Fellows Friday

The house is a witness: A TED Fellow makes art from the rubble of her homes lost to war

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Zena el Khalil poses in the midst of her new exhibit, which makes the rubble of her mother and father's homes in Lebanon into beautiful art. Photo: Eva Zayat

Zena el Khalil poses in the midst of her new exhibit, which makes the rubble of her mother and father’s destroyed homes in Lebanon into art. Photo: Eva Zayat

Artist Zena el Khalil doesn’t have the family home she remembers from childhood. Her mother’s house in Lebanon was destroyed in a U.S. bomb attack in 1983, while her father’s house was occupied by the Israeli army for 22 years, until its withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000. “Every home my grandfathers built was destroyed, bombed or occupied,” says Khalil.

This realization has led her to a notable turn away from her previously flamboyant work, like running around Beirut in a big pink wedding dress to spread a message of love and peace, and creating hot pink glittery sculptures mocking gender and political stereotypes. Her latest work soberly examines one of the harshest realities of living with war — displacement, and the loss of home.

In her current exhibition, “From Mirfaq to Vega,” el Khalil explores and mourns the physical and emotional repercussions of the destruction of her parents’ ancestral homes over decades of war and occupation in Lebanon. She does this through paintings, poetry, sculpture and sound. The exhibit is on view at the Giorgio Persano Gallery in Turin, Italy, through January 10, 2015.

Here, she tells the TED Blog the story of her journey into her family’s past to retrieve the broken pieces, in the hope that art can transmute conflict and suffering into peace.

Tell me how you made this new work, and what it’s about.

This work is about home — those we’ve had and those we’ve lost — and the people who destroyed them. It’s about land, boundaries, walls, breaking walls down — but ultimately, it’s about forgiveness and compassion and love.

My starting point was the idea that I don’t have a home that still exists from my childhood, because my parents’ houses were both blown up in two different wars in Lebanon. So I started by investigating this idea of a very personal and intimate space being taken away by force.

I’ve always grappled with the ongoing wars in my country. Now, with Syria so close by, I’m also thinking a lot about what’s happening there, and the refugees spilling into Lebanon that may not be able to go back and rebuild, possibly for decades. But the process of making these particular works took place on the sites of my own parents’ physical homes.

I began with my mother’s home, which was blown up in 1983 by the USS New Jersey when they came to Lebanon. It was just a random shelling: they were striking the mountains where my mother lives and her house was blown up. It was immediately rebuilt, because my grandfather happened to be a construction worker. But I found a house next to it that was never rebuilt — and that’s where my journey started.

I spent a few months in this abandoned house. I spent a lot time in it — weeks — drawing, talking to the walls, experiencing the space. These buildings stand as silent witnesses to the destruction around them. The house becomes a witness, in a way, both when it’s occupied and when it’s abandoned.

"The size of your faith is the size of your intellect." Al Aql, 2014. Indian ink, ashes, fabric and hair on canvas. Photo: Zena el Khalil

“The size of your faith is the size of your intellect.” Al Aql, 2014. Indian ink, ashes, fabric and hair on canvas. Photo: Zena el Khalil

I started trying to connect to the energy in this house. I did some paintings and little drawings, but the turning point was a performance where I dressed in the black and white religious clothing of the people of my region, the Druze. Then, I set fire to the white veil. I burnt many veils. From their ashes, I created an ink that I used to paint with — an ink that investigates the absence of light — and started making site-specific paintings where a great violence took place. I worked outdoors, directly on the land, and I dipped the veils that I hadn’t burned in ink, pounding the canvas really hard. They are energy-based paintings. I would have a period of meditation in the beginning, and then I’d hit the canvas with the veils. So all the paintings are both the imprints of the veil and the land underneath the canvas. At the last stage, I embroidered the poetry on top.

Where is your father’s house?

My father is from the south, close to the border with Israel. Our house there was occupied for 22 years by the Israeli army. It was on top of a hill, so it was a military strategic point. They appropriated the house and turned it into their headquarters. It was used as an interrogation center, and they were holding prisoners there.

I never actually saw this home until 2000, when the Israeli army left the south of Lebanon. The day I arrived was literally a few days after the Israeli army left. I documented it, took a lot of photographs. But until now, I’d never talked about what happened in it, or worked with the material I gathered there. So this summer, I started painting down there, too.

