Samir Rafi show puts surrealism in the spotlight

Samir Rafi, Deux Hommes Accroupis, 1957, Oil on burlap. (Image courtesy of Ubuntu Art Gallery)
Updated 30 January 2019
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Samir Rafi show puts surrealism in the spotlight

  • Green Art Gallery currently is showcasing an exhibition on the late Egyptian modernist artist Samir Rafi until March.5
  • Rafi’s compositions are sometimes surreal and always thought-provoking, from lonesome figures to menacing wolf-like dogs, often intertwined with political and personal narratives

DUBAI: “I really wanted to spotlight an artist who hasn’t had the recognition that he deserves and hasn’t been shown properly,” says Yasmin Atassi, director of Dubai’s Green Art Gallery. She is talking about the gallery’s current exhibition — a solo retrospective of the late Egyptian modernist Samir Rafi.
“He was a deeply intellectual artist, who created his own visual language and universe that is full of symbolism,” Atassi explains.
Considered one of Dubai’s first contemporary art galleries, Green Art Gallery opened in 1995 as a salon d’art in the neighborhood of Jumeirah. Pioneers of modern Arab art — including Iraq’s Dia Azzawi, the late Syrian artist Fateh Moudarres, and Lebanon’s Hussein Madi — roamed the halls of the gallery and showcased their works to enthusiasts and collectors.
Once a year, the gallery, which has sinced moved to Al-Serkal Avenue, steers away from its contemporary art shows of conceptual installations and digital art and goes back to basics, developing research-driven exhibitions of a historical context, revealing museum-quality works by Middle Eastern luminaries of the twentieth century.

“We aim to go back to Green Art Gallery’s roots, since the gallery is steeped in the modern art history of the region,” Atassi says. “I also think that we have the audience for it, because the younger generation is interested in the older generation.”
This year, it is Rafi’s turn to shine. “Spotlight on Samir Rafi” runs through March 5. It is Rafi’s first solo exhibition in the Gulf, and includes 13 works gathered from his family’s estate, and from private and public collections. The works range from delicate pieces on paper to elaborate oil paintings and were all created between the 1940s and the 1990s.
Rafi was born in Cairo in 1926, and gained a scholarship to the Sorbonne in Paris in the early Fifties. He lived in the French capital until his death in 2004.
His sometimes surreal and always thought-provoking compositions, from lonesome figures to menacing wolf-like dogs, often intertwine political and personal narratives. Despite his powerful work, his willingness to experiment with a variety of mediums, and his uncensored and passionate style, however Rafi remains one of the lesser-explored figures of Egyptian modern art, even though he is associated with groundbreaking artistic movements that were birthed in Egypt during the politically and culturally tumultuous twentieth century.
Early in his career, Rafi was invited by the Art et Liberté collective to participate in a couple of their exhibitions. Composed of both Egyptians and foreigners, this short-lived yet highly productive group of artists, established in Cairo in the late 1930s, was deeply influenced by the imaginative realm of surrealism.
“This was during post-independence Egypt. It was a hotbed for intellectuals, poets, writers, and photographers who were fleeing the war in Europe,” Atassi says. “The Art et Liberté group were trying to create a new art form for the people in Egypt, because they felt the old art form was very provincial and conservative.”

