A life’s work in local landscapes

Mazen El Rifai talks to ArtScoops about the decades-long lure of the Baalbeck skylines and the conflicts that lie at the heart of his art

How do you think your architectural background has contributed to your career as an artist?

I began painting in parallel with my work an architect after finishing my studies, which may help to explain the way in which my landscapes reveal the precision associated with architecture. However, I believe this rigor is combined with a subtlety in terms of colour and the sensitivity of an artist who sees with their heart. My aim is to free the landscapes from their outlines so that they instead directly fill the space where shadow meets light and emptiness meets fullness. In this sense, I remain faithful to the school which explores the relationships between form and light, until the line is reached in all its purity.

Baalbeck and landscapes of the Bekaa Valley have remained the focal inspiration for your works over the years. What is it that constantly brings you back to these skylines?

My hometown of Baalbeck and its landscapes continue to act as my source of inspiration. I try to reconstruct them with shades of light, traces of color and an opening onto infinity. At first glance, the minimalist style which is veering towards abstraction relays an element of naivety, perhaps giving the impression of peacefulness. However, there are undercurrents of conflict, such as the solidity of the composition, which contrasts with the fragility of the light, and the feeling of solitude, even though there is an evident attachment to earth. Importantly, the work is also chromatic, with a harmonious, open palette which allows for freedom of expression. I have never felt that I belong to just one place, even if it is my source of inspiration; I’ve never accepted the world around me, instead I find myself trying to exchange it for a calmer, more reassuring one.

Do you regard the move in your work away from illusionism towards abstraction as conscious steps taken on an artistic journey or a natural evolution in your way of working? 

Over the decades, I’ve worked to achieve a quiet serenity in my art that frees the landscape from its features. For me, it’s what remains unseen - the interior space - rather than the seen landscape that I find interesting. The exterior space disturbs me. I love the silence of the landscapes - the desert and green spaces, for example - and the impression of freedom they give me. These large spaces, reminiscent of where I was born, can suggest both loneliness and tranquility, but never a void. It is rhythmic, the basis of all thought. In this sense, my landscape is about thought as much as it is emotion. It’s not about painting a landscape with the eye, since it’s no longer important to prove or transmit something. I just want to live out my secret dreams and to seek out the colours of childhood that I have yet to discover.

What do you consider to be the highlight of your career?

The highlight is this landscape which, to me, still remains unseen. It’s a landscape that generates those deep, innermost feelings of the heart and emotions – a place transformed into language. While it’s true that I paint what catches my eye, there is a secret world behind this vision, filled with emotions and feelings. These trigger a composition that comes directly from the heart, featuring colours that have not been witnessed before. This is the culmination of my work. 

Do you expect the current crises to influence your work and if so how?

It’s true that I live in the heart of this world, moving between my daily tasks and family responsibilities, between the torments of the spirit, having to deal with the challenges and even, at times, the provocations. But I also occupy a different place, where I am at ease with myself and can appreciate my individual freedom, where I breathe my own oxygen and can reflect. In other words, I live as a member of society, but am also in permanent pandemic confinement and socio-economic solitude. I try to create a balance which allows me to establish my daily responsibilities, while simultaneously withdrawing into my work, to breathe the oxygen of freedom and of solitude.

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