What kind of shape was it in when you got there in 2000?

It was disgusting. It had been used as a detention center, so I remember when I first walked in, the entire floor was covered in feces. They were keeping prisoners there. We eventually blew up the house and built a brand-new one. But when the army left our house, they left behind many “blast walls,”, each one being two meters of reinforced concrete that serve as a shield. Those are the only things we kept.

There was an oak tree my father used to play in as a child. When we arrived, we found the area covered with these blast walls and also little bunkers where they used to have snipers. Some of these bunkers were near the tree. The challenge was how to dismantle the bunkers without harming the tree. It took a few years, but eventually we got rid of them, and the tree survived.

From Mirfaq to Vega installation view, with Israeli Army Blast “T” Walls found on site of the family home in Hasbaya, May 2000. Photo: Zena el Khalil

“From Mirfaq to Vega” installation view, with Israeli Army Blast “T” Walls found on site of the family home in Hasbaya, May 2000. Photo: Zena el Khalil

You brought pieces of the blast walls to Italy as part of the exhibit.

Yes. The centerpiece of the exhibition is two of these walls from the house. I shipped them from Lebanon to Italy, and each weighs close to two tons.

I also decided to make a kind of homage to the tree. I made some rotating sculptures that resemble trees. But where the branches are, there is calligraphy I sculpted out of wood and plexiglass. It’s a poem, and the whole thing turns, so that the shadows of the letters are projected on the wall. In many ways, they resemble prayer wheels or whirling dervishes. The trees rotate slowly, filling the space with light.

The text that I used in the trees is the poem “Ya Dirati,”  written by a distant relative, Zayd Al Atrash, who was escaping the French in the 1920s. My great-grandfather fought alongside him and contributed a line of the poem. It was a different war, with different occupiers, but it’s the same idea about land and loss of land. We have a tradition of oral storytelling passed down through poetry. My grandmother used to sing this poem to me as a child, when she’d tell me stories of her father and my ancestors.

"Love, forgiveness." Mantra, detail. Photo: Zena el Khalil

“Love, forgiveness.” Mantra, detail. Photo: Zena el Khalil

This poem was also turned into a song by a famous musician at the time, Asmahan, who was the niece of Zayd. I wanted to re-create her song in the exhibition, using sound to tie everything in. Working with audio producer Ray Hage, we created six ambient sound pieces that play in the background of the exhibition. They are all based on recordings we did with me reading mantras that I used for paintings in the exhibition.

Mantra 1 is: Land, honor, love, compassion, forgiveness.

Mantra 2 is: And my heart is full of love. And my heart is full of love. And my heart is full of love. And my heart is full of love. And my heart is full of forgiveness. And I shine bright, with present light.

One of the sound pieces is a remake of Asmahan’s song. I asked a musician friend, Elizabeth Ayoub, if she could sing the lines of the poem for us. I am in love with her voice, and because she is also from south Lebanon, I felt it was a perfect match. She also knows the pain of losing her home.

Why did you feel it was important to bring the walls over?

There are museums all over the world dedicated to telling the stories of wars and civilizations. There are artifacts in these museums that help us better understand these histories. The Gate of Ishtar in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin gives us an inclination of what Babylon must have been like. The blue-tiled walls adorned with lions, bulls and dragons protected the city from invaders, but also give us insight to Babylon’s culture, the religion, power and people. The Holocaust museums around the world tell us of the tragedy of the Jewish people. We see personal artifacts, human belongings — books, letters, teeth — that are extensions of lives lost. These people then cease to become nameless war victims. They are not just numbers. They are Ana, David, Catarina, Hana, Benjamin.

We don’t have spaces in the Middle East — or really anywhere — dedicated to telling the story of the contemporary Arab people and the wars we are enduring.

I had to start somewhere. So I started with myself, being the family archivist, to start building a database of our lives, histories and experiences. By starting with the most personal, maybe we have a chance to share our stories and subsequently, a shift might happen in the public’s scope of perception and understanding of my region. We could move from being just numbers to becoming actual people — and the world would begin to understand that we are witnessing the slow destruction of an entire culture.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CLQztGMvlUc&w=560&h=315%5D

Above: Watch this short film to see footage from el Khalil’s family homes in Lebanon, as well as experience the gallery installation, including the poem tree and ambient sound pieces.

