In his 1968 review of “Blood and Freedom”, an exhibition by Arref El Rayess (1928-2005) opened in the aftermath of the Six Day War, journalist Walid Shmait noted formal inconsistencies in the artist’s work. . He observed: “The path of revolution, for El Rayess, is divided in its appearances but is unified in concept and depth. Highlighting the apparent stylistic variation in the paintings on display, Shmait succumbed to a common misconception of El Rayess, which continues to this day. This misperception signals a problem – a dead end – in the homepage of the artist’s work. The problem with El Rayess, whose work spanned a plethora of fashions, mediums, and ideologies, is that his practice only appears consistent retroactively, when all of his work is seen together.
In this long-awaited retrospective exhibition, curator Catherine David (with the help of researcher Sabine Chaaban) made the daring choice to present El Rayess with seven large glued panels from the early 1990s. David’s unexpected decision to start with a late work highlights the persistent return of certain visual (and immanently political) motifs and themes in El Rayess’ art. For example, anchor the bottom center of a panel, Untitled, 1992, is the dominant figure of Kamal Joumblatt, leader of the Progressive Socialist Party and later leader of the Lebanese National Liberation Movement. The politician also made appearances decades earlier, in gouache Kamal Beik Joumblatt, California. 1958, as well as in the first pages of the book of etchings The way to peace, California. 1976. In the 1990s, however, such repetitions symptomatically materialized as a pastiche – in a flattening of the story on a single spatial plane.
Having prioritized these seven collages, and El Rayess’ late career attempts to historicize his own practice, David examines the trajectory of the artist that led to these works: from his first portraits in Senegal in the early 1950s , both primitivist and postcolonial, thus presenting another quagmire for contemporary criticism – to his many series of war paintings, “Blood and Freedom”, 1967-1968; “Modern and Third World Times“(Modern times and the third world), 1974, alternatively entitled”The march of the peoples of the Third World between Development and Revolution»(The march of the peoples of the third world between development and revolution); and “Technologies of War”, 1978. Between the two are portraits of fighters from the 1958 Lebanese Civil War; exquisite and abstract paintings resembling frescoes dotted with sand and precious stones, made in Italy between 1962 and 1963; an untitled group of four sinister figurative paintings precipitated by the Algerian War, 1960; and a selection of abstractions from the series Tribute to the Flying Carpets (Homage to flying carpets), 1967. This last series will later serve as the basis for the artist’s foray into realism – an unintentionally excessive realism, a on-realism, which he achieved by injecting social elements into new iterations of his older, purely formal compositions. This dialectic, so omnipresent in his practice, is glimpsed in the magnificent oil painting Tribute to Martin Luther King (Homage to Martin Luther King), 1968, but here does not inform the larger logic of the display. In another digression from the exhibition’s relatively chronological layout, a large number of works produced in Saudi Arabia in the 1980s occupy a room by themselves. Included are scale models of monuments – some commissioned by the mayor of Jeddah as part of a city-wide beautification project – and Saudi desert paintings so brilliant they are practically neon. Yet these efforts lack the proper contextualization: the shift from a practice of political engagement (iltizam) after 1967 to that of divine unification (tawhid), amid the dominant civil war discourse on sectarianism in Lebanon in the 1980s, is lost to the viewer.
In the light of texts and archival documents, this monographic exhibition is a draft – “zero stage”, in the words of the curator – of an institutional retrospective which will tour the museums of Europe and the Persian Gulf. Future versions of the exhibition will include additional elements that will likely provide insight into the logic behind the repetitions and breaks throughout the artist’s formidable career.