Brilliantly Plastik: A Conversation with Eli Rezkallah, the Creator of the Middle East’s first Visual Magazine

Eli Rezkallah has been churning out the vibrant and visually intoxicating Plastik magazine since its 2009 inception, when the Beirut-based creative director and editor-in-chief was only 21 years old. The first visual magazine to be launched in the Middle East, the eccentric publication has evolved into a platform for emerging artists who, like Rezkallah himself, have a flare for the outlandish. For those unfamiliar with Rezkallah’s brainchild, each oversized page in the eye-popping magazine is a brazen masterpiece in itself. Brilliantly conceptualized stories are told through wondrously bold photography at the intersection of surrealism and what feels distantly familiar.

Drawing influence from the women Rezkallah saw growing up during the Lebanese Civil War, and the beautiful faces they put on as a means of concealing their pain, Plastik artistically considers the inner workings of a woman’s mind more so than her exterior. In turn, the art in Plastik is both mesmerizingly tender and electrically playful. In the face of the relentless chaos Beirut endures, Eli Rezkallah creates beauty and wonder. To have spoken about art and culture with such a visionary was a truly an incredible experience, and I’m over the moon to be saying this — meet Eli Rezkallah: 

How did you become involved in art?

I was always interested in fashion photography and theatre when I was a child. I was also part of a kid’s TV show cast for as long as I can remember. My involvement in art was the natural evolution of my interests.

A portrait of Eli Rezkallah with a piece from his High on Art series.

How would you describe Plastik’s aesthetic?

When Plastik first started, it was purely visual ideas — things I wanted to see. Then later on, it developed more into reflecting the women I grew up with — the struggles that they went through and how they kept a pretty facade to cover what was going on in their minds and in their hearts.

There’s no specific aesthetic, it’s just what feels right at that moment or what inspires me. Because I stick to one thing — which is my taste.

Head Over Heels by Eli Rezkallah for Plastik, 2017.

How has living in Beirut influenced Plastik magazine?

It’s the biggest influence. Beirut is not a stable city whatsoever — ever since we were young, there’s always some action happening; it’s full of contradictions. On the one hand, you see a lot of political problems and it’s war-like, and on the other hand, you see people trying to live their life as if nothing happened. Some people would blame them for not being engaged so much in politics, but I completely understand…

When you live in a city where problems are part of your daily life, you reach a point where it exhausts you and you decide you either want to leave or you want to stay. And if you really want to stay, you have to live in some sort of denial so you can pretend to have a normal life. It comes off as over the top — the partying and dress up — to cover what’s happening, but I think those two sides of the city really influence what Plastik is.

Beirut offers a lot of inspiration. And it’s very good in terms of practicality when it comes to production and doing big spreads and shooting. At Plastik, I think we’re really appreciated here because we’re doing something new, and that’s also part of the success of Plastik in Beirut.

From Rezkallah’s Plastik Tears series

What was launching the first visual magazine in the Middle East like? How did you make this happen?

Well, when it first launched, it was an instant success because they’d never seen anything like it before. And I was only 23 years old.

A lot of people come to me and ask “Oh, Plastik is Beirut-based?” A lot of people don’t even know Plastik is Beirut-based, they think it’s an international magazine or whatever. And this — I don’t know if it’s a compliment or not — only shows that it’s unusual. It doesn’t have the look of anything else coming from here, and that’s a good thing for me.

From Rezkallah’s Tabbah by the Sea SS16 campaign

Some people — although definitely not me — might consider your art slightly controversial. For example, the Miley Cyrus covers were deemed by some to be a bit provocative. How do you respond to those who don’t understand where you’re coming from artistically, if you respond at all?

Honestly, I don’t respond because the world is full off different tastes, different opinions, and not everyone has to like everything because that would be very, very boring. Some people are going to like and connect with things that we do. And some other people are going to be offended or feel that they’re so far from it — and that’s completely understandable; I don’t want everyone to like Plastik.