This occupation happened, and my grandfather died without ever being able to return to his home. These facts are true. The walls are a physical connection to a story fading fast into the past. They are artifacts, relics, affirmations of a specific history that must be told.

Ultimately I am bringing to light the disaster that happened to us, with the hope that we can find the capacity to love again, and to forgive, and move forward. But to move forward, we also have to fully acknowledge our past. Everyone has to take responsibility before any kind of reconciliation can begin.

When you went to the house for the first time, was your father with you?


It must have been really hard on him. It must have felt very strange.

Yes, it was. What was even stranger was I went into some of these bunkers and there was graffiti in Hebrew, but also in English. A lot of American Jews are flown to Israel for free under a principle of birthright. They come and visit, stay in a kibbutz and are taught about their land. Many decide to stay because it’s like a utopia. But there’s the obligatory three-year military service, so eventually these American kids join the army.

So when I was looking at this graffiti, I was like, “It’s some kid from Wisconsin.” He just happened to be Jewish and came to Israel and now he’s in my house! Some of the graffiti was really funny. I remember there was a list of “Top 10 things I want to do when I go back home.” Number one was, I think, “Never wear green and khaki ever again.” Number two was like, “Eat Mom’s cooking.” Number three: “Have sex without having to pay for it.” You realize they’re just kids.

You said that ultimately this work is about forgiveness and compassion. What can you say about the innocence of these soldiers — the innocence of people who get caught up in things that are bigger than themselves?

Yeah, that happens all the time. Regardless of race or gender, when the war machine starts, it’s very hard to avoid it. Most people join armies for economic reasons. Or you have to join a side or die. It’s always the people of lowest income who are the greatest victims, because they don’t have the financial capacity to avoid war.

So kids join the army, they die, family members take revenge — it’s a vicious cycle. And of course it’s very important at this point to understand that these wars are not really home-grown. Lebanon is a proxy. This is America versus Russia. This is Israel versus Iran. What’s happening in Syria now is for resources — oil, gas, water.

My personal understanding of all this is that it’s a continuation of what started on September 11th, because that was the moment where everything changed. There was always war in the Middle East, but this was different because the Americans were very actively involved. What started in Afghanistan and Iraq has been spreading, and even when there were periods of calm in one country, it was blowing up in another one.

“From fire, we create life. From destruction, we find the strength to construct meaning in our lives. If stars destroy themselves, then maybe it’s only natural for us to do the same. We are obeying the fundamental laws of our universe. Churning each other up, and spitting out starstuff. Constantly. Effortlessly.” Al Aql, 2014. Photo: Zena el Khalil

“From fire, we create life. From destruction, we find the strength to construct meaning in our lives. If stars destroy themselves, then maybe it’s only natural for us to do the same. We are obeying the fundamental laws of our universe. Churning each other up, and spitting out star stuff. Constantly. Effortlessly.”
Al Aql, 2014. Photo: Paolo Pellion

For those of us who live here, I feel the only way to move forward is for us to understand each other better, to come to terms with things, to become personally responsible for where we live and how we interact with our neighbors. So on my part, I feel like the most I can do is to plant these seeds of forgiveness. I’m ready to forgive people for taking away my home. If I can do it, it could be a first step. It’s not easy, but look at South Africa. Through reconciliation projects, there have been possibilities to start living together again. It’s not perfect, but it’s a start.

I don’t know if there’s an ideal model, but I think with time, it is possible. Change has to start from within. So if I can find the capacity to forgive and move forward, maybe my brother can too, and then my cousins, and my friends and then my entire community. And that’s it, you have the seeds of change starting to grow.

What does “From Mirfaq to Vega” refer to?

Mirfaq and Vega are the names of stars I worked under as I painted this summer. Being in the south of Lebanon, there was very little light pollution. I spent many nights sleeping outdoors staring at these two bright points, thinking about how each human being is a beautiful shining star. Together, we make up the constellations of the universe. We are all connected. I felt our ancestors walking with me. “Our fire burns bright. We are creating our path to light. Bombs cannot fall here tonight.”

“From Mirfaq to Vega” is showing at Giorgio Persano Gallery in Turin, Italy, through January 10, 2015.