“I never really chose art-making, it chose me,” Elya Aboutboul-Bilia recounts saying to herself when she applied to Los Angeles County High School for the Arts as an eighth grader. 

Aboutboul-Bilia was born in Tel Aviv and moved to Los Angeles when she was 10. As she adjusted to America, sometimes the language of art was a more comfortable way to communicate, a tool to understand herself and her environment. Even if it took time to define how art-making would play a role in her life and education.

“It was hard to accept my love and attraction for creating, but once I was at UCLA, I realized I loved art-making, it’s part of who I am,” she said.

So she embraced art as her major, and has taken on a double major in comparative literature, focusing on literature in English and Hebrew. A UCLA/Keck Humanistic Inquiry Undergraduate Research Award recipient, Aboutboul-Bilia is finishing up her courses not only by making art, but also with a culminating essay reflecting upon the methodology of the work she created this year, and on what art research is.

“You have to let your voice and the voice of the material collaborate,” she said.

She is focusing on how an art object is active, both while it is being made and while it is being viewed. And she is exploring the ways in which she has created this year in response to the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7, 2023, and the assault on Gaza in the Israel-Hamas war, which she describes as an extremely saddening, violent, terrifying time.

“I see what humanity is doing and I have a very direct relationship,” she said. “… The works I’ve made reflect this moment — making new, huge pieces of handmade paper out of older, recycled paper that reflect a desire for new ways of reading, new ways of understanding. The new paper acts as architecture, because within it is a history, and its new form restructures that history. I think that there is a relationship; the new is a blank piece of paper that hasn’t been marked, sometimes words or parts of images suddenly appear that give an insight into the history of the paper before it was ripped up and soaked to be made into pulp, the last stage before composing the amalgamation of recycled printer paper into new.” 

“A Drawing of a Facade,” Scrap paper made into pulp, and graphite, charcoal
Elya Aboutboul-Bilia
“A Drawing of a Facade,” 2023. Scrap paper, graphite and charcoal.

“I really believe in play. Play is when certain guards are taken down, and you are able to talk with something without judgment. It enables information to flow during and as a result of a relationship with materiality or with a medium. And the paper I am writing is an attempt to address play as a theoretical methodology within art-making.”

“This is one of the differences between art and standard research. There is an expectation in research that there is an idea or question. Art cannot have a hypothesis; art leaves room for unknown.”

She also admits to struggling with her relationship with creation and the role of art in society given world events that are so close to her as an Israeli.

“I’ve been very active, so I am also trying to understand the role of making within activism,” she said.

She and her brother Michael, a third year studying ethnomusicology and Middle Eastern studies at UCLA, have become active with Standing Together Los Angeles, a grassroots social justice organization comprised of Palestinians and Israelis in Israel and Palestine working toward peace, equality and social justice.

“It’s been a very difficult time, for me and for many others,” she said. “Standing Together is one of the things that has saved me, helped bring back my confidence and reaffirm my values. As an Israeli, it is important for me to speak up against injustice, and it is thanks to the Standing Together community in Los Angeles that I have been encouraged to do so, while also finding moments of self-healing in such a dark time.”

“Our goal is to save lives now and 20 years from now, and to act in solidarity with the people of the region. We know that peace is not something that we should know what it looks like. We are not here to say what the future should look like, other than where both peoples live in freedom, equality and dignity. The group is really about leveraging our privilege in the diaspora to stand together, speak up, uplift courageous peace activists in the region, and collaborate with those part of Standing Together on the ground in Israel and Palestine.” 

“My main work these days is about dialogue, which is not always comfortable. It is important to not feel comfortable. I know this is the space where not all of my ideas will be validated. I’m going to be uncomfortable, and that’s how you learn and grow.”

While Aboutboul-Bilia does not know exactly what she wants to do after graduating, she is interested in working with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), or in bilingual education in Hebrew and Arabic.

“I don’t know how my trajectory will look, but I hope to go on to higher education later in my life,” she said. “I am so grateful for my education, and the confidence that a university has given me, as I see myself improve and acquire more knowledge. As a creator and as an academic, I am seeing my own evolution. I’ve learned from incredible teachers. I am grateful for them and their mentorship, the classes, and the whole range of opportunities.”

“As a first-gen immigrant, it has been a privilege to be in university and have incredible professors share their knowledge with me.”