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Raouf Rifai - Carnaval of Darwiches



In the early phase of his career (1982-1984), Raouf Rifai’s work was preoccupied with the environment, nature and light.  From 1985, tradition, especially folklore and folk characters, emerged as a recurring theme in his work.  In 1995, he spent 3 years exploring, through his art, the history of his country, Lebanon, before coming back to an environmental theme from 1999 to 2007.  Rifai introduced the Darwiche as the point of departure for his art in 2008.  



Rifai’s work is influenced by several artistic styles including Impressionism and Expressionism. Throughout Rifai’s body of work, 3 themes are intertwined:  pollution (physical and spiritual), social relationships and the relationship between the material and the spiritual.  The backdrop to his art is the continuing instability and violence in the Middle East, a constant and faithful companion throughout the artist’s life.  



Rifai’s Darwiche is a folk character representing the simple and simple-minded common man (“darwiche,” when used in Arabic to describe a person, means simple and simple-minded).  Rifai’s common man also encompasses the dervish, or Sufi mystic, thus imbuing a spiritual and physical duality to the character. 



Rifai’s dedication to the Darwiche resembles that of Paul Klee and his angels. Like Klee’s angels, Rifai’s Darwiches are many and varied. They share some common characteristics, foremost the fact that they are all rooted in human existence: They have weaknesses and flaws, a myriad of expressions, attitudes and emotions; they are secular and spiritual; they are handsome and ugly; they are stupid yet at the same time wiser than everyone around them; they are full of worries or playful; they cry yet derive humor from everyday tasks; In short, we recognize ourselves in them, they are us.  



Rifai’s Darwiches are almost always accompanied by a rich array of explicit and implicit Middle Eastern symbols.  Often, the Darwiche is represented as a folkloric character such as Juha (better known outside the Arab world as Nasreddin), Abu Zayd al-Hilali (an 11th-century Arab leader featured often in Arab folklore), Abu El Abed (a Lebanese fictional character who is the centrepiece of jokes in Lebanon) and others from the rich history of the Middle East.  A central aspect of Rifai’s aesthetics is his lifelong concern with the possibilities of parody and wit; our awareness of this factor opens to us the political dimensions of Rifai’s art.  



The Darwiche is the Middle East’s Mickey Mouse, Superman, Archie Bunker, Asterix.  He is a cultural icon standing steadfast against the Mickey Mouse invasion.  Inspired by Nasreddin, Rifai’s Darwiche wants to be popular across the Middle East and his stories almost invariably take the form of humorous anecdotes. The Darwiche stories can be understood at many levels including as a joke, as a morality tale and as a political statement – and usually deal with timeless concepts, purveying folk wisdom that triumph over all trials and tribulations. 



Rifai’s paintings are always witty and at first glance some can also be viewed as Childish, another feature he shares with Paul Klee. 



Rifai’s Sana Gallery exhibition is consistent in its use of media (almost always acrylic on canvas).  He is a natural portrait artist and through long experimentation developed an individual style of combining color and tonality.  His portraits, each with distinct personalities and emotions, exhibit confident brush strokes using a variety of color palettes though earth colors, black and red tend to dominate.



With a strong stylistic wink to the Egyptian style prevalent in the Middle East for several thousands of years (and based not on how we see a particular scene but on what we know belongs there), his paintings have an unmistakable Oriental personality though he excels in piling up Middle Eastern symbols which are so well travelled that some of his art could be mistaken for being South East Asian or South Asian.

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