Aref El Rayess composition, titled Technologies et revolution, in oil on canvas.
Works of the late artist Aref El-Rayess (1928-2005), Lebanese painter and sculptor, are being showcased at Sharjah Art Museum (SAM) – it is the region’s first retrospective exhibition of the artist (Feb. 26 – Aug. 7). The exhibition was inaugurated by Hoor Al Qasimi, President and Director of Sharjah Art Foundation (SAF), and Manal Ataya, Director General of Sharjah Museums Authority (SMA). The event is organised jointly by SMA and SAF.
Al Qasimi said: “It is with great pleasure that Sharjah Art Foundation and Sharjah Museums Authority are partnering on the first major institutional exhibition of this important Arab Modernist.
“We are also grateful to the Aref El Rayess Foundation for their support in this presentation that offers local, regional and international audiences an opportunity to appreciate and reassess his practice. “We hope this exhibition will encourage much needed new research into El Rayess’ remarkable career.” The exhibition presents a selection of paintings, drawings, sculptures and collages that together reveal his rich and complex artistic practice.
“We are pleased to once again partner with Sharjah Art Foundation to bring the works of one of the most influential Arab artists to public attention. “The exhibition is part of our continuous joint efforts to celebrate the contribution of prolific Arab artists to the development of the art scene in the Arab world and to offer a platform for established and emerging artists to share their unique artistic experiences and gain the exposure they deserve,” Ataya said.
Numerous portraits included in the show reflect how El Rayess’ travels in West Africa, specifically Senegal in the late 1940s through the 1950s, were key influences on his early work. A series of compositions illustrate the modes of abstraction the artist explored after his move to the United States, then again to Mexico.
Untitled work from Aref El Rayess in mixed media on masonite.
The show exemplifies El Rayess’ eclectic work in different mediums throughout his 57-year long career and how his travels across Africa, France, Italy, the USA and Saudi Arabia influenced his artwork.
A deeply political artist, the strength of his conviction is seen in the 1960s paintings from his time in Italy that decry the brutality of the Algerian War of Independence. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in his Blood and Freedom series, painted shortly after the Arab defeat in the Arab-Israeli Six-Day War of June 1967.
Works from this series is included in the exhibition along with later work from the 1970s and large-scale collages from the 1990s that demonstrate the artist’s ongoing concern with the political, social and cultural conditions of the Arab world.
He was a prolific artist, mainly known as a painter; he also practiced etching, sculpture and tapestry. One of his tapestries, The Signs of Cadmus, is part of the collection of the UNESCO Palace in Paris.
His work focuses on the human being and his relationship to nature and history. In the 1960s, his paintings evolved around Man and the Third World and with the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War, El Rayess was one of the artists who interpreted the tragic events in art.
Staying in Algiers, he produced in 1976 a series of etchings titled The Road to Peace. He also developed a practice of abstract sculpture.
Born in Aley, Mount Lebanon, in 1928, he was an award winner; a self-taught artist, he worked with a variety of different media.
His art has gained international recognition and he received many awards over the course of his career, including the Lebanese Ministry of National Education Award, the UNESCO Prize, the Ministry of Public Works Prize for Sculpture and the Sursock Museum Grand Prix de Sculpture. El Rayess spent time working in Saudi Arabia and was appointed the city of Jeddah’s art consultant and was commissioned monumental works for the city of Jeddah. The Saudi Arabian government mandated him to produce several sculptures, the most outstanding being a stylised name of Allah. Built in Italy from aluminum, the piece stands 27 meters high in Palestine Square in Jeddah. He was a respected teacher of fine art, working for many years at the Lebanese University and the American Lebanese University, and was eventually appointed President of the Lebanese Association of Painters and Sculptors.
Internationally, his individual exhibitions include those in the Poliani Gallery, Rome; Numero Gallery, Florence; D’Arcy Gallery, New York; Excelsior Gallery, Mexico; the Rodin Museum, Paris; a retrospective of his works from 1957-1968 at the National Museum of Damascus; Ornina Gallery, Damascus; and the Gallery Rasim, Algeria.
El Rayess continued to pursue his passion for art until his death in January 2005. The current five-month exhibition in Sharjah comes with the support of the Aref El Rayess Foundation and Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut/Hamburg. It gives visitors an opportunity to explore the artist’s iconic works and his stunning use of colours and abstract designs.
Previous to this retrospective, SMA and SAF presented major exhibitions such as Lasting Impressions: Adam Henein, which refers to Henein, recognised as one of the most prominent sculptors in the Arab world and Mona Saudi: Poetry and Forms, which was a solo exhibition for the late artist Mona Saudi. Present during the opening of the current exhibition was Hind bint Majid Al Qasimi, Chairperson of Sharjah Business Women’s Council and Nawar bint Ahmed Al Qasimi, SAF Vice President and the late artist’s daughter, Hala El Rayess.
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