Enter Eli Rezkallah’s Galaxy Of Surrealism

10 September 2020
Sky Watchers The Drones,  March 2018

Sky Watchers The Drones, March 2018

Where avant-garde flair orbits around emerging subcultures and Arab tradition

There are electrifying subjects to be found in Eli Rezkallah’s shrewd portraits: Elissa, RuPaul and Miley Cyrus amongst them. The Lebanese creative meticulously employs bold colour and dramatic staging to reveal a candour that resides a little below his surface. Born and raised in Lebanon, and experiencing the war first-hand, Rezkallah’s psyche has been punctuated with murky memories. That pushed him to construct a universe of his own in the heart of Beirut, powered (initially) by nothing but provocative vigour. The 33-year-old artist intoxicated the region and the world with his wild, outlandish and emotive visions. While he occasionally walks the fine line of commercialism, Rezkallah never fails to strike deeper than aesthetics with his work, dropping a bread crumb trail of socio-political issues along the way.

The gusto of his personal work always had broader intentions. In 2007, he launched Plastik Magazine, the first visual publication of its kind in the Middle East. After this interview was conducted, Plastik Studios was enveloped in the tragedy and destruction of the Beirut explosion. But in the rubble, a message from RuPaul still stands, greeting you: “Plastik’s gift to the world is beauty, colour, magic and imagination. The gift is more important today than ever before.” With an aim to restore Beirut and its communities, Plastik Studios and Syrian artist Saint Hoax are collaborating in a fundraiser to support businesses and artists that have been impacted by the event.

You can learn more at linktr.ee/plastik

Self-portrait, 2020

You have a penchant for provocative work, but it never relies on shock. It feels authentic. How do you provoke reaction without forcing a result?

First of all, I have to say I am flattered because that is exactly what I aim to do with my work. There are many approaches to art. Some people rely solely on that “shock factor” – and that’s completely okay – while others speak to a niche crowd exclusively. I think the epitome of success in art is when you produce work that speaks to the intellectuals while appealing to the masses at the same time, bringing important conversations to the mainstream.

How and when did you start your artistic journey?

I would say when I was born, because from my earliest memories I have been mesmerised by art, theatre and cinema. I spent an entire summer on the stairs of our chalet waiting for my father to get me a tape of a musical I was obsessed with: it’s the thing that made me happiest as a child. In high school, my teacher gave me a book, and an assignment to turn it into a performative piece. I created a multimedia show, with audio narration, live performance and video projections. This was my first real encounter with storytelling. I realised then that when we tell stories in a way that speaks to us and touches other people, it must mean something. This is what inspired me to go into filmmaking, I felt like my style was innately developed.

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Who were your initial influences?

My mother and her ability to turn the ordinary into something extraordinary. Through that, she taught me that adding magic to the mundane does not require money but only love and passion.

Plastik is the first magazine of its kind in the region – what pushed you to create it?

I started Plastik 11 years ago at the age of 21 in the pre-Instagram era. Back then, I was a freelance creative director spending most of my time on sets with clients producing “safe” work. My frustration made me realise that if I wanted to stay in this industry, I would have to create my own work myself – because no one is going to hand me a platform without seeing what I’m actually capable of. That’s how Plastik came to life. I simply created my own platform to share my work with the world while showcasing the work of like-minded artists.

It’s grown into a collaborative studio where we work with local and international artists like Minji Moon and pair them with our clients under our creative direction. We also curate a pop-up art gallery where we exhibit talents like Syrian artist Saint Hoax, a store where up-and-coming artists like Dima Tannir, Paul Fuentes and Pamela Mansour can sell their work, and of course the magazine where we highlight local and international talents like Myriam Boulos, Mous Lamrabat, Tony Kelly and Amy Sherald. So in a way, every kind of artist can find a home in Plastik. It’s growing from a collective to a family.

In a Parallel Universe, 2018

One of your most notable works is “In A Parallel Universe”: you took sexist advertisements from the 1940s and confronted the narrative by reversing gender roles. Was there an incident that inspired you to go back to these ads and recreate them?

A couple of years ago, over Thanksgiving dinner in New Jersey, my uncles were casually having a conversation about how women are better off “doing their womanly duties” like taking care of the house and cooking and so on. I have to admit I was shocked when I overheard that. [I was] not expecting such sexist values from members of my family who are otherwise rather progressive and open-minded. The fact that these beliefs are deeply ingrained in some men around us is baffling. I wanted those same men to have a taste of their own sexism by inverting the limiting housewife roles through photography. This project was the answer I wasn’t able to muster. In this series the “reverse sexism” was intentional, only because it’s supposed to be a comparison that sparks an important conversation.

I also read that the man who created these ads messaged you and said that he’s glad someone did what you did.

I was over the moon when I read his email, it was such a special moment. He was one of the photographers of the original series – he’s now in his late 80s – and he wrote me an email detailing the process of work at the time. Basically, back in 1964, the agency decided on everything and the photographer didn’t have creative input.

