There is an Eli Rezkallah style. It is distinct and almost instantaneously distinguishable, and when you see something that resembles it, you think of it as reminiscent – no small feat for an Arab artist who’s barely tasted thirty but whose work has resonated far beyond the borders of his home country of Lebanon.
Just like Wes Anderson now has arguable ownership of the retro-quirky, pastelled, and absurdly symmetrical; and Egyptian photographer Yousef Nabil's 'thing' so to speak, is cinematic, hand-painted photographs; Lebanese fine-art photographer and visual artist Rezkallah is master of the kaleidoscopic candy hued – often coating some kind of social commentary. It is not so much that he pioneered an aesthetic, but that he owned it so fully that it now belongs to him.
And this aesthetic can perhaps best be described as a coping mechanism, forged out of war.
Rezkallah, who is also the founder and creative director of Plastik Magazine, the Middle East’s first visual publication, and spinoff creative studio, Plastik Studios, grew up in the grasp of a country almost consistently at war in some form or other, and that coloured his entire approach to artistic expression. “I grew up in Lebanon during the war, but we moved to an area where there wasn't a lot of bombing, and lived there for 12 years,” he recounts, “My parents never told me that there was war.”
“I realised there was a war happening when I started watching the news but I never knew how near or far it was to us,” Rezkallah continues, “I grew up watching my mum and her friends trying to live their lives despite tensions in the country. They would wear these extravagant outfits but they would stay in the exact same place because they couldn’t go anywhere else; it’s like they were trying to recreate their former life in that place we were living in. But there was always [a sense of] worry.” And his work – shiny, vibrant, meticulous, and always featuring myriad popsicle colours – now encapsulates that: “Women in denial and the measures they take to escape reality.”
Rezkallah can now boast a shiny Plastik empire to his name. After dropping out of college, and a stint as a fashion show producer and art director, he launched Plastik Studios in 2007, which is now led by the team behind Plastik Magazine, which was launched just a few years later in 2009. The magazine and studio (whose work often overlaps), limned by Rezkallah’s signature aesthetic, quickly garnered a international cult following, displaying and producing work unlike anything else that had emerged from the Middle East, featuring drag queens, naked women strategically covered in French fries, and oiled up men.
American Beauty, 2017
The Plastik empire consistently turn out cutting edge visual stories – including Eli’s own work – and have featured Elissa, Miley Cyrus, and Paris Hilton. Eli’s own work, which often tackles an issue behind the gleaming façade, from technology to gender inequality, has been featured across the world, from Paris to Bangkok. His work is shiny and bright, highly stylised, sometimes borderline tacky, but artfully so.
And within the year, they’ll be launching the Plastik Gallery, a physical space to discover and display “exciting contemporary art.”
I started working at a very early age, when I was around 15. I helped my mom with visual merchandising, started doing some freelance styling jobs when I was still at school, and eventually became a creative director by the time I was in college.
But most of the projects we were doing were very commercial, and I used to have conversations with people on set about this; it’s like we all knew what would be more interesting in terms of photography but we weren’t doing it. We never got the opportunity because in Lebanon we produce a lot of things for pan-Arab markets (Saudi, Emirates, etc.) and there are a lot of restrictions in advertising there. So the job would take a lot of time and energy but the outcome was very basic, and I was very eager to start doing beautiful things.
The Drones, 2018
So I decided the only way for me to produce ideas that I liked was to create my own platform, that's why I decided to create a magazine about art for artists. I had my company for about a year before I dropped out of college to pursue Plastik full time.
“CONTROVERSY” OR WHATEVER
Personally I’m against using this whole idea of using a ‘shock technique’ to shock the audience or whatever – I'm not someone who wants to break the rules, so that’s not what I’m trying to do with my work. What I do is convenient to me and my beliefs; I do not consider nudity or sexuality or any of those things as groundbreaking or taboo.
Miley Cyrus for Plastik Magazine, 2015
I’ve never faced any sort of trouble or backlash in Lebanon because it's different [than the rest of the Arab world], it’s a lot more open minded. But Plastik is not targeted at the Arab world anyway and on the international scale, my work is considered regular. Plus I'm very considerate about the audience I'm addressing; if I’m working on a project for the Middle East specifically, I would communicate the way it should be communicated.
The thing you need to know about me is that I don’t actually have strong opinions about anything – I don't take anything personally. What I do is observe. I hear people saying things and I try to express my point of view about a certain subject through my work. But if one project expresses something in a certain way, it doesn't mean that this is it or that this is my only opinion about it. Through my work I try to present something to open a conversation, whether it makes people agree, disagree or fall somewhere in the middle.
In a Parallel Universe, 2018
DRAG QUEENS ARE THE NEW DRAG QUEENS
Why is it considered risqué to have drag queens at our parties in Beirut? We have drag queens in Lebanon, it's not illegal, it's a form of art. They perform musical numbers, comedy numbers - I mean, I grew up watching Bassem Feghali on national TV and he has parties everywhere. We don’t have problems with drag queens here, unlike other Arab countries.
Spaah Day, 2016
We do have certain rules and we abide by them; things like ensuring the drag queen has a working permit to come to Lebanon, no nudity at our parties. We basically abide by the same rules as are applied in the rest of the club scene - if you follow them, you won't get in trouble. It's a performance and we respect that artist.
Having a distinct style versus diversifying, I think depends on the photographer and what they're expecting. If they want to make money, then it's not necessary that they have their own distinctive style and – it’s more important that whatever the client asks them, they can execute. This is one approach to photography.
My Heart Belongs to Daddy, 2016
What I aim to do is fine art photography though, and after doing this for 11 years, I feel like the only thing that excites me is if I tell a personal story through my work. And when you try to do that, you're going to have a strong aesthetic.
Of course the first five years of Plastik Studios, I did a lot of things that were not the same aesthetic as mine because you need the money to sustain your brand and to do the things that you like. But with time, you build up your credibility.
10 years ago when I started, there was no Instagram. When the platform came around, you suddenly had a lot of visibility and when people saw the interesting things that we were doing, they found it compelling. Because people want that extra thing now; it has to be smart, it has to stand out. It can't be safe anymore.
I love the digital age. I'm taking advantage of it as much as possible and I can't complain about it at all – most of the things I'm doing now and the opportunities I got in my life were because of it. People who complain about it, well, it’s ironic because they're complaining about Facebook ON Facebook. The only thing is, I feel that this is the age of the end of privacy – but I don't think that's a bad thing.
GET OVER YOUR PRIVACY ISSUES
I don’t think the end of privacy is a bad thing because I have nothing to hide. There's nothing I say or do that I'm worried that other people will hear. I feel that everything that you use to your advantage comes with a reaction; I believe that the reaction to the digital age is the end of privacy.
At the end of the day, all the platforms we use, we're not forced to use them – you can choose to live your life the way you used to live 20 years ago. But you’ve probably chosen to be part of this movement.
And then of course there are all these conspiracy theories that one day they're going to use it against you. But I feel like that's a big statement to make and if Facebook is creating some kind of system or whatever, it's probably not to target our small lives. People like to complain about a lot of things while taking advantage of them.
I have very specific artists that inspire my work - they don't happen to be Arab. But there are a lot of artists that I admire and respect, whose scope of work is totally different than mine like Hassan Hajaj, Sherihan, Nadine Labaky.
Nadine Labaky especially, since she comes from the same environment as I do, is someone that really inspires me. There are no words that can express how much I'm in awe of this person and the work she does, because there's this magic to it, and it's so rare to see that. Her work is so genuine; it's very personal for me, and it's a very rare feeling to get.
You can check out Eli's work on Instagram @EliRezkallah.