This article is repurposed from www.gallerieswest.ca
Who am I? This age-old question has stumped great sages and vexed countless teenagers. Some settle for formulaic answers, such as nationality or career, but for Edmonton-based artist Hanny Al Khoury, self identity is a particularly vital quest.
Born in 1990, Al Khoury left his family home in Eilabun, a Palestinian village that overlooks the Sea of Galilee in what is now Israel, when he was 18. He had only $30 in his pocket, but says he was fed up with the constant pressure to conform with the expectations of his tight-knit Christian Arab community.
Instead, he decided to live on the streets of Jerusalem and take in its cultural mix: he would observe people, sketch on the street and subsist on the generosity of strangers.
Hanny Al Khoury, “Awakening,” 2022, oil on canvas (courtesy the artist)
“I was different,” Al Khoury says in English, showing a fluency that belies his arrival in Canada in 2016, when he spoke only Hebrew and Arabic. “I wanted to explore my identity, the way I think. For me, it was a spiritual homeless journey.”
After six months on the street, Al Khoury says he was offered a job and a place to live by a religious man, a Jewish restaurateur. Having a home allowed him to work to improve his art. He became increasingly successful, but never more than now, in the safe harbour of his studio in Edmonton.
His exhibition, La La Lands, on view until May 21 at the Art Gallery of Alberta, is part memoir, part window into imaginary worlds, but, above all, a poignant meditation on belonging.
Edmonton-based artist Hanny Al Khoury with some of his work (photo by Tatyana Semenova)
Al Khoury’s art is inseparable from his roots. In his telling, the story begins Oct. 30, 1948, the day of a massacre in his village by Israeli troops during the Arab-Israeli War. One of a number of massacres that have been confirmed by historians working from declassified government documents, it saw at least 12 people in Eilabun shot by Israeli forces in front of terrified villagers, who were then expelled. Al Khoury says his grandparents walked with their neighbours to Lebanon. Lobbying efforts by the church eventually cleared the way for their return, an unusual outcome for the time.
Hanny Al Khoury, “Rebel,” 2022, oil on canvas (courtesy the artist)
As an Arab within Israel and as a Christian within the Arab community, Al Khoury was a minority within a minority. Even in his small predominantly Christian village, he says he was bullied. “There were a lot of wealthy families, and I was poor,” he says, recalling times when he didn’t have enough to eat. The only place that welcomed and sustained him, he says, was his church.
“This was the kind of environment I lived in: a Palestinian village in Israel,” he says.
While Al Khoury is no longer a practicing Catholic, he says the biblical stories and symbols of his youth are central to his art. “It’s the core, it’s my identity,” he says.“It’s where I come from.”
Hanny Al Khoury, “Revenge,” 2022, oil on canvas (courtesy the artist)
In Revenge, for instance, the most salient object is a chalice held in an open hand. Symbolizing the support Al Khoury received from the church, it glistens in the light of a boat-shaped sun with a dark, earthy centre that depicts a bird’s-eye view of his family’s home. The certainties of Al Khoury’s youth evaporated once he left home. He was deluged with new experiences and, as a black grate in the painting suggests, came to recognize the rigidity of the ideologies of his early life.
“Back home, there is a lot of political and social pressure,” he says. “So, you don’t think properly. Canada provided a safe place for me to explore my past.”
Al Khoury has found the only worthy revenge – he has managed not only to survive, but to thrive.
“Revenge for me,” he says, without a hint of anger or malice, “is when you go through something that’s supposed to finish you, but you continue to be alive, and rising.” ■
Hanny Al Khoury: La La Lands at the Art Gallery of Alberta in Edmonton from Feb. 18 to May 21, 2023.