On display at the exhibition, one finds a rare, blue-colored, dreamlike drawing — a close-up of a hand holding onto plants ¬— executed in 1943, when Rafi was a 17-year-old student, revealing his surrealist tendencies early on in his career.
After the dismantlement of the Art et Liberté group, a new artistic identity was formed through the birth of the Contemporary Art Group during the mid-1940s, of which Rafi was an integral, co-founding, member. The group was fueled by nationalism — inspired by the rise of the Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser — leading to the creation of authentically Egyptian imagery in a modern manner.
“The Contemporary Art Group wanted to convey what Egypt was all about, they had felt that the Art et Liberté group was a little too Westernized,” Atassi explains.
Like many artists of his time, despite his modernist tendencies, Rafi was deeply inspired by the history of art, most notably the iconic figures of ancient Egyptian art and Nubian wall paintings. Such references can be seen, for instance, in his pen-on-paper drawing from 1950 depicting a woman whose posture resembles that of the statuesque hieroglyph carrying plants while being guarded by a wolfdog.
One of the larger works on display is “The Visit,” a magnificent and sensual painting on a rug, which was created in 1965. Like much of Rafi’s work, the piece invites viewers to form their own interpretation — one can sense some kind of power play occurring between the composition’s two subjects: a man and a woman standing side by side. A striking element of the image is the sense of empowerment exuded by the voluptuous, nude woman. With her wide eyes and dark hair, her quiet confidence contrasts that of the vulnerable man whose hands are tied. Perhaps the constrained man symbolizes Egypt and its people, whereas the woman offers hope, freedom, and light, emphasized by the candle she carries.

Looking into Rafi’s works from the 1970s — a time of regional uncertainty marked by the death of Nasser in 1970 and the Arab-Israeli War in 1973 — his ‘trademark’ depiction of the wolfdog becomes increasingly apparent, creating a constant tension and adding a political undertone to his work. In one picture, Rafi depicts two wolves devouring each other. In another, a snarling wolfdog gains power as a man is imprisoned in a cage.
According to Myrna Ayad, a Dubai-based independent arts consultant who oversaw the growth of the Modern section as former director of Art Dubai, the wolf likely speaks of Rafi’s frustrations with the status quo of the region.
“Rafi’s work is highly sensual and highly political,” Ayad tells Arab News. “I think the wolf is a metaphor for the ugliness of mankind. I think Rafi was trying to say that we, as mankind, can be animalistic and aggressive. Artists like Rafi were not immune to their surroundings and were the greatest historians because they were recording their own interpretation.”
Not all the images on display contain such stark and heavy content. 1957’s “Two Crouching Men,” for example, a depiction of villagers — a favored theme among Egyptian artists at that time, exudes a peaceful ambience with its earthy tones and geometry. And as one leaves the exhibition a raw painting of a man lying on a (death)bed suspended over a hole in the floor — “Life’s Tragedy” — reminds the viewer of the inevitability of endings. Yet despite its grim title, this calm composition, painted in the early years of the Contemporary Art Group era, also seems to represent a kind of liberation and rebirth.


Artist Rana Samar explores a new symbolism in the intimate lives of Palestinians

Palestinian artist Rana Samara. (Image supplied)
Updated 22 May 2019
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Artist Rana Samar explores a new symbolism in the intimate lives of Palestinians

  • The Palestinian artist turns the mundane into vibrant revelation

DUBAI: At the age of 33, Palestinian visual artist Rana Samara has grown tired of the repetitive — often combative — themes most commonly found in modern and contemporary Palestinian art, including the symbolic motif of olive trees and the political act of throwing stones. As her inquisitive body of works shows, the socially engaged, Ramallah-based artist looks to dig deeper into societal and gender issues through her vivid imagery of couples’ bedrooms and emotionally charged portraits that offer a glimpse into the minds of Palestinian children.

“My personal view is that, in Palestine, elements of normal, everyday life are unspoken,” Samara tells Arab News. “For instance, if one looks at the work of the late Palestinian master Ismail Shammout, he made images of refugee camps. But, in these images, one sees things from an exterior point of view, which made me question what the interior life was like. There are many closed doors that need to be opened and explored. Through my works, I would like to be able to make the private public.”

Represented by Ramallah’s Zawyeh Gallery, Samara has so far produced two major bodies of works: “Intimate Space” and “War Games.” Both delve into different facets of contemporary Palestinian society, tainted by the state’s ongoing political instability.

