Open the Vaults: Tania El Khoury's multimedia installation “Cultural Exchange Rate” immerses you in the artist's family history


Tania El Khoury's art installation "Cultural Exchange Rate," which is an L-shaped wall of vault boxes; a long desk is in front of the wall.

Tania El Khoury's Cultural Exchange Rate as shown in its October 2019 debut at SPIELART Das Theaterfestival in München. Photo by Judith Buss.

If you could unearth all the secrets of your family’s past, would you?

Lebanese artist Tania El Khoury set out to do that with her interactive art installation Cultural Exchange Rate, which is presented at the Stamps Gallery, courtesy of UMS, until January 29. The multimedia work tells the artist's mission to trace her family’s roots by having gallery-goers open locked boxes and stick their heads inside to see videos, sounds, objects, and images of El Khoury's family journies between continents.

Originally from Akkar, a small village in Lebanon located near the river that separates Lebanon and Syria, El Khoury’s great-grandparents migrated to Mexico during a civil war. Her grandfather was born in Mexico, but her family eventually moved back to Lebanon, where he collected old coins and Lebanese liras, hoping they would be worth more than their original value one day when the currency exchange rate changed. 

The story progresses to the present, with the artist becoming pregnant. In hopes of giving her unborn daughter citizenship in a country with a better passport and more cultural freedom, El Khoury searches for her grandfather’s birth certificate in Mexico, so her daughter can gain Mexican citizenship. The journey is frustrating, and while she hits a lot of dead ends, she also discovers family members in Mexico City that she didn’t know she had. Her story is one of blended cultures, resilience, survival, and hope.

Photographs, passports, and documents from Tania El Khoury's grandparents.

Inside one of the locked boxes featured in Tania El Khoury's Cultural Exchange Rate. Photo by Judith Buss.

Cultural Exchange Rate is a fully immersive experience that transports you to a different time. The gallery audience is ushered into a room and given instructions on how to move through the piece. There are two walls of vaults, which form an L shape, with a large wooden table and chairs in the middle. Every person is given a ring of 10 old-fashioned keys, each with a side labeled with the numbers one through 10 and the other with a vault number the key opens.

All participants start simultaneously, searching for their first vault and unlocking it. The vaults vary in size and height as well as contents, offering each visitor a unique experience by sending them on the journey in a different order.

The act of opening each box to unlock another chapter of El Khoury's family history becomes a ritual. There's also something symbolic about having to lock the vault after you are done, like closing a chapter of the family's life in order to see the next one.

Each box tells a unique tale, and to get the full experience, you must stick your head through black fabric to immerse your senses and shut out the room behind you. It makes the moment potent to feel alone with another family's history and have your senses heightened by what's in each particular box. In one vault, El Khoury tells a story of how her grandmother would wash her hair once a week with olive-oil soap; the box is stacked with soap bars and their smell saturates the tight quarters. In the vault where El Khoury reveals her pregnancy, the smell of baby powder is overwhelming. 

There’s a vault that requires you to take out a lock box and put together a puzzle. There are vaults that are so high you must stand on a block, and some so low that you watch while kneeling on a pad. 

In the biggest vault, you step into a room with a desk where El Khoury tells the story of her grandfather collecting old liras. The desk's drawers are full of the coins. The currency is debunked now, but if you like, you can exchange whatever currency you have for a lira, taking a piece of El Khoury’s culture home with you. I suggest that you do.

Marley Boone is a theatre professional that has been in the industry since 2015. While living in Philadelphia, she would write theatre reviews for DC Metro Arts.

“Cultural Exchange Rate” by Tania El Khoury is open until January 29 at Stamps Gallery. More information and free tickets can be found at El Khory appears at the Michigan Theater as part of the Penny Stamps Speaker Series on January 26 at 5:30 pm. The event is free and will also be live-streamed and archived on the Stamps Gallery's YouTube page.