DUBAI: In recent years the contemporary art world seems to have lost its fascination with portraiture. However, the genre appears to be making a comeback of sorts, particularly in the work of artists from continental Africa and North Africa.
For decades art world aficionados have been declaring painting to be dead. French painter Paul Delaroche was first to make the observation in 1839, and in the years that followed others have questioned the importance of this significant traditional art genre.
In some ways, painting itself is having a rebirth — but in other regions of the world — most notably in Africa, with artists painting the world and individuals around them.
Anuar Khalifi, a Moroccan artist based between Spain and Morocco, is one person spurring a rebirth in contemporary portraiture.
His works, drenched in the rich colors — burnt oranges, deep crimsons, and dark browns — that characterize his homeland, reveal a slew of characters, often depicted casually at home, and dressed in traditional garments such as a red fez or a relaxed jalabiya robe.
In his most recent show “Palimpsests,” an online exhibition staged by Dubai-based gallery The Third Line, the artist revealed his latest paintings, all capturing the lush and dreamy landscape, colors, and traditions of his Moroccan heritage.
Born in 1977 in Lloret de Mar, a small town on the Costa Brava in Spain near to Barcelona, Khalifi would travel regularly to Morocco as a child, where both his parents are from, a habit he continues to this day, moving between both countries on a monthly basis.
For years the self-taught artist, who grew up drawing in his mother’s kitchen, has created work that depicts an identity in flux — his constant exploration of his Moroccan origins and Spanish upbringing.
His paintings, while delicately mixing these two cultures, have gravitated to a more pronounced rendering of his oriental and Arab heritage.
He uses symbolism common to the Middle East; long colorful robes, pointy hats, Madinah-style abodes and street scenes, earthen cutlery and vases, as well as the animals common to an everyday walk around towns such as Tangier, Marrakech, or Fez.
“It’s important for me to call myself a Moroccan painter now. It’s always been this big question in my life: Where are you from? I now embrace my identity, my mixed upbringing, and my work speaks about it,” Khalifi told Arab News.
In “Na3na3” (2020), which means mint in Moroccan Darija dialect, a man in a white suit slouches casually on a light-yellow chair wearing a red fez with a bag of Moroccan sugar by his side. He stares at the viewer directly through the slits of his eyes.
In “Safi Safari” (2021), a dark-skinned man wearing a safari hat and red and white striped jalabiya also sits on a chair casually wearing bright yellow traditional Moroccan babouche shoes.
In a dreamier work, “The Opening” (2020) a man stands in a white room with what appears to be an arched colonnade. His arms are outstretched to either side as if he is about to start to dance or perhaps is merely exploring the space. Red bricks, signs of another land and architecture can be seen on the left side underneath the arches where there is also a Goodyear tire.
What makes Khalifi’s works so fascinating is also their surrealist tendencies — the everyday symbolism from the artist’s Moroccan heritage, its Sufi and mystic symbolism. The works offer a warm and rich embrace into the ever deep and enigmatic culture of North Africa.
So magnetic are Khalifi’s paintings that the viewer almost has the sensation of his subject’s tactile qualities — as if they were also like them occupying one of his richly colored earthy spaces.
“I work a lot by memory too. There are no planned subjects. They just come. There is also the notion of color and of people’s identity — I don’t want people in my works to lose their unique traits. We all have that fear of losing traditions, and that romantic idea of making sure we keep them is always there,” he said.
Khalifi, who has always been entrepreneurial in vision, worked as a disc jockey and had his own clothing brand before dedicating himself to art. His work has often been compared to Spanish 19th-century painter Francisco Goya. Khalifi does not deny his influence and recalls spending time in Madrid’s Prado Museum admiring works of the 18th and 19th century — their combination of realism and emotion.
“I have been painting and drawing all of my life; painting can transport you — it can offer you a mirror onto other things and other worlds. I strongly believe things have happened as they had to happen,” he added.
Importantly, Khalifi, believes and wants his paintings to serve as “acts of beauty.” Quoting Athenian philosopher Plato’s famous line “beauty is the splendor of truth,” he noted that when he read old Arabic poetry he was still inspired. It is something he wants to always hold onto, incorporate and imbue into this work.
Similar to the title of Khalifi’s recent online show by The Third Line, “Palimpsests,” his paintings are layers, visuals palimpsests, even if at times that means tension and beauty must intertwine and a struggle erupts as it does when different origins, cultures and heritages mix.
He said: “I don’t try to paint beautiful shapes. Some of the chaos in my work tries to rebuild itself as beauty and truth even with tension. We always try and make it beautiful, even if it is tense. Beauty can be a sad moment if you can reflect it in a certain way. Tragedy can also be beautiful depending on how it is portraying. Being miserable, however, does not have beauty.”
In “A Man’s Chest Can Only Hold One” (2020) a boy is shown on a couch with a dark green robe wrapped around her. She looks to the viewer with one eye, almost mysteriously, as one hand dangles from her long robe. There is an intricate rug underneath her couch and a table in front of her with decorative vases and a blue book.
Similar to numerous works in Khalifi’s growing repertoire of paintings, this one invites people to dream and connect with faraway lands, making them just that bit closer and familiar.