I recently had the chance of attending a workshop conducted by Zena el Khalil, a Lebanese artist. Some of you may know her from her performance as “The Pink Bride of Peace” in which she participates in the Beirut International Marathon, while wearing a bright pink wedding dress, as a way to raise awareness about pressing social issues. The performance originally started off on a personal level, but quickly turned into being about promoting peace and love in Zena’s beloved Beirut. As an aspiring artist – though I may be stretching it a little by calling myself an artist – who is interested in “activist art”, I was very eager to meet her.
When Zena started talking, during her workshop, I didn’t want her to stop. We started off the discussion by talking about other artists and work that inspired her, such as John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s ‘Bed Peace’ for instance. Zena’s own artwork includes installations, paintings, performances, mixed media, and collage. She believes that her work is a creative offering, a way to raise awareness about the issues and challenges people face.
During the workshop, we spent a significant amount of time on a topic I personally find very intriguing: gender issues. Zena showed us an array of artwork and video that focused specifically on gender issues, including a short clip about the Guerrilla Girls, a group of women in gorilla masks who raise awareness of the fact that very few female artists get exhibited in museums. We discussed Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party, an installation of a banquet with a triangular shaped table, with place settings for thirty-nine important women from history. Zena hopes that one day women will be given full credit for their achievements; her own art is, in part, dedicated to that possibility.
After about an hour and a half of discussion, Zena had planned for us to get into small groups and start brainstorming ideas about what we would like to work on as young artist activists. Personally, I just wanted her to keep talking, and it seemed like almost all of the attendees agreed, so she did just that. A few of the students asked Zena for advice on how to get started and others told her about projects they have already done or intend to do. Some of the students wanted to implement projects in the public sphere in Abu Dhabi, something that Zena has a lot of experience with in Beirut. She was very insightful and encouraged us to respect the local laws when it comes to artwork in public spaces. The UAE’s art scene is rapidly growing, however, which may create new opportunities for emerging artists.
In addition to talking about art and activism, Zena also talked about the importance of working at one’s art. She told us that when she was in college, her professor asked her to draw something every day as part of the coursework. She said that, as hard as it was, she did manage to draw something every day, and thus learned to create even when she had little to no inspiration. Her story reminded me that we can’t always wait around for inspiration to show up; we need to pull up our socks and get our work done, create our own inspiration.
As I was leaving the workshop, I saw many students stay back, hoping for some one-on-one time with Zena. She inspired us all, by giving us hope that we can all make a difference in the world if we work hard and believe in ourselves. Her art helped us to see that we could all be “activists” in our own way, with our own creative energy.