Sabine B. Vogel: How long have you been using ornament?
ZENA EL KHALIL: I have been using ornament, decoratively, for a long time. I moved to Lebanon soon after the civil war was over. At that time, there were very few artists exhibiting their work and there was no real visual dialogue between the artists. I wanted to try and build a language that could translate into a Lebanese identity. The war totally fragmented our realities and we did not have a common understanding of who we were or what our history was. Using ornament helped me connect to Lebanon and my history. The transition from using ornament as a decorative to a conceptual element happened only after I moved to Beirut in 1994.
SBV: Do you prefer special patterns (maybe like the arabesque?) or ornament-traditions?
ZENA EL KHALIL: I like to use both arabesque and floral patterns. I use them to create irony in my works. They are often juxtaposed with images of violence; militiamen, guns, tanks and bombs. I prefer to use Arabesque with a lot of stars because Lebanese have an infatuation with star culture and consumerism.
SBV: What function do you give ornament in your paintings?
ZENA EL KHALIL: Ornament contextualizes the works and provides a touch of irony. It is also a way to bring the old and ancient culture into our modern day. Arabesque is formal and orderly… but Beirut is a mess and chaotic. I like the irony created because it describes the world around me in Beirut today.
SBV: Do you see a change of the meaning of ornament in our time, compared to the traditional one as decoration?
ZENA EL KHALIL: In my work definitely. Because I use it with strong conceptual ideas. However, I also have a spiritual process in the way that I work. I use a lot of repetitive techniques that puts me into a kind of trance. In the past arabesque has helped people to find God. I am not looking for God, but I do feel happy when I am working in repetition. I think I become connected to the greater energy out there, the collective energy that we are all a part of. And there is something very fulfilling about combining perfection and chaos… in a way it is a reflection of life!
Interview for the catalogue of „Political Patterns“, ifa Gallery Berlin, Stuttgart. curated by Sabine B. Vogel