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

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.


Saudi streamers seek gaming glory during COVID-19 crisis

Twitch’s top channels during April included Saudi Arabia’s ixxYjYxxi, which recorded 210,257 views in 44 hours of streaming during the month. (Photo/Supplied)
Updated 13 July 2020

Saudi streamers seek gaming glory during COVID-19 crisis

  • Saudi streamers in particular have also enjoyed great success on Twitch

RIYADH: As the Arab world emerges from lockdown, the data obtained from the period of forced confinement shows what the region’s gaming community has been up to, most notably on one streaming website that has gamers in the region “doing the Twitch.”
The coronavirus lockdown in the Middle East sparked a significant increase in the platform’s Arabic-language content, with Arabic streams more than doubling during March and April.
Twitch allows users to broadcast their gameplay live to fans around the world, and the website announced a total of 62,582 active streams as countries across the region followed strict social distancing rules.
Saudi streamers in particular have also enjoyed great success on Twitch. The platform’s top channels during April included Saudi Arabia’s ixxYjYxxi, which recorded 210,257 views in 44 hours of streaming during the month, and RakanooLive, with more than 561,000 hours of watch time.
Whether it is for attention, to show off their skills or even as a way to make money, Saudi streamers spoke to Arab News about why they choose to broadcast their gameplay, and why viewers find it appealing.
Fahad Alshiha, a member of Saudi gaming news website TrueGaming, also streams on an independent Twitch channel where he has garnered over 16,000 views.
He has been streaming for over 5 years as a way to share his gaming skills while being able to interact with his viewers.
“Streaming is popular because viewers find it entertaining,” he told Arab News. “It’s like watching a famous TV show, where people tune in to see the new episode. It’s popular with the streamers themselves because they get attention, and sometimes even money. But I think the majority are doing it to just have fun.”
Erum Alnafjan, a financial collector, said that she enjoyed watching streamers for a variety of reasons, playing games she was familiar with and games she was not.
“Some games I wouldn’t play myself, but I’m interested enough to see what they’re about,” she told Arab News. “Some streamers make it entertaining. And sometimes I watch games I’ve already played just to see how they would go about it.”
Ahmad   Suliman, a  senior   manager and a “father of three gamers,” enjoyed watching streams, but had specific criteria regarding what sort of streams he would or would not watch.

It’s like watching a famous TV show, where people tune in to see the new episode.

Fahd Alshiha

“The only two values I watch streams for are the funny reactions, such as rage or trash talking, or information about the gaming world and industry. If they don’t engage me in the first 10 to 15 minutes, it’ll be a hard pass,” he told Arab News.
However, the surge in streamer popularity is unlikely to remain sustainable, as people begin to move forward post-lockdown and many beginner streamers realize that streaming is not quite for them.
Fajr Bantan, a former gaming streamer, said that he stopped streaming partly due to real-life reasons and also because it was not what he thought it would be.
“To be honest, I thought it was just about gaming and showing my skills, but it appears it is more than that,” he told Arab News. “You have to engage with your audience and entertain them, whether it’s by chatting, doing their challenges, responding to their requests, and so on.”
It is undeniable that Arabic-language streams have made a mark on the Twitch ecosystem, and official statistics from Twitch back that up. According to Twitch, the number of streams in Arabic increased by 95.3 percent in March — compared to numbers from the previous year using a year-over-year analysis — and 109.9 percent in April.
The figures also pinpoint the surge’s hotspots as the UAE, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.
The MENA region has the world’s most active gaming community and, at 25 percent year-on-year growth, the fastest growing online gaming population in the world.
A recent white paper from internet company Tencent, creators of one of the region’s most popular mobile games PUBG Mobile, the MENA gaming market will be worth some $6 billion by 2021, up from $4.8 billion in 2019.
But, as the demand for Arabic content on Twitch grows, Arab streamers hope that the platform will be just as willing to accommodate their feedback as they did their language.
Alshiha said there was a huge Arabic Twitch community, but Twitch needed to work on meeting their needs in order to keep them engaged, such as easing some of the restrictions on their Twitch Partner program, which allows streamers to monetize their content, among other benefits.
“They need to relax some of their criteria in order to make their ‘partner’ program more accessible. We would also love if Twitch opened dedicated servers in the region to accommodate the influx of streamers,” he said.