A deep dive into humanity

With emotions laid bare, etched across their faces, the iconic darwichs of the Lebanese artist Raouf Rifai continue to tell the region’s tales of happiness, heartache and humour

You have described your work as reflecting society or humanity’s transition/evolution. What specific changes that you’ve captured in your art resonate with you most strongly?

My artwork is a continuous reflection of the Middle East region and our society. The main key ideas that answer this question are in my anthropology study, titled the ‘Carnival of Darwichs’, which was made by Mrs Dina Germanos Besson. Some of the key themes explored here are the love we can have for things without even realizing how strong their pull is, like the sweet fix we get from ice cream or the nicotine fix from cigarettes. In these works, the characters might be deep in conversation or busy, but have given in to these temptations without a second thought. The ‘Darwich Blast’ pieces in the ‘Carnival of Darwichs’ were inspired by the August 4 explosion, and reflect the tragedy in many ways, from the chaos and whirlwind of movement around the subject to the lack of clearly identifiable features. 


The Middle East’s history and heritage is a theme that you routinely explore in your work. Does the region’s rich, but complex and often challenging past and present make it difficult to transfer your perceptions and feelings onto canvas? Do you ever have to put emotions to one side when working or are they a driver of inspiration?

The complexity of the region is what inspires me and what I reflect on canvas. My artwork is a mirror of the complexity, the contrasts, the psychology, the drama, the theatre and the shadows, among other concepts, that are in perpetual movement. I cannot place my emotions aside when I create, because the most important thing is that the artist is genuine and true to his feelings. If I set my feelings to one side, it would be like doing math or architecture or artisanal work. I have to reflect the human side, the psychology and the feelings. As an artist I have to show clarity in vision. I don’t paint only accessories and figures, I capture the emotions of people, what their eyes and soul reflect, whether terror, happiness or any other emotion.


Do you live in hope that commentary and messages relayed through art can have an influential effect on audiences, especially decision-makers, or is this not something in your mind when you’re working?

Of course, I am a believer that art is not made just for art’s sake - ‘L’art pour l’art’, as Matisse said. Art is a reflection of reality, just like how Picasso was able to reflect the reality of the people on the streets, as he did with his clowns and other subjects. Art is, of course, political and intellectual. This is what makes it valuable - it reflects a social reality. Even Pop Art reflects themes like consumerism. Art reflects society and its reality.

The traditional ‘tarboosh’ is a recurring motif in your art. What is it about this accessory in particular that fascinates you and are the bright colours you choose to depict it significant?

Everything is a symbol. In the case of the ‘tarboosh’, it is not only about it being a red or aesthetic accessory, but the way in which it reflects the social status, since the tarboosh recalls the Ottoman period, for example. I rely on the psychology of colors, such as gold, which was regarded as sacred in Ancient Egypt, and purple for its association with the clergy.

Your ‘darwich’ men have unifying factors but individual expressions, attitudes and emotions. What inspires these individual elements in your subjects?

Each ‘darwich’ has a particularity. Even if they all look human, they are spiritually different. Each one has a responsibility for his actions and reflect the complexity of society, religions and social structures. In this way, each ‘darwich’ reflects his own experience. ‘Darwichs’ are like the planets - they rotate and are in a state of constant movement, like the universe - dynamic and changing.

How have the various challenges that Lebanon has faced and continues to face (pandemic/economic situation/August 4, 2020 explosion) influenced your work? Do you address them consciously or have you noticed that they’ve found their way into your art subconsciously, for example?

As an artist I rely on consciousness and on unconsciousness. For example, in the ‘Darwich Ice Cream’ pieces, the idea explored is that desiring this sweet treat can, at times, be an unconscious pleasure as is the case with cigarettes. It is known that before death by execution, a prisoner’s last wish is often a cigarette or an ice cream. The ‘darwichs’ are like different planets, existing within their own individual sphere. If you look closely, you can see a range of emotions, ranging from faces that are happy or sad, whatever the backdrop or theme.


You’ve just completed an exhibition in Paris. What’s in the pipeline in terms of projects or work?

I’ll be participating in several art fairs, including those in Dubai, Istanbul and Singapore, and a range of cultural activities, through Nadine Fayad Art Gallery, which represents me. The ‘darwich’ will also be entering different media, ranging from tapestry, ceramics and NFT to cinema and videos. 

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