Eli Rezkallah creates colourful worlds that hint at the darker side of his personal history
The photographer wanted to challenge pervading views of the Middle East, a region that is consistently misrepresented and monolithically depicted as war-torn and desolate. Today he’s become one of the most highly respected artists from the Arab world.
- Dalia Al-Dujaili
- 3 December 2021
The narrow, one-dimensional versions of themselves that Arabs see through popular culture and mainstream media is nothing new. For many of those who grow up in the region, conflict is an inevitable part of life, but not the sole defining feature of their identity. Eli Rezkallah – growing up in 1990s Lebanon, when the country was enduring a civil war, international conflicts, and domestic and economic crises – says he was “secluded” in an “oasis” from the harsh realities of the conflicts in the country’s urban regions. He was able to almost avoid what was happening elsewhere in the country, but Eli knew something wasn’t quite right. Today, his photography and creative direction takes their cues from this almost paradoxical existence.
Within his work, Eli evokes a Stepford Wives neighbourhood, an inverted, too-perfect, too-plastic world, where something is always slightly off-key. In his documentary, produced with Cadillac, he explains how he’s interested in depicting the women of domestic spheres, the ones who preen themselves and are praised for their “wifely-ness”, an interest sparked by watching his glamorous and resistant mother raise a family in the country. This was, and still is, commonplace among the women who exist in the Middle Eastern upper-middle classes.
Dropping out of film school during his second year was the best decision Eli ever took. The curriculum didn’t resonate with him and he was adamant about bringing his vision to life, which he couldn’t do within the confines of a classroom. Plastik magazine, the Arab world’s first visual magazine, was born of this vision. “It started small, but made a loud bang,” Eli tells us. “I look back at those days with a lot of tenderness. Somehow I truly admire the fearlessness of my 19-year-old self.” It’s no wonder Eli is in awe of his younger self; at such a tender age, he managed to firmly root himself as a creative force to be reckoned with, both within and outside of the Middle East.
“To me, the freedom to display one’s sexuality and be outspoken about it was still taboo,” says Eli, “and the idea of emancipation was very attractive.” Plastik came from a desire to “implode” and for Eli to be “unapologetically” himself. It’s fair to say that having the world’s most famous drag queens on the cover of a Middle Eastern magazine is a challenge, but now exploring gender identity and sexuality is commonplace among the pages of not only Plastik, but countless other Middle Eastern publications, thanks to the work of Eli, his creative team and those who believed in his vision.
He also wanted to bring colour to Beirut, a city that was being defined by its turmoil, and one that wasn’t accustomed to using its own voice to portray itself with the humanity and poetry it had to offer, but instead was used to having others speak for it. “I wanted to show that we are not our struggles, and at the time I thought that adopting a more ‘Western’ visual language was the way to go about it,” Eli tells us, a familiar tale wherein those from the Middle East, and especially in Lebanon where European aesthetics remain sought after, often attempt to westernise their creative output. “I always looked at the West for salvation.” When Eli understood his intrinsically Lebanese identity, “the mix became more interesting and more genuine and I believe this shows in my evolution,” he says.
Eli is one of the greatest driving forces of creativity in the Middle East. He practically made it cool to be from the Arab world during the post-9/11 climate, when most Arabs felt it was safer to pretend they were anything but. “That’s a funny question: there were too many challenges,” he says, when we ask him what challenges he faced when launching Plastik. “The one that resonated the most was when I was brought up for questioning by the Lebanese authorities.”
Despite the vast and varied amount of publications emerging from the Arab region today, back when Eli was a young man, this certainly wasn’t the norm. “There was an issue that featured an artwork by one of my favourite artists, Chris Bracey, which featured religious symbolism. The morning of its release, I received a call from the local authorities to go in for an interrogation,” Eli recalls. “It seems the censorship department was angry that a cross was used suggestively and they asked me to take down the issue.” Eli had to reprint the issue and burn the existing copies (“very Middle Ages,” he says). He had never spoken about this occurrence publicly before, because for the photographer, Plastik’s “mere existence in Lebanon was to inspire younger artists to believe that this industry exists seamlessly. I was a strong believer that everything starts existing by pretending that it actually exists, and for a while it kind of worked,” he says.
Despite the uphill climb Eli had to endure, his highs by far outweigh the lows. One of Eli’s favourite projects was directing this mini-documentary about his first ten years at Plastik. “It’s rare for someone to be asked to direct their own documentary but I thought of it as an opportunity to tell my story and consolidate ten years’ worth of work in one place,” he says. Looking back at the archives, he explains, and having “a comprehensive story about a key period of [his] life” was a therapeutic exercise. Plastik has risen from a local magazine project into a global phenomenon. Now working in LA as well as Beirut, Eli has collaborated with the likes of Miley Cyrus and Paris Hilton, as well as all our favourite drag stars like Sasha Velour, Violet Chachki and the mother herself Ru Paul, and has managed to turn Plastik into a brand with its own studio and an incredibly recognisable global mark.
Now, Plastik is excitingly and deservedly launching in New York City, and Eli is currently working on his very first book, which will be published next year by Belgian publishing house Laanno, alongside his first solo show in the Big Apple. The exhibition aims to display the “beautiful journey that I’m enjoying,” Eli tells us, “and I’m excited to bring it to life because it tackles my work and also my story through childhood memories, so a lot of reflecting is happening at the moment!” The current generation of Middle Eastern editorial creatives can thank Eli for paving the way in the freedom of expression through print, fashion and styling we are now beginning to enjoy in the region; owing to the fact he has managed to capture our often-plastic society perfectly.
About the Author
Dalia is a freelance writer, producer and editor based in London. She’s currently the digital editor of Azeema, and the editor-in-chief of The Road to Nowhere Magazine. Previously, she was news writer at It’s Nice That, after graduating in English Literature from The University of Edinburgh.