Written by Beulah | 7th February 2020
Jad El Khoury is a Lebanese street artist who combines hard-hitting commentary on political corruption with a world of bright, cartoonish fantasy. His work spans gigantic street art installations across multi-story skyscrapers to tiny, intricate doodles inviting us into the world of a character he calls “Potato Nose”. Keen to know more, we asked El Khoury how he manages to bring politics and escapism together on the same canvas.
Jad El Khoury is fascinated by the way in which reimagining city landscapes can allow residents to deal with, and eventually overcome, the trauma of war. He accomplishes this by transforming the city via large-scale installations that both disguise and highlight the wounds left on Beirut by the Lebanese Civil War.
Jad El Khoury today
El Khoury was born in 1988 in Baabda, Lebanon, during the Lebanese Civil War. He grew up in Beirut – the location of his now internationally famous street art installations. Like many others, El Khoury was a young boy trying to navigate a post-war city – over 200,000 people were killed between 1975 and 1990 – where the war served as a haunting backdrop to generations of artists growing up in post-war Lebanon. As one of Jad’s fellow artists, film director Joana Hadjithomas, points out: “You can’t escape your reality. How are we going to live in this present? I’m not saying that art is the solution, but poetry can help.”
For El Khoury, the way to understanding the war as a young child was by repeatedly drawing the same characters over and over again on any surface available. “Growing up in Beirut, as part of the first post-war generation, meant it was impossible to escape politics,” El Khoury explains. “[And so] doodles became my ticket to new cities and spaces.” These unnamed cities and spaces were free from war, or at least free from corrupt governments that sort to profit from war. And these imagined spaces filled in for the reality of the urban situation which saw many building projects abandoned in the aftermath of the civil war, and funds that were earmarked to restore the city’s poorer neighbourhoods disappear.
A peaceful protest: Potato Nose
Potato Nose has appeared everywhere, from Beirut to limited edition Swatches
El Khoury’s early distress at the way politicians took advantage of Lebanon’s post-war difficulties took on an unexpected form. Small, round, bug-eyed and unblinking little creatures: “Potato Nose are characters I started doodling during my childhood,” says El Khoury. “Later on they began being recognised when I started spray painting them on Beirut’s’s war-torn buildings.” This resurrection of his childhood doodles was part of a project called War Peace – which saw El Khoury draw the Potato Nose characters in a gigantic, scaled-up format across abandoned and bullet-ridden buildings.
“My intention was to highlight and transform the war traces that we find all over Beirut,” El Khoury explains. “The same doodles that got me in trouble at school for drawing them on the walls and class tables are now the reason my work is recognised all over the world. And doodling for so long helped me master techniques that allow me to create optical illusions by playing with the density and size of my characters.” The overall effect was to draw attention to the Beirut buildings still marked by war, while also giving residents a different backdrop to their day-to-day lives
The colourful window blinds of Burj Al Hawa
Perhaps the most internationally recognisable of El Khoury’s works was the short-lived installation of colourful window blinds on the Burj Al Murr building – an abandoned skyscraper once meant to be a trading hub for the city. During the war, snipers took over this half-finished building, leaving its walls pock-marked with bullet holes. Decades on, the building remained unfinished and acted as a constant reminder to residents of the trauma they experienced in its shadow. In 2018, El Khoury was given 48 hours by the building’s owners to install bright window blinds throughout the buildings. Many of the windows lacked glass, but for a few hours colourful curtains billowed forth, acting as a reminder that joy and colour can still be found in darkness, and causing the building to be renamed Burj Al Hawa (“dancing in the wind”).
While El Khoury’s drawings and installations helped people find a new kind of joy in their city, he’s not interested in forgetting about the war. Instead, his focus is on reframing traumatised cityscapes. “My drive is to highlight social political issues through graffiti, street art and public art installations,” he explains. “Through public art installations, I try to transform and let go of the anger our corrupt politicians spread on a daily basis.”
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