Lena Merhej

Date 5 OCTOBER 2009

Lena Merhej’s work is usually based on a narrative, a storyline, an event that happens in a certain time and place. For Visual Foreign Correspondents she uses arabesque*. The arabesque is an elaborative application of repeating geometric forms that often echo the forms of plants and animals. Arabesque is timeless, spanning across the border of the page, the screen: perpetual.

In Beirut, the Israeli soldier is the perpetual and the incidental. He is always there, behind the border, waiting on an incident to happen. An air raid, a shelling, hitting a wall, rebounding. Behind the border he is part of the daily routine. He uses his enemy’s only weapon and throws a stone.

* [note from the editor] Arabesques are an element of Islamic art usually found decorating the walls of mosques. The choice of which geometric forms are to be used and how they are to be formatted is based upon the Islamic view of the world. To Muslims, these forms, taken together, constitute an infinite pattern that extends beyond the visible material world. To many they symbolize the infinite, and the decentralised, nature of the creation of God (Allah).

Annet Dekker in conversation with Lena Merhej

You come from a mixed background, German and Lebanese, you studied in New York and are now living in Beirut. In what way did these different contexts influence your work?
I think it gives me a lot of reference to build my work upon.
On the one hand, in Samandal, ‘Yogurt and Jam, or how my mother became Lebanese’ is a dwelling on the practices of a German pediatrician who moved to Beirut in 1968 to save the world. It is about how she raised a mixed Christian-Muslim family through the Lebanese Civil War, and how she adapted her education and her practice to the demands of a special need community, in a war-torn country.
Growing up in Beirut, I was always feeling ‘under exposed’, that I had to read magazines and watch TV to catch up with the world. I was living under siege.
Studying in NY has given me a confidence in appropriate knowledge, and mostly a conscious methodology at work that reinforced the influence of my mother’s work value (a work value that is very German) on me.

You make books and comics for both children and adults, what is your particular interest in them? In what way do you distinguish the two groups, do you approach them differently?
As a teenager, I worked in the summers in my mother’s nursery. One summer I had 8 babies take care of. I worked also on the nursery’s summer camp craft activities and its bulletin boards. Again, as my sister was studying art, I helped her color a few things and looked at all her art books. After my studies, my sister passed on to me her passion for making children’s books and the urgency and the need to do so. I illustrated for the child that I was. The children’s books that were in Arabic didn’t speak to me. The illustrations were very poor. I felt disrespected. My illustrations in the children’s books I made are all characters, places, and things that I wanted to see. So this is the drive for making children’s book.
Being a comic reader, I always dreamt of making comics. From my experience in publishing, I have come to realize how children’s books and comics are similar in balancing visuals and text on the surface of the paper. When I write and draw, something that is intrinsic to “visual storytelling”, I do not think of a specific audience. I write for myself, for my own experience and growth, and mostly for my need. During the Israeli Attack in 2006, I wrote a book called “I think we will be much calmer in the next war” about how panicked I was, while my mother was calmer, unlike how I remember her during the civil war. I wrote it as if I was vomiting.
In most of my work, I approach my audience like I try to approach myself, with honesty, (and I try with clarity) and mostly with utmost respect.

Historically there is a rich tradition of fantasy and storytelling in the Arab world. But does it also get recognised as an art form? Does it recognise the qualities both aesthetically as well as conceptually? In what way do you relate yourself to the arts world?
I think all civilizations that have thrived have a rich tradition of fantasy and storytelling. Thriving comes from the mean of expression that requires expertise and knowledge in the technology. If I have a good story, I need to know how to tell it.
I have learnt to value the stories; or rather the telling of lives for it gives me a human connection to people. It makes me understand the painful and accept the absurd. A kind of letting go, by saying, “it’s ok, I am human”.
Because of my studies and my work, and because of my friends, family and loved ones, I trust my knowledge and work instinctively.

You’re also involved in the magazine Samandal magazine, the first comic magazine in the Middle East. Could you maybe describe what the magazine is about: the origins of the group and its development? And how important it is for you as an individual artist?
Samandal is a portal for sharing visual stories. It starts from Beirut, and spreads. It is a quarterly comic magazine in three languages and thrives in publishing excellent comics. It is also a community of artists from Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, Emirates, Germany, France, Belgium, Brazil, US, Canada, exchanging expertise through workshops and comic related activities for better comics and a lot of fun, such as a comic jam, a comic remix, a 24 hour comic, and a research method for writing comics. It started in 2007, and we have published since 6 issues. It is not really the first comic magazine in the Middle East, but it is surely an innovative project that hopefully will let the comic machine rolling in Beirut!

There is no real history of art or history of graphic design or history of comics in Lebanon. There hasn’t been a real networking along artists until maybe recently through the web. As a visual artist, most of my visual references are European or American. Samandal and more specifically networking with local and international artists is one step towards writing such histories. As Samandalena, I am meeting, sharing, discussing and working with new artists that have new talents and new visual histories to tell.

I very much like the description on the website: “Samandal magazine thrives between two worlds: the word and the image, the high brow and the raised brow, the traditional and the experimental.” It clearly visualizes and describes the difficult position in which cartoons and animation find themselves. For many years in the Netherlands animation has been regarded as low culture and not worthy of much attention, but of late this is changing. What is the status of animation in Beirut? And what are its roots?
Jad Khoury, who is the founder of Jad Workshop, heads the animation department at Future TV since the early nineties. I did my training with him, along with important artists such as Edgar Aho, Lina Ghaibeh, Rabi Mroue, Fulvio Codsi, and many more. Their work was highly experimental and innovative, and it ranged between claymation, stop motion, cel animation and 3d animation.
This November, along with Metropolis, Samandal is involved in “Beirut Animated”, a festival that showcases animation from the region. The Lebanese animation films are not so many and most of them are individual interventions.

At the same page it says that the magazine tries to cross borders and languages – publishing the content in three languages is a very good start! – to everyone with a bit of comic on their mind. After the now famous sketch drawing of the Danish cartoonist comics have let to many debates. How do you deal with censorship in the magazine and as an independent artist? Does it influence your work?
We constantly disregard censorship in our work, and this is a principal that we are still holding on to. In Lebanon, lawyers tell us that we can publish anything until someone disagrees with what we publish and cries out to the authorities. Also, the Lebanese Minister of Culture introduced the Year of Beirut World Capital of the Book, that in Lebanon, we can publish anything we want. The problem might arise when we want to export our magazine to Saudi Arabia.

As said before the magazine is made in Arab, English and French, but how do you translate comics? Do you believe there is a universal humor or visual language?
Visual stories can enrich communication. I have comics in German, Italian, and Turkish, that I love reading and re-reading. When I was a child, I have looked at all the children’s books at the Goethe Institute, where my mother would take me and not understand a word from the stories, but try to infer from images. This is how I learnt the word: HILFE!
Lena Merhej (Lebanon)
Lena is an illustrator and an animator. She has freelanced in various fields, doing independent short films, comic strips, children books and awareness campaigns. She teaches and gives workshops in animation, illustration, comics and design for children. Her work is grounded in play, she loves details and ornamentation, and is inspired by henna and arabesque patterns. She is interested in adding different levels of interpretation to her work. Trying to reconcile the contradictions that surround her in a new language. Lena studied Graphic Design at the American University of Beirut (BGD) and majored in Design and Technology at the Parsons School of Design (MFA). At the moment she is teaching at the Lebanese American University, and give workshops in animation, illustration, and comic books.