Samara’s works have been largely inspired by her personal encounters as a woman and as a Palestinian, as she once explained in a statement. “I have always been intrigued by both the stories and untold silences women transfer from one generation to another, in particular from mothers to daughters. Women hide great stories and if you give them the opportunity they will make great storytellers,” she said. “Intimate stories and female wisdom are the sources of inspiration for me and for my practice. That said, perhaps my own experiences are a latent inspiration too. I grew up in a typical Palestinian family and consequently spent most of my childhood and teenage years observing and analyzing social and gender relations. I came to understand how precious, yet also how suffocating, women’s roles as carers and nurturers can be.”

In “Intimate Space,” created between 2015 and 2016, Samara unconventionally presents her calm interpretations of the post-coital interiors of couples’ bedrooms: A gentleman’s tie slung onto a bed, a pacifier tossed on the floor, a case of pills placed on the counter. These are the intimate details of what Samara likes to refer to as “a documentary of everyday life.” The subject of this series was triggered by Samara’s visit to the Palestinian Al-Amari refugee camp, where she simply asked herself how couples could maintain intimacy in uninspiring, often sad, cramped spaces without much privacy. “Can you imagine how depressing life can be in the camp?,” she asks. “They try to beautify and improve it, but once a person enters the camp, it can be a really depressing and deadly environment.”

In terms of style, “Intimate Space” is reminiscent of Henri Matisse’s spatiality and David Hockney’s use of bright colors, adding life and a touch of femininity and lightness to what some might consider a crude subject. “Regardless of the circumstances, I felt the beauty and intimacy of these scenes and that is one of the reasons why I used bright, and not depressing, colors for these images,” she says.

“War Games,” a series of acrylic paintings, debuted at Art Dubai 2019 — the second time Samara had participated in what is arguably the region’s most-significant art fair. The series invites viewers to observe the dreams of deprived children and young refugees, who have in some way or another been affected by war in the region.

The images ultimately give the impression of the loss of a normal, innocent childhood; an outcome of war that Samara believes isn’t widely discussed. “Children dream of games they yearn to play and objects that bring them feelings of safety and comfort within their own home and family, re-occur to become part of lifelong memories and influences,” according to a statement released by Zawyeh Gallery.

A research-driven project that took around 18 months, “War Games” came to life after Samara was approached to create works inspired by Jerusalem. Having never set foot in the city prior to this project, Samara avoided concentrating on typical themes; instead she turned to the city’s critical reality of the destruction of homes for inspiration.

An empathetic conversationalist at heart, Samara’s onsite research led her to converse with traumatized owners of destroyed homes — an activity which also included interaction with children: “As a mother, I have the skills of communicating with children. And so, as I was sitting with a little boy I asked him to bring a pencil and a paper to express his feelings, particularly about the destruction, by drawing them. He told me that he had a terrible nightmare and it was this little boy’s story that initially motivated me,” she explains.

Having settled on the theme of transmitting children’s dreams (or nightmares) onto canvas for this project, Samara traveled to Jordan, where she spent time in various refugee camps, seeking insight into life there. She also conducted art therapy workshops, in which refugees and young people were encouraged to express their thoughts and concerns, which became a great source of inspiration for the series. Overall, it was a sense of loss that Samara noticed time and again while observing children’s drawings. “They overcame defeat, death, destruction, pain, or the loss of a parent, ” Samara says of children from Gaza.

One of the most intriguing pieces in “War Games” is a vivid image of an open tine of Quality Street chocolates containing reels of thread — reflecting the mental state of a boy preoccupied with heavier thoughts: “Instead of thinking where he should play after school is over, he is thinking about the tin and its association with his mother’s source of income and happiness. In a way, he is tying his financial wellbeing to the tin,” explains Samara.

Probably the most popular image from the series is the autobiographical “Super Mario,” based on a life-changing incident in Samara’s childhood when her family’s home was invaded by Israeli soldiers, while she was involved in a game of “Super Mario.” At that moment, not only was the security of Samara’s home life lost, but, she says, one of Mario’s lives in the game was lost too.