“Beloveds the world needs you to soar. The world needs the artist shaman initiates flying into the vast expanses of space. […] For embodiment means being torn apart and flying away.” - Josh Michael Schrei
Zena el Khalil is a transdisciplinary artist. Her practice merges traditional and contemporary modalities. Through ritual and ceremony, she creates artworks and talismans used during her healing sessions informed from the Sanskrit notion of spanda, the subtle creative pulse of the Universe manifesting into living form. Her inks, compromised of sacred ash, are created on-site during her regenerative ceremonies. Inspired by classical Tantrik manuscripts (namely the tattva aspects of reality that constitute the human experience) and dhikr (repetition of devotional phrases), she uses words in a creative play of absolute consciousness manifesting into form. Working with breath, her works are traces of moments that become units in a complex arabesque- multiplying and expanding through anāhata (unstruck sound) and praṇava (audible sound), creating a bridge between universal consciousness and the physical world in an interrelationship between vibration and form within the matrix of space-time-being.
Growing up in Lagos, Nigeria and Beirut, Lebanon, el Khalil's daily exposure to violence and war gave her an intimate understanding of suffering. Having endured multiple traumatic events herself, she turned to art and writing as vehicles for her autoethnographic works. As a graduate student, Zena found herself standing not too far from the twin towers as they fell. This experience evolved her ultra-feminist works towards a deep research into mysticism, natural medicine and indigenous healing methods. In 2006, during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Zena turned to writing and became one of the first largely followed Middle Eastern bloggers, her compassionate citizen journalism/memoirs were published in the international press. The entire Guardian G2 supplement that July was dedicated to her blog, Beirut Update. In 2013, she began working on healing abandoned spaces starting with her family home in the south of Lebanon. She has since been working on both sites that endured violence as well as places that were once considered ceremonial grounds such as the Phoenician temples of Echmoun and Astarte and the Roman ruins at Baalbeck and Byblos.
In 2020, as her home and her life detonated during the third largest non-nuclear explosion which decimated half her city, she entered a state of what some call unity consciousness. Walking through apocalyptic Beirut, as falling glass crunched beneath her feet, she found herself completely surrendered to the resplendid void as she had been taught by shamans, yogis and mystics from around the world.
El Khalil has exhibited in institutions and fairs including Mori Art Museum, Japan; Madre: Museo d'arte contemporanea Donnaregina, Napoli; Beit Beirut Museum; MOCA London; National Gallery of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Sarajevo; BAM Biennale Archipelago Mediterraneo, Palermo; Institute du Monde Arabe, Paris; Boghossian Foundation, Brussels; Royal College of Art, London; Galleria Giorgio Persano, Turin; Barajeel Art Foundation, United Arab Emirates; Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen, Berlin; White Box, Munich; Fondazione Merz in Turin; Art Dubai; Abu Dhabi Art; Art 13.
Her work has been featured in the New York Times, CNN, BBC, Le Monde, El Pais, The Guardian, The Financial Times, LA Times, La Stampa, Repubblica, Der Spiegel, and the Frankfurter Allgemeine, to name a few. She has performed and lectured at the Guardian Hay Festival: Segovia, Spain; the Edinburgh International Book Festival, UK; the Hay-On-Wye Festival of Literature, Wales, UK; the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), UK; The Leighton House, UK; the American University of Beirut. She holds a TED Senior Fellowship and has given a few TED talks.
Her book, "Beirut, I Love You: A Memoir" has been translated into several languages, published by The New York Review of Books and Dar el Saqi. She received star reviews from Publisher's Weekly and Gwyneth Paltrow's Goop. She has also been included in several anthologies including Lebanon, Lebanon, published by Saqi Books and Beirut Noir, published by Akashic Books.
In 2001, as a direct response to 9/11 she co-founded Xanadu*, an art space in Greenwich Village dedicated to showcasing emerging Arab artists. She continued to curate events and created a publishing house under this title both in NYC and Beirut for a few years. In 2013 she founded the Ātman Institute where she curated events dedicated to collective healing in Lebanon. In 2020, she began teaching and started a mentorship program for spiritual studies.
In 2008 Zena was invited to speak at the Nobel Peace Center, Oslo and in 2012 she was selected to become a TED Fellow and has since given a few TED talks. In 2018 she was awarded with a Senior Fellowship at TED. In 2017, Zena launched a national-scale 40-day exhibition and multi-disciplinary project of her work entitled Sacred Catastrophe : Healing Lebanon at Beit Beirut. Conducting a daily peace offering to a total of over 10,000 visitors, she was the first artist to exhibit in this historic war relic.
She also holds a Masters of Fine Arts from the School of Visual Arts in NYC and a Bachelor of Graphic Design from the American University of Beirut. She also holds several degrees in shamanic, plant medicine and yoga teacher trainings.