Birthday Boy, 2019

Advertising can be a dark place, and this has changed in the past decade: nowadays we talk about inclusivity, diversity and empowerment even if we’re not fully there yet. And by the way, the photographer of the image I spoofed sent me an archived magazine that featured the original ad, which has been added to my collection.

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As an Arab male living in the region have you noticed, in recent years, any shift regarding men’s views on women on an artistic and social scale? Do you think we’re making progress?

There’s been a shift and new-found “wokeness” in Arab media and certain micro-societies. It is still very much at the level of call-out culture, an online phenomenon of reporting problematic behaviours or views, which hasn’t been fully integrated on a societal level yet. I think people are starting to realise that the gender construct and its mandates are obsolete.

We have to push this process on the level of education by instilling the importance of equality in school curriculums, on television, and in the media. While watching local shows, you can’t help but notice that men are still introduced by their achievements and women are greeted with a compliment about their outfit or beauty. This has got to stop. I truly believe progress happens fast when you have enough people on board.

You have worked with artists like Miley Cyrus and RuPaul. Your art speaks to people on an international scale, within and beyond Arab borders, but you’re a Lebanese residing in Lebanon. Has anything found in Arab culture offered you a niche perspective that inspires you and your work?

I grew up in Lebanon during a harsh civil war. So, I remember watching my mother and her friends strive to live a normal life while the country around them was burning – something I later adopted, this “denial mode” we turn on to survive the best we can. The same denial applies to many other taboo subjects, like sexuality, a husband cheating… it’s all swept under the rug. My work unconsciously (and consciously) tackles this coping mechanism whereby things appear to be well-groomed on the outside, only to reveal a sense of doom on the inside. Unprocessed emotions are universal. That is why a lot of people relate.

Entry Granted Marzook Pharmacy, 2019

Part of your aesthetic reminds me of Bassem Feghali. He was huge back in the day. I was wondering if his aesthetic inspired your style in any shape or form?

Bassem is a great example of how you can subvert your art and slip as many messages as you want without alienating your crowd: he made his way so smoothly into an audience that would otherwise not accept him… [it’s] an achievement that he doesn’t get enough credit for, which only proves that talent paired with intelligence, transcends tradition. In that sense, Bassem inspired me tremendously.

You have built a singular style in your work. What stimulates your creativity and keeps the inspiration coming?

My biggest motivator and inspiration has always been to add colour to the world. Surrounding myself with beauty was a way for me to survive the grimness of the Lebanese war. It is funny that even my visual perception was affected; things around me appeared dark, gloomy, asymmetrical, ungroomed and chaotic. Looking at my work, you can clearly see that I try to counter that. It’s my way of infusing my environment with happiness. That’s why my work is humorous, sometimes melancholic, but always vivid. Another major inspiration to me is music – it has that power to make me feel specific things on a deep level. When it happens, I do not stop until I create an image that translates this feeling visually.

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I want to touch on consumerism and commercialism because you’ve worked on campaigns with brands such as Huda Beauty. How do you handle the middle ground of bringing a brand to life without losing your touch? Where do you feel that the idea of “art” and creativity loses its purpose and turns into a commercial aesthetic?

I really love this question. I struggled with this notion for the first 6 years of my career. It’s only when I was able to develop my vision fully that the notion of art versus commercial made sense to me – because only then will the client come to you asking for your vision. Also, it was always clear to me that artists need money to grow, so I never felt guilty about remuneration.

Play World Huda Beauty Pastels, 2020

As mentioned before, my vision of art is something that reaches both niche and popular audiences. So, I incorporate that same logic when working with clients, and they actually appreciate that. Clients that share your same values are crucial for your growth, especially when they offer a huge platform through their audience. I am lucky to have clients that are allies for creativity – like Huda for example: our work together is a collaborative process based on respect, shared values and trust.

Social media is vital for both emerging and established artists. There is so much content. While you can get more exposure by collaborating with other artists or brands, there is still that need to stay on top of the algorithm. Do you see this as a blessing or a challenge?

It is a blessing and a curse actually. It  goes back to the art versus shock factor theory. I am beyond grateful for Instagram for changing the way art is consumed, rendering it more accessible. And although likes and exposure are gratifying, you stop stressing about the number of interactions eventually – because of the fleeting nature of social media. Instagram offers artists a global platform to share their stories with the world, the algorithm relies on the shock factor – you can choose which route to take or do both if that works for you.

As for Plastik, since we reach a larger audience, we are focussed on having important conversations at the moment, along with more meaningful and educational content. I see Plastik as an arts magazine and platform that aims to highlight exceptional talent from around the globe, using creativity, art and humour to convey a message of liberation, inclusivity, and unity for the world.

All images by Eli Rezkallah, courtesy Plastik Inc.