Artists are often shy creatures and Time Out’s meeting with Ismail Al Rifa’i looked like it was going to confirm this rule. Yet despite some initial awkwardness, a completely unexpected side of the artist’s character soon revealed itself. Once we got Al Rifa’i talking, something instinctive and existential about the Syrian artist and writer’s ideas soon became apparent.
Al Rifa’i is one of the slim quotient of artists represented in the Dubai art scene that lives and works in town. Well almost in town: he works in Sharjah, and has done so since 2003. Has he seen his work change since the move? ‘Absolutely,’ the artist replies. ‘My work before was much more abstract. Since the death of my mother and coming to live in Sharjah, I’ve watched my style slowly diverge into something more representational. I’ve produced 40 or 50 paintings about her and the neighbourhood where she lived in my time here. They have all been very figurative’.
The collection currently on show emerged when Al Rifa’i noticed his work had shifted from an abstract to a more representational style. ‘After working on the series relating to my mother’s death, I got stuck for a while,’ he explains. ‘That was such representational work and I needed to move on from it. The style you see in these latest paintings is the breakthrough, it’s the combination of two movements in the way I was approaching my work. The settings, the backgrounds, are all very abstract but my subjects have remained more figurative.’
A glance at Al Rifa’i’s choice of subject in the works displayed at Total Arts jars with his kindly, shy demeanour. Here, the artist has produced discordant images of silent, other-wordly animals. Some verge on the grotesque, others are straight-out bizarre. The effect is confusing, and a number of his works have an unnerving atmosphere about them. It’s crucial to understand these figures, however, if we’re to get any idea about what Al Rifa’i is trying to express in his work.
‘My subjects are not always strictly animal,’ he notes, somewhat obliquely. ‘I might combine the sense of a human being too. The head may be a human head with the body of a cat or a dog.’ Still unsure of his approach, we ask Al Rifa’i to tell us more. ‘It relates back to a more savage state in every human being’ he says, pointing to his painting of an animal with a pair of legs floating above. These figures never refer to a specific animal or human, he explains, they reflect something of a state in-between. ‘I believe every human being has two parts, the human and the beast and I try to represent this in my paintings. My subjects are neither human nor animal; they are reflections of an emotional state that I’m trying to express.’
Talk turns to Al Rifa’i’s literary career, which mirrors the way he moves in his art. Periods of painting are often accompanied by the writing of a novel and that tends to give shape to his visual ideas. He explains that this tension between human and beast has found its way into the novel he’s working on at the moment and asked about his influences, his responses are revealing. Al Rifa’i cites Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Henry Miller as two key influences on his works – both surrealists of a sort, who twist reality to express something more fundamental about existence. ‘What I try to paint is a mixture of reality and fantasy that represents better my different emotional states,’ Al Rifa’I affirms. ‘The ugly ones and the beautiful ones.’
This willingness to allow ugliness into the work finds common ground with Henry Miller. Like Miller, Al Rifa’i seems to use whatever means necessary to give voice to his vision and experience. Both face ugliness head on and are willing to express something verging on the repulsive in their work if it will move their art into a more visceral level of self-expression. Asked which of his works he finds the ugliest, Al Rifa’i points to the image of two clearly female figures whose bodies are in a state of flux between human and hen. This, according to him, is the harshest image here.
Are these stories of personal metamorphosis? At this, Al Rifa’i becomes visibly animated, gesticulating and talking faster. ‘As much as I believe that each human being has a tension with the beast inside them, I also believe there’s something divine about this process that needs to be expressed,’ he explains. ‘I try to represent this in the abstract backgrounds that I use.’
It’s vital to remember that, ultimately, Al Rifa’i’s art is intensely personal. He’s keen to stress throughout that these are his thoughts and reflect his own emotional states. Perhaps this says something about the strange atmosphere in the artist’s work. They are emblems of his solitariness and shyness, of an artist searching for sufficient visual language to express the depths of his vision. ‘After my mother’s death there was a shift in my awareness’ he says. ‘Every man is still a child while his mother is still alive, now it feels different. I am alone now.’
Ismail Al Rifai is at Total Arts at the Courtyard until August 23.