What if her art could help bring reconciliation and peace to her violence-plagued country? Is it possible for Beirut, which has long been linked to war and violence, to become the peace capital of the world? With these questions in mind, Lebanese artist Zena el-Khalil set out on a five-year project that culminated in a 40-day exhibition titled “Sacred Catastrophe: Healing Lebanon.”
The display, including paintings, sculptures and an installation, is held in Beit Beirut, a symbolic building located on the former green line that divided the city and that still carries the traces of Lebanon’s devastating civil war. The artwork is meant to serve as a call for reconciliation and healing.
“I have always been drawn to the idea of transforming objects of violence into something peaceful. In my previous works I was mostly focused on physical objects of violence, like guns and militiamen, and the idea was to subdue and transform them into harmless things,” said el-Khalil, who is also a writer and Nada Yoga instructor.
“Sacred Catastrophe” is closely connected to the land and the people who suffered from violence. All the paintings were made in site-specific locations that endured violence and trauma, starting with el-Khalil’s hometown of Hasbaya in southern Lebanon, which was occupied by Israel for more than 20 years.
“I go to these places, put the canvases on the floor to let them absorb the energy of the space. I hold healing ceremonies, which is a process of meditation, chanting and sacred sound followed with a fire ceremony from objects of the land as a symbolism of purification and releasing. With the ashes, I create ink on site and that’s what I use to paint with,” el-Khalil said.
With a piece of cloth, usually a veil or a koufieh (Palestinian scarf), the artist strikes the canvases hard, creating imprints.
“No two paintings are ever the same, because the energy of each space is so different and it directs me in a different way. So they are very different on a molecular level,” she said.
El-Khalil was inspired by different places that witnessed violence across Lebanon, including Khiam prison in the south and houses that were abandoned during the war in Beirut and in the towns of Sawfar and Souk El Gharb in Mount Lebanon.
The installation “17,000 x Forgiveness,” which takes up two floors of the building, is a piece of “remembrance” for those who went missing in the war. It consists of 17,000 wooden beams, one for each of the 17,000 people who disappeared in the war. They are painted in five different shades of green in reference to the green line.
“The families of the disappeared are getting old, and many are looking for some kind of solace before they pass… It is literally a forest of remembrance. The issue of the missing is a delicate political issue. As an artist I cannot be involved in politics, but what I can do is create a work that can inspire dialogue,” el-Khalil said.
Some of the sculptures on display carry excerpts from el-Khalil’s poems on love and peace. The exhibition also comprises videos and a sound piece meant to promote a sense of well-being and healing. Workshops, events, lectures and panel discussions about healing are also organised along with the exhibition.
Workshops and a daily meditation and peace ceremony will be open to the public. Their goal is to help people find inner peace and to bring them together to spread peace throughout Lebanon.
Mantras in Arabic that mean love (mawada), compassion (rahma) and forgiveness (ghufran) are repeated during the meditation ceremonies. The concept follows the idea that you are what you think and that your thoughts shape your realities, el-Khalil explained.
“We’re seeing more and more scientific evidence that you can affect the environment around you based on your thoughts. By repeating certain things you can change your personality and habits,” she said. “If we are going to move forward I believe the answer is love. If you don’t know what love is, you cannot give it to others… Only by developing a more compassionate relationship with ourselves, can we have compassion towards others.”
The artist stressed that using Arabic words for the mantras is meant to reclaim the Arabic language and turn it into an ambassador for peace.
“Today whenever you speak Arabic abroad you are (stereotyped) and can get kicked out of a plane, because it is connected to violence and terrorism. So this is an opportunity to use Arabic in a peaceful way.”
El-Khalil has exhibited internationally in New York, San Francisco, Miami, London, Paris, Tokyo and Dubai. She has also held solo exhibitions in Lagos, London, Munich, Turin and Beirut.
“Sacred Catastrophe: Healing Lebanon” runs through October 27 at the Beit Beirut.
Samar Kadi is the Arab Weekly society and travel section editor.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.