrenic,” she writes in her recent memoir, Beirut, I love you. El Khalil tells me she likes to use pink in her work, despite hating it as a colour, because “it defines our generation of materialistic culture.” This “broken red”, as she likes to call it, is “quick, shallow and superficial: like cotton candy.” And so the artist has reappropriated this symbol of contemporary society and made it her own – all the better to critique it.

“[My art] is a creative offering I make to help maintain balance and order in the world around me,” she says.

This sort of cultural subversion is typical of el Khalil’s work, which is strongly tied to popular culture through its use of mainstream iconography. Part of the reason for this, she tells me, is that she feels that “art is very elitist”, and so by connecting her art to the everyday world around her, she is making it more accessible to the ordinary citizen.

Greeting me at the door of her studio, el Khalil’s eyes are tinged with red, and she seems distracted. Pouring me a cup of thick black coffee, she apologises for not being more alert and explains that she didn’t sleep the night before because there was shooting in the next neighbourhood – outside her sister’s building.

“My sister spent the whole night hiding in the basement with her baby,” she says, “I was so worried I couldn’t sleep. I could smell the gunpowder even from here.” This is the reality of living in Beirut; a city ravaged by long-held hatreds, its buildings as scarred and empty as its residents. This, too, is the reality that inspires much of el Khalil’s work, as well as Beirut, I love you. “Writing Beirut, I love you was a healing process for me,” she tells me, “it was my personal way of dealing with everything that had happened to me in this city, as well as the death of my best friend Maya.”

— To read the rest of this article and other great articles, purchase this issue now for only $3!