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Daughter of Lebanese painter Aref El-Rayess pays tribute to her late father in a retrospective exhibition

DUBAI: For Hala El-Rayess, the time had finally come. For years, she had tried to organize a comprehensive exhibition paying tribute to her late father, the prolific Lebanese modernist Aref El-Rayess, who died in 2005. And at the end of 2021, such an exhibition took place at the Sfeir-Semler gallery in Beirut, showcasing the artist’s diverse oeuvre; including paintings, sculptures and collages.

“I remember walking in when it opened and just standing there looking at the artwork. The tears just started rolling down my face. . . it was very moving,” El-Rayess, the founder of the Aref El-Rayess Foundation, told Arab News from her base in London. The exhibition, featuring works from five decades of his father’s art, has now traveled to the United Arab Emirates and is hosted by the Sharjah Art Museum, in conjunction with the Sharjah Art Foundation, until August 7.

Aref and Hala at the Galerie Epreuve d’Artiste. (Provided)

“Seeing it in Sharjah – in an institution, not a gallery – was a very happy moment for me. ‘I did, after all these years,’ says El Rayess. “And the space is so beautiful and complete work so well.”

She recalls a turpentine-scented childhood in her father’s playful workshop in Saudi Arabia in the 1980s. “I would walk in and the smell was so strong, I think I was around five or six. at the time. It brings back warm memories of happy childhood days. One of the things that drove my mother crazy was her showering me, dressing me, and getting me ready to go out, and then finding me cover me in paint, top to bottom. It was my dad – he just let me play,” she says.

But beneath the prankster persona hides a deeply political artist, whose work reflects the troubled times of the Arab world in the second half of the 20th century.

Aref El-Rayess, Untitled, 1986. From the “Deserts” series. (Provided)

“He was extremely vocal. Like his works, he didn’t want to keep anything and he never really cared what people thought – not out of disrespect; he would try to get feedback from them, on purpose. Feedback was what he was always looking for. Some people hated him,” El-Rayess laughs.

Aref’s father hoped his son would turn to the business world, but he was instead drawn to nature and creativity. The living room of the El-Rayess family home in the town of Aley on Mount Lebanon was lined with paintings by Aref, his daughter recalls. “I think the art was just something he had in him,” she says.

As he grew older, Aref became politically active and joined Lebanese politician Kamal Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party, founded in 1949. In Beirut’s artistic circle, he was a central presence, befriending Helen Khal, Huguette Caland and Etel Adnan.

Aref El-Rayess, Alwalida (Artist’s Mother), 1953. (Supplied)

Aref witnessed major political events in the region starting in the 1950s, beginning with the Algerian War of Independence through the unrest in Palestine and the Lebanese Civil War. At some point during the latter, he fled to Algeria as he was rumored to be the target of an assassination plot.

“I think he was getting a little too active,” says El-Rayess. “They just wanted to kill him and my grandfather said to me, ‘Get out. I have to save my son.'”

His dystopian, dark and surreal paintings depict scenes of war, hanged resistance fighters, a deformed-faced politician, and a mother crying in shock as she holds her deceased son. “He was definitely trying to record a moment in history. It was always about what was happening in the (moment),” observes El-Rayess.

Aref El-Rayess, Awakening of Africa-Algeria, 1960. (Supplied)

There is also a lighter side to the artist’s work, such as his beautiful portraits of African men and women, taken during his travels in West Africa, where his father had a business. Later in his career, he experimented with creating large, stunning collage panels made up of hundreds of newspaper clippings of headlines, prominent politicians and stars of the 1990s, from Rafic Hariri to Princess Diana. As with his paintings, he was capturing a moment in time.

“People told him he was wasting time and it wasn’t art. It was his way of taking a break from painting,” says El-Rayess.

Another departure from his heavy war paintings occurred in the 1980s, during his stay in Jeddah, when he created his soothing and out of the ordinary “Desert” series, painting with ethereal hues.

It marked a new chapter in his life, during which he aided Mayor Mohammed Said Farsi’s plans to build the Jeddah Sculpture Park.

“I personally think that the fact that he left Lebanon to become a provider, a father, was a completely different world for him,” says El-Rayess. “Being in a place where there was desert, calm, having her own little girl . . . I think it brought a kind of peace to her soul.