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This Lebanese Artist Paints With The Ashes Of Civil War

“We never had real reconciliation after the war,” says Zena El Khalil. Her art, made in buildings hollowed out by fighting, attempts to heal.

First, artist Zena El Khalil goes to abandon places filled with bullet holes. She gets to know them and the story of their breaking. She repeats the Arabic words for love, compassion, forgiveness, and peace again and again. She gathers little bits of the place–leaves from the trees that have grown through bedrooms, bits of cloth from old shirts, a handful of soil or sand–and burns them. She mixes the ash into ink, and paints with wild strokes. Her black and white artworks are graphic gestures of healing on canvas.

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El Khalil is Lebanese, and her art is a reaction to the country’s 15-year civil war. The paintings are on display in a ruined building, built in 1924 by Lebanese architect Youssef Afandi Aftimo and once known as the “Yellow House” for its sandstone walls. Located on a central crossroads in Lebanon’s capital, the building was taken over by a militia during the civil war because it was located on the demarcation line between the Muslim and Christian sides of the city. “It was turned into a sniper’s nest,” El Khalil says. “The building itself became a killing machine.”

Now, 20 years after the war ended, the Yellow House is a museum called the Beit Beirut, dedicated to the memory of the war. While the upper floors have been renovated, its first floor will be left as it was, with bullet holes and graffiti decorating the crumbling walls. “When the civil war ended in 1991, we never had a reconciliation process. We don’t have a memorial,” El Khalil says. “The building was preserved to tell the stories of the war and the things that happened.”

This is the backdrop for El Khalil’s dramatic canvases, which are hung on the walls and draped on the floors and staircases of the preserved first floor as part of the building’s first exhibition, called Sacred Catastrophe: Healing Lebanon. The paintings are the work of five years, during which El Khalil traveled around the country consecrating war-torn buildings with her healing ritual, burning objects to make ink, and painting her abstract expressions of pain, love, and peace-making. When she’s done with each painting, she dances in the space and then leaves a small canvas with her mantra–love, compassion, forgiveness, peace–at the site.

Site specific paintings. (abandoned) Grand Hotel Sawfar, Lebanon, 2015. [Photo: Zena el Khalil. Courtesy Giorgio Persano Gallery, Italy]
El Khalil started the project in her ancestral family home, which was occupied by the Israeli army and turned into a military detention center. “People were interrogated and even tortured in our home,” she says. She went back to see it after the war ended, but spent over a decade processing the trauma before embarking on the project.

El Khalil has also performed her healing ritual in the infamous Khiam Prison and in other abandoned homes. It’s been a healing process for her–and she’s hoping her work will do the same for others. “We never had real reconciliation after the war. At the time perhaps it was important to get back to life as quickly as possible. We never addressed it. Twenty years later, we’re seeing the repercussions of that. People are carrying a lot of pain,” she says. “What I’m hoping with this exhibition is to provide a platform for community members to see the work, to remember the war, to acknowledge the pain, and hopefully to release the pain.”

17,000xForgiveness. 17,000 wooden beams. Dimensions variable. 2017. [Photo: Josette Youssef]
Along with the paintings, El Khalil has created a two-story installation of wooden green stakes, one for each of the 17,000 people declared missing during the civil war. And to go with the art, she’s created 40 days of workshops, performances, and discussions to help people process their pain. There’s meditation and yoga classes, poetry nights, and a community corner where people can color in blank outlines of El Khalil’s mantras and write their own definition of peace. “This is an opportunity for sharing, for exchange,” she says. “A lot of the people coming through want to unload sometimes–that unloading can create a lot of relief.”

About the author

Katharine Schwab is a contributing writer at Co.Design based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture.

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