A Coffee with Maya Zankoul

When Maya joins me for coffee on a sunny Thursday afternoon in Beirut, we have already tweeted, facebooked, texted and called each other. Thanks to Facebook and the 800 photos of me, she knows full well what I look like, but that doesn’t prevent me from texting her « I’ll be the girl in the blue skirt with the notebook ». Yes, I sometimes seem to forget that I’m part of the wonders of new media and communication.
However, what Facebook or Twitter can’t convey is somebody’s presence, expressions and aura, three things Ms Zankoul definitely has. What should have been a small interview almost immediately turned into a conversation on society, culture, books, plastic surgery (or rather how neither she nor me would never ever support the apparently fashionable Daffy Duck look) art and work (it seems that this topic is unavoidable).

Born and raised in Saudi Arabia “where Syrians, Lebanese, Saudis and all different nationalities sat in the same classroom at the Lycée Français without anyone finding it odd”, the 23 year old Maya came back to live in beautiful Lebanon five years ago. Since then, she’s been taking at heart drawing the day-to-day life of a Lebanese graphic designer, working both free lance and in a company and volunteering for the NGO Youth for Tolerance, catapulted in the oh-so-eventful Beirut life.
Maya Zankoul has been drawing since she was a child, which prompted her to engage in the graphic design field. Nevertheless, the assertive young woman wanted to shift from her all-commercial designs and do something different, which eventually lead her to draw comics on the differences in lifestyle between KSA and Lebanon, and on what life looks like in Beirut for a young artist not tremendously interested in making lots of money and sporting the last fashionable sunglasses.

Maya’s drawings are also a means for the artist to criticize what gets to her in the Lebanese society and to express herself on issues that she thinks must be addressed: “Some people don’t even see the flaws in our society; it’s time that the young generations woke up and start raising awareness”. When asked what are in her opinion the biggest flaws in the Lebanese society, Maya has her answer immediately ready: “People being so obsessed with appearances and only caring about plastic surgery, how to get the latest cell phone, how to make more money, really gets to me. The other thing that I think needs to be addressed is political fanatism. You see people, especially young people, following political trends without really having an opinion.”

Despite all of this, Maya won’t leave Lebanon. In a constructive perspective, she wants to stay and see what she can change in her country so people start reading again, and make Beirut proud by giving the city a cultural reputation rather than the not-so-glorious one it boasts today. For her illustrations are a good way to question society flaws because they’re short, straight to the point, and can express more than a thousand words, especially in the image-ridden era that we’re living in, where people seem to have lost interest in reading.

Curious of the cultural scene of my country, I asked Maya to describe the Art scene in Lebanon in 5 words/concepts. “Mmmmm, she said after thorough deliberation, I’d say limited, weak, with a lot of potential, developing and varied. People have a lot of skills, there are different types of branches of art that coexist and collaborate, but each of them is still at the developing stage”. The problem of the Lebanese art scene might also reside in its lack of openness: it seems that the artists form a group that’s difficult to enter, going to the same clubs, working together on projects, and for a young artist this might be intimidating.

Contrary to what popular beliefs would have us think, being a woman, and what’s more, a YOUNG woman, never really was a problem for the artist’s career. She got support both from men and women who were showing curiosity for her work
As we started with a discussion on Facebook and Twitter, I asked her to assess the impact of new means of communication on the work of young artists, who might not benefit from contacts and relations in the art world. Obviously, networking or micro-blogging sites were the ideal vectors for dissemination of her work, what with the majority of the youth being hooked up on them. The promotion of her book, launched on August the 12th at Art Lounge in Beirut, Karantina, was also made both via traditional means like TV and posters, but first and foremost via Facebook and Twitter. The only flaw, underlines the young illustrator, is the elitist side of these websites. You can only access them if you have a computer (and in Lebanon, it also means the electricity for it), are familiar with using it and know English.

But we have no worries about Maya: being the passionate artist that she is, she will probably find a way to share her work with less privileged people!

In the meantime, we (and by we, I mean me, my co workers, my fiancé, my friends) are just extremely grateful to Maya for giving us a breath of fresh air when our lives get a tad too stressful for our liking.

To follow Maya’s adventures, go on to www.mayazankoul.com
Her Book, Amalgam, is available at all Virgin bookstores in Lebanon and at Librairie Antoine

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