Aref El Rayess had a distinctive and unique style of artmaking.
Muhammad Yusuf, Features Writer
The first institutional retrospective of the late Lebanese artist Aref El Rayess (1928 – 2005) organised by Sharjah Museums Authority (SMA) in partnership with Sharjah Art Foundation (SAF), that concluded on August 7, presented more than five decades of artworks that revealed the rich and complex artistic practice created during the artist’s travels to West Africa, the USA, and Europe.
Considered one of the acclaimed symbols in Lebanese and Arab arts and sculpting, El Rayess’ body of work has been exhibited in several countries around the world, including Lebanon, Venezuela, Mexico, the US and Italy.
The show was home to more than 100 paintings, drawings, sculptures and collages chronologically displayed in a manner that reflected the career and travels of the prolific Arab modernist that spanned over 50 years.
Since it opened its door to the public on February 26, it welcomed more than 12,000 visitors, including renowned artists, budding amateurs and young talents looking to study and analyse the artist’s distinctive works and unique style.
Held at the Sharjah Art Museum, the exhibition chronicled the artist’s travels and inspirations throughout his decades of practice from when he travelled to Africa to help with the family business, but was instead deeply moved by the stunning visuals and contrasts in life and society.
This marked the beginning of El Rayess’ artistic journey in the late 1940s. Having lived in Africa, Europe and the USA, he was introduced to new elements and influences he incorporated in his works. It included being influenced by European artists in the 50s and 60s, to changing styles and moving to abstract forms during his time in the USA. But despite the years he spent away from home, he did not forget his roots and closely followed the developing political events in the Arab world, mainly the Lebanese civil war and the struggle for independence in many nations during that time.
This was reflected in his works, shown in a series of sketches that were on display at the exhibition, produced by the artist as an attempt to document the Lebanese civil war. After the outbreak of the 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 entitled The Road to Peace. Besides an etching series, oil paintings depicting the horror of war was featured in the exhibition at the Beirut Art Center in 2006.
The profoundly political artist’s work featured at the exhibition also included one of his prominent works, Blood and Freedom, which portrayed his sadness after the defeat of the Arab coalition in the Arab-Israeli Six-Day War of June 1967. Another important body of work featured as part of the exhibition were large sized collages made from newspaper and magazine cut-outs; it highlighted the major influences on him in the 90s.
Other works indicated the time he spent in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which showed a significant change in his style and colour usage. It came through mainly in scenes from the desert, devoid of any people or existence.
More works on oil paintings, photographs, and sculptures documented important stages of human history.
Manal Ataya, Director General of SMA, stressed that the exhibition shone light on the unique journey, accumulated experience and various forms of work of one of the most influential Arab artists, noting that such events such as the exhibition play a pivotal role in enriching visitor’s artistic knowledge and stimulating their senses and sensibilities.
She noted that the success of the El Rayess exhibition was a green signal for the Authority to remain on its mission to give more access to the works of renowned artists from around the world, with a focus on local and Arab artists who have left their creative mark through distinguished works. Ataya expressed her gratitude to SAF for their continued support and partnership, adding that SMA was keen on enriching Sharjah’s culture and art movement through various activities and events. SMA was established in 2006 as an autonomous government authority. It links and oversees 17 museums across Sharjah that cover widely varied fields, including Islamic art and culture, archaeology, heritage, science, marine life, as well as the history of Sharjah and the region.
Its vision is to be a cultural beacon that enhances Sharjah’s identity locally and internationally and contribute in nurturing a community aware of museums’ importance as a cultural, educational and enjoyable destinations.
The mission is to deliver the highest museum standards to preserve collections and enhance an appreciation of culture and learning through exhibitions and educational and community programmes.
SAF is an advocate, catalyst and producer of contemporary art within the Emirate of Sharjah and the surrounding region, in dialogue with the international arts community. Under the leadership of Founder Hoor Al Qasimi, a curator and artist herself, the Foundation advances an experimental and wide-ranging programmatic model that supports the production and presentation of contemporary art, preserves and celebrates the culture of the region and encourages a shared understanding of the transformational role of art.
The Foundation’s core initiatives include the long-running Sharjah Biennial, featuring contemporary artists from around the world; the annual March Meeting, a convening of international arts professionals and artists; grants and residencies for artists, curators and cultural producers; experimental commissions; and a range of travelling exhibitions and scholarly publications.
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