Raoul Rifaï Strikes Poetic Notes at Beirut Exhibition Center

Nélida Nassar   03.14.2016

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The Beirut Exhibition Center (BEC) in collaboration with curator Razan Chatti of Afaak gallery is presenting from April 8 to April 15 an exhaustive retrospective devoted to Raoul Rifaï, a major figure of Lebanon’s representational art. The exhibition is undeniably beautiful. About eighty works by Rifaï are spread lavishly over 1000 square meters. The pace of the exhibition is regular as a metronome. Small sizes, drawings, collages, sculptures, photographs, and major paintings do not come alone, but together, in regular series. They have generic titles, under which they are familiarly referred to as Abyss, Auto-Carbon, Civilisation, Ca-Bis, Darwich, Karakoz, Harmony…

Son of a poet and a poet himself, Rifaï nurtures a distrust of the official artistic codes, looks into modes of instinctive expression independent of any artistic training and manages to free himself to produce a very autonomous and very experimental work throughout the different phases of his art. Doesn’t Rifai work all along in series? The chronological Ariadne’s thread of this exposition tends to prove it. His polymorphous work is in fact shown almost as a musical suite of formal transformations.

What is the true nature of the changes made by Rifaï? The exhibition takes the party of order and art, building the work of the artist as a whole, a dialectic outside any historical context. The series begins immediately, with Darwish Abu El Abd, Blind Darwish, Darwish of Paradise, Darwish Clown, Sportive Darwish in each one a figure stares at us with piercing eyes, dressed and placed in invariably a primary colors background environment. Rifaï has developed a radically new, graphic style, and a mascot which he calls “Darwiche or Karakose” he deploys and continues painting them in many guises, all of which share some common characteristics, foremost the fact that they are all rooted in human existence.

In pictures such as Harmony, Rifaï the urban designer lingers, you get the sense of recognizable shapes both generating each other and losing their identity, becoming more abstract. These images are equally of something – a landscape, a nascent city, some repetitive patterns – and of nothing. Here Rifaï excels in his dexterity of manipulating the paint roller with numerous background effects diluted or impasto, smooth or granulated.

All along, Rifaï seeks out the world of pure color, his medium of predilection is acrylic, he applies it like Rouault. Bedecked head and body of the Darwish or the Karakoze series as in Dubuffet are always seen frontally in black lines and pure colors. Any painting or drawing is a negotiation between the marks it is made of and the image they add up to. That is as true of a brush-markless Poussin as a brush-stippled Seurat. The same contract exists between man and society: we want to be both ourselves and part of a bigger picture. Rifaï’s series run those two negotiations into one.

The human being and the human figure are his favorite subjects, but as negative, drawn upside down as in Darwish Arab Spring. The outlines of faces or bodies are cut off from the scraped material to stalk and find the brush wet acrylic of its background. Doesn’t these portrait make reference to the art of the icons? Rifaï is indeed an iconoclast.

The artist could also be considered as a successful propagandist, with his attacks on conformism and mainstream culture, which his images describes as asphyxiating. He is attracted to an art of childlike quality. His work is also influenced and shaped by an interest in materiality especially prevalent in his sculpture and installations. Here the two discarded aluminum recycled blocks are an homage to César. They bookmark the monumental Save the Beauty of the World painting conjuring hope despite the harshness of our surrounding world. Straddling a corner wall is Steps to the Heaven a mural collage of shoes remnant of what an explosion leaves behind. Followed by The Black Mediterranean Sea it describes our sea pollution’s quagmire. Not far along the viewer is confronted with the themes of Jihadists’ addiction to Captagon smoked in hubble bubble and the one of mortality with sarcophagus Darwish Miror. Is omnipotent Rifaï deriding death?

The emphasis on texture and materiality in Rifaï’s paintings and sculpture might be read as an insistence on the real. In the continuous climate of instability and strife of the Middle East, it represents an appeal to acknowledge humanity’s failings and begin again from the ground – literally the soil – up.

Doesn’t this power over matter create the image of a Rifaï as a creator? This is indeed the BEC retrospective’s approach. Rifaï is now a positive hero, perhaps too good for a man who is shy by nature more stealth and who apparently dislikes commemorations, the “asphyxiating culture” of ostentation. Doesn’t Rifaï appear to be one of the major Lebanese artist, who for such a long time contented of being minor? But if this is so: this exhibition has appropriated the artist and has made him part of the cannon. Undoubtedly, his work invites viewers to look at it as an enterprise for the rehabilitation of scorned values, and, by the same token, a work of ardent celebration.