Tuesday,17 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1305, (28 July - 3 August 2016)
Tuesday,17 October, 2017
Issue 1305, (28 July - 3 August 2016)

Ahram Weekly

The beauty of wolves

Rania Khallaf celebrates the 90th anniversary of a legend

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Since 3 July, a rare selection of paintings by the late pioneer artist Samir Rafi (1926-2004) has been on show at the Picasso Art Gallery in Zamalek.

Celebrating Rafi’s birthday, the gallery dedicated a whole month to some 70 works by the artist, who had lived in France for over 50 years when he was found dead in his Paris flat. The selection includes pencil and pen sketches on soft and hard paper as well as paintings in a variety of media and sizes, testifying to Rafi’s mastery of symbolism, expressionism, surrealism and a personal synthesis of all three schools. There are also collages featuring pages of Le Monde that date back to 1960. Using folklore and myth, here is an artist who depicts the modern human condition with an intensity all his own.

Surprisingly little is known of Rafi’s life. Through the spacious gallery, each piece reveals an aspect of the mystery. The sketches feature cartoon-style male portraits and female nudes, while the paintings – mostly in pastel – add a third character: the wolf. Inspired by (or, some say, copied from) Abdel Hady Al-Gazzar, the wolf motif is nonetheless employed in an entirely different way. Except for one 1975 oil painting in which the cave painting-like figures of a man and a woman embrace, the works focus on male-female tension.

The animal figure – sharp teeth, round eyes, defiant posture – is present in almost all the paintings. In two paintings – one almost all in green, the other benefiting from red as well – the face of a wolf appears in the arms of an androgynous human figure. In another, a fierce wolf attacks an unarmed man; the man looks terrified, but the interaction suggests as much intimacy as conflict. In yet another painting, the profiles of a woman and a wolf are integrated, sharing the same shapes and colours – a meme that has been read as a comment on female infidelity. In reality the woman and the wolf appear together in too many different positions for any such easy interpretation. Often they appear to support each other, collaborating, exchanging roles.

Seven remarkable sketches of a nude and wolf in pen on paper – beautifully exhibited in one corner – date back to 1982; the wolf appears impassioned, sympathetic, amused and supportive by turns, and the features of the woman change accordingly. Here, there is no tension, no conflict; the woman embraces the wolf like a lover. At one point the woman, sitting on the ground, even draws the shape of a wolf in her sketchbook. But what is the meaning of this mysterious relationship? The paintings are so rich they evoke contradictory feelings and thoughts and encourage the viewers to question the artist’s vision of the man-woman relationship.

Rafi was born to an Egyptian father and a Francophone Lebanese mother in Cairo; by the time he emigrated to France in 1954, he was already an acclaimed artist. In 1940, with Ibrahim Massouda, Kamal Youssef and others, Rafi established the Contemporary Art Group. Two years later, his painting Nutshells won him the Gold Prize of the Cairo Salon. Rafi was a major member of the Surrealist Movement established in Egypt in 1939 by George Henein. He graduated from the department of decorative arts of the School of Fine Art in 1948, and his first solo exhibition was held at the Qattan Library when he was only 17.

The only failure of this event is the lack of a catalogue and appropriate information labels.

The exhibition is ongoing until 3 August

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