Zena ASSI (Lebanon, born in 1974 - London).
Zena Assi is a Lebanese multidisciplinary artist. Born in Lebanon, in 1974, Zena Assi lives and works between Beirut and London. She graduated with honors from l’Academie Libanaise des Beaux Arts (ALBA), where she received a master’s degree in advertisement. Later on she worked in Saatchi&Saatchi advertisement agency for a few years in Beirut, and taught drawing and visual communication in different universities. Since 2005, she has been producing artistic work to depict and portray the socio-cultural aspect of our contemporary urban society.
After living and working in her birth country for 40 years, Assi moved to the UK in 2014. Her contemporary work draws inspiration from the relations and conflicts between the individual and his spatial environment, society and its surroundings. Her pieces are punctuated by strong visual references to her native Beirut and the predicament of its citizens. The work takes shape in installation, animation, sculpture, and mainly paintings. Many of her pieces were repeatedly shown in different international auction houses (Christie’s Dubai, Sotheby’s London, and Bonhams London) and are part of various public as well as private collections.
Assi has exhibited in solo as well as collective shows across Europe, the Middle East and the United States of America including- Alwane gallery (Beirut Lebanon), Subtitled Apeal Royal College of Art (London UK), Artsawa gallery (Dubai UAE), Zoom Art Fair (Miami USA), Shubbak (London UK), Beirut Art Fair Biel (Beirut Lebanon), Abu Dhabi art fair (Abu Dhabi UAE), Espace Claude Lemand (Paris France), Cairo Biennale (Cairo Egypt), Rebirth Beirut Exhibition Center (Beirut Lebanon), The Mall galleries (London, UK), Albareh gallery (Manama-Kingdom of Bahrein), CAP Contemporary Art Platform Gallery Space (Kuwait), Art13 & Art14 London Fair (London UK), Overture Show of Contemporary Art (Miami USA), Journey through our heritage BEC Beirut Exhibition Center (Beirut Lebanon), London Art Biennale (London UK) and Venice Art Biennale (Venice Italy).
Ideas and Works
Themes that are central to her vision include present-day issues related to countries in the Middle East as they battle with internal strife and civilian unrest. The artist uses various supports and mediums to document and explore the cultural and social changes around her.
Her work replicates the tumult, angst and cacophony that everyday life in the city is fraught with. Assi’s use of pallid colors, jagged angular outlines and intricate layering, imbues inanimate objects, landscapes and buildings, with the emotional burdens of their inhabitants. The artist’s central concerns evolve around issues of dual identities, multiplicity, and the potential for residing in this ‘in-between’ space.
City from the ‘Brain-drain’ series
This series of work is an attempt to put on canvas the landscape of a constantly shifting city, where the infrastructure it is built upon is a tower made of books. It emphasizes the notion that building a country starts with educating and taking care of its youth.
During more than 45 years of instability, Lebanon has been witnessing a constant and painful migration of its youth. After Beirut’s explosion, the question is even more pressing: how can a country subsist economically, socially, as well as culturally, in light of such a colossal humanitarian crisis?
Portraits from ‘Still life’ series
As I absorb narratives and imageries from my surroundings and fuse them into my practice, some pieces are highly personal and come from my own stories and experiences about expatriation.
During lockdown I started wandering into the complexities of interior and exterior life, constancy and change, the fenced home and the outside world… hence the portrait paintings from the ‘Still life in quarantine’ series. I painted my son and daughter, sitting still, in their intimate environment, the safety of their home. They are wearing a top made of collages from Lebanon’s various sceneries.
After the double explosion in Lebanon on the 4th of August, these portraits took another meaning, and this moment of peace and silence ended up being the calm before the storm. Like a foreshadow, a premonition of the disaster to come, the explosion that will shake Beirut’s grounds leaving 300000 people homeless.
These paintings tackle the idea of self-preservation, and the impossibility of having a bubble without it being pierced at some point in time by the overpowering violence of your surroundings.
My City framed in colors, 2014.
Zena Assi’s latest series of paintings My City Wall, are inspired by her personal experience of moving to a new place as well as the plight of immigrants who are being forced to move due to the political and economic situations in their countries. Her mixed media works speak about the emotional, social and cultural baggage due to displacement and the cross-cultural conflicts caused by migration. They deal with the struggle of questioning our own culture when faced with a new one, of tackling issues of identity when we are rewriting our own stories based on tainted memories. ‘My city is treated as a fabric, a kaleidoscope of symbols; the Calligraphy becomes graffiti on walls, the urban tissue becomes an embroidered panel; the landscape becomes the weaving of a textile treated with my portraits as miniatures and decorative illuminations’. This series of work is an attempt to put on canvas the landscape of a constantly shifting city. The notion of a vibrant secure city haven is being exposed only to see what’s beneath; it is fixed on a canvas only to witness its hollow prefabricated infrastructure. ‘In Zena Assi’s works, symbols and codes accumulate; one must look closely at the paintings to distinguish every detail of which some refer to older works. Other elements of the décor are nevertheless disturbing; the recurring presence of advertising billboards and posters for consumer products, luxury items, or big companies of the Net, emphasizes that despite of the situation, life goes on and trade resumes its rights…’
Inspired by Egon Schiele, himself a protégé of Gustav Klimt, Assi’s work is about the weight and baggage of civilization on the ordinary person, and the link and dichotomy between the two. It often reflects the situation in Lebanon and addresses the issues of war, peace, silence, hope and individual frustration.