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), worked in advertising, and taught in different universities. Her contemporary work draws inspiration from the relations and conflicts between the individual and his spatial environment, society, and its surroundings.
The artist uses various supports and mediums to document and explore the cultural and social changes and put on record our urban contemporary environment’s imprint as well as the impact of our society’s ideologies and political tendencies. Her work takes shape in installation, drawing, etching, experimental animation, sculpture, and mainly painting. Themes that are central to her vision include present-day issues, like migration and the relation between memories and people on the move.
Many of her pieces are repeatedly shown in different international auction houses (Christie’s, Sotheby’s, Bonhams, and Phillips) and are part of the various public as well as private collections (Academie Libanaise des Beaux-Arts in Beirut, Barjeel Art Foundation in Sharjah and Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris).
Throughout her artistic practice, her work has won prizes including the Sunny Dupree Family Award for a Woman Artist at the 2020 Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy, London, 2020 – the Rosemary & Co Award at the SWA show, London, 2018 and the Special Jury Prize of the XXIX of the Autumn Salon of the Sursock Museum, Beirut, 2009.
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 Appeal Royal College of Art (London UK), Artsawa gallery (Dubai UAE), Zoom Art Fair (Miami USA), Espace Claude Lemand (Paris France), Cairo Biennale (Cairo Egypt), Katzen Arts Center of American University (Washington D.C. USA), Rebirth Beirut Exhibition Center (Beirut Lebanon), Albareh gallery (Manama-Kingdom of Bahrein), CAP Contemporary Art Platform Gallery Space (Kuwait), Art13 & Art14 London Fair (London UK), Art Paris (Paris France), IWM Imperial War Museum (London UK), IMA Institut du Monde Arabe (Paris France), Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy (London UK) and the 57th Venice Art Biennale (Venice Italy).
I’ve been working on the theme of Beirut for the past decade or more. I like to show, as much as I can, what’s happening on the political, social, and personal sides and put them all on the same scale.
The Egg was built by Joseph Philippe Karam in 1965. It had a lot of potential as an iconic building, but it was never finished because of the civil war. Its walls are filled with bullet marks. During the protests of October 17, it was reclaimed as a public space. Students, teachers, and activists were giving talks in it. It was a landmark being revived and giving hope that we felt throughout the protests.
I’ve constructed this base above the Egg because we were going through such instability in Lebanon. But there was hope. That's why I loved the stairs, which I emphasized because you’re climbing up and going to a better future.
At the same time, with the structure, you feel it might crumble. This was a menace for the revolution the whole time: Will it survive? I liked playing with the fragility of the structure, whereas the Egg is solid — holding all this above it.
I wanted to show the contradictions of Lebanon. In the top corner, there’s a sexy woman putting lipstick on and then you have a different side — a history of the civil war and religion, which is one of the main sources of our contacts. I put wings on people hovering around the city because we always have this presence of martyrs being recalled.
You have all these different cultures mixed up: There’s Maggi soup — very typical to the generation of the seventies and Eighties — and then Twitter and Facebook connecting us to the outside world. In Beirut, there are a lot of electric cables. The sky is blue, but it’s not
clear. I had this urge to give this dusty feeling to the atmosphere, so I sprayed a haze layer just to be more truthful about the sky above us.