Why you should care
Leila Khoury’s massive works of metal and concrete are a testament to her Syrian heritage.
Leila Khoury’s last visit to Syria was in 2007, four years before war broke out. Though she was born and raised in Ohio, Khoury has always been drawn to the heritage, history and culture of her parents’ home. So in 2015, when the Islamic State took over Palmyra and began systematically destroying the ancient city and the great works of architecture permeating it, Khoury was stricken — and inspired.
The 25-year-old artist, working in her chosen field of metal, re-created scenes from memory that captured the Syria she had seen. The stark steel-and-concrete pieces are at once imposing and intimate. Palmyra 2015 features the city’s famed ruins etched into a concrete slab, a ghostly reflection of the now-destroyed pillars that defined the city for centuries. Summer House, a more personal memory of her grandparents’ coastal home, with its rounded steel framing that contrasts with the light windowlike concrete, blends a visual softness with the strength of the materials used. Both of these works were chosen as part of the National Museum of Women in the Arts’ “Women to Watch: Heavy Metal” exhibition this summer in Washington, where Khoury was the youngest artist exhibited.
“I was grieving not only because of the personal significance of having visited the heritage site as a child, but for the broader concept that a country’s historic identity could be so quickly erased during war,” Khoury says. Her work combines both the personal loss of a place she treasured and the much larger loss of Syria as it had been prior to the conflict. “As someone who has grown up in the States,” she says, “my relationship with these spaces is ephemeral, fragmented and marked by a longing to understand and pay homage to my cultural roots.”
The scale at which you can create things in metal is really appealing and empowering.
Khoury’s parents moved to the United States in the 1970s and settled in Cleveland, where she and her siblings were raised. The Midwestern city was a setting that proved inspirational for Khoury, even if she wasn’t aware of the impact at a young age. “I was surrounded by industrial building materials. I think to a certain degree I internalized the imagery of these really large, durable structures,” she says.
If the influence of her surroundings would take some time to manifest in her work, her interest in art was immediate. “Going to art class was her ultimate pastime, whether she had a free period or wanted to escape from math lab,” says her mother, Sawssan Khoury. It also proved an effective persuasion tool. One December, Leila drew her parents a garden with flowers and puppies. The caption: “I don’t want a dog. I need a dog.” Sawssan Khoury recalls, “The drawing was so creative, powerful and convincing, she got her hoped-for Christmas gift.”
Drawing was her passion, but after Khoury enrolled at Maryland Institute College of Art to study illustration, a sculpture class changed the trajectory of her career once she discovered metalwork. In addition to falling in love with the act of creating through welding and other processes, she found that “the scale at which you can create things in metal is really appealing and empowering to me.”
Now, as a postgraduate student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, she is able to focus entirely on her work without any other pesky school subjects — and impress the faculty in the process. “I was struck by how Leila’s work crossed boundaries between sculpture, architecture, interior architecture and preservation in its themes and content,” says Jonathan Solomon, director of the school’s department of architecture, interior architecture and designed objects. “Leila’s understanding of the intrinsic links between material, space and culture have set her early work apart in architecture studios.”
While the large-scale has defined her work so far, Khoury is also working with smaller inspirations. One of her latest projects, which is still developing, includes works based on artifacts she saw in the Louvre during a recent trip to Paris. She imagines a series that interrogates the colonial implications of museum collections and poses questions about ownership over these reminders of history.
To be sure, metalwork is not an easy field in which to carve out a niche for oneself. The arts can be an unforgiving industry for those in less imposing mediums, let alone one working on the outsize scale of Khoury. But she’s managed to generate demand for her culturally inspired pieces.
When Khoury was a child, her family traveled often to Syria, spending summers with relatives in Damascus and Hama. It took the civil war, starting in 2011, for her to understand “the duality of Arab and American cultures.” But her relationship with Syria now is only a memory. For her parents, with stronger ties, seeing Khoury’s work has been powerful. “It makes me very sad and deeply affected, but very proud at the same time,” her mother says.
Preserving that history is central to Khoury’s artistic vision, but it’s also a tall order for an artist so early in her career, not to mention how to represent a war that’s carried on for so long it feels less urgent globally. It is also unclear how the world will remember Syria before the war, and what part the arts will play in capturing what has been lost. But Khoury’s work bears an important witness, a personal and intimate experience that positions her work in relation to the individual and the ways in which we understand conflict — even if, because of the danger, she’s unable to visit or stay in touch with the people who remain.
Khoury also wants her work to speak to larger truths: the plight of refugees and “the senseless hostilities we have for immigrants in general.” For that, she has plenty of material to work with.