One of the four covers shot with Miley Cyrus for Plastik

Can you tell me a bit about your most recent issue’s theme of drag with Katya and Alaska Thunderfuck?

The art of drag is very interesting to me, especially over the past few years. Katya and Alaska were on a show called RuPaul’s Drag Race, and they are all so very talented — they’re like creative directors, but they apply their art to themselves, and this is something I really appreciate. They’re witty, they have amazing senses of humor. And, aesthetically they’re amazing. I’m a huge fan of everyone of them — I picked my favorite five. I approached them and we shot five different covers with five different stories that I built based on their characters with the Plastik element added to them. The results were the five covers we shot in LA last year. This issue was extremely successful — one of our best issues ever so far, and I’m very proud of it.

I don’t think drag queens are anything controversial; I don’t do anything for the controversy. When I shoot something, I just want to do it. I don’t like controversy. For me, this is something that I like to do. If some people are offended, they obviously don’t think like me, and that’s all that is.

A photograph of Katya from Rezkallah’s My Heart Belongs to Daddy shoot that appears in the most recent issue of Plastik.

Can you tell me a bit about Plastik Studios? 

Besides Plastik being a magazine, it’s also a studio. We do projects for clients that are Plastik-like in aesthetic — photoshoots, look books, campaigns, collaborations, design, etc. We’re a creative studio and we offer different services for clients.  This is something that we also started also nine years ago — so, maybe people only know about Plastik because it’s the product available on the market, but our studio also offers branding, event planning, creative direction, and creative services for those who want to work with us. We have a whole team that works with clients, and we always pick clients that have the same vision that we do — and only when they come to us with the same vision. Because they want what we do and what they see in Plastik, they know what to expect.

Bassam Fattouh FW16 campaign. Production by Plastik Studios.

What helps you feel creative?

I get ideas when I think hard about something — sometimes a brief will trigger an idea, sometimes the client themselves will. But, when I come up with concepts for stories for shoots or videos, I feel that most of the time I get ideas when I’m listening to music.

Drawing inspiration from Richard Prince’s paintings, Rezkallah created this nurse-centered concept for his Cerees Lookbook SS16 shoot.

Who are some of your favorite musicians?

Sade, Miley, Lana Del Rey, Wojciech Kilar, Melhem Barakat, Nicki Minaj and Sinatra.

Spaaah Day shoot with Alaska Thunderfuck, 2017. Creative direction by Eli Rezkallah.

Growing up, who were some of your favorite artists that you found inspiring? 

I like Pedro Almodovar, Helmut Newton and Guy Bourdin. I think those three artists had the biggest influence on my work.

Lady and the Tramp series by Rezkallah, 2016.

Going forward, what are some of your goals as an artist in 2017?

I just hope that Plastik can get as big as it could be, and I would also like to be associated with it for as long as I can. I would love my photography and creative direction work to be known to as many people as possible so that I can touch the biggest number of people through my work.

Creative direction by Eli Rezkallah for Plastik’s Summer of Love  shoot, 2015.
Bangkok, 2016: An installation view of Rezkallah’s Life in Plastik show at Adler Subhashok Gallery. This was Rezkallah’s first international show.
The offices at Plastik Studios, Beirut.
Murder by Eli Rezkallah, 2016.
From Rezkallah’s Plastik Tears series
Rezkallah’s creative direction for 2016’s Eau de Mervelleiles shoot
Creative direction by Rezkallah for Plastik’s Spring Ladies Club shoot
Another shot from the Spring Ladies Club series
Hanging On by Eli Rezkallah, 2015.
From Rezkallah’s Plastik Tears series
Mary had a Little Cow: creative direction by Rezkallah for Plastik.
Les Nuits du Carrousel: creative direction by Rezkallah for Plastik.
Eli Rezkallah, High on Art series
Rezkallah’s photography for For more of Eli Rezkallah’s work, check out his website, Instagram, and, of course, Plastik Magazine.

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