Raouf Rifai, a Lebanese artist, reflects upon the political conflicts that have become a more or less permanent backdrop for his region.
Raouf Rifai is a Lebanese artist whose works were displayed recently at the Athr Gallery in Jeddah. The exhibition was entitled ‘Interlude’ and it merged two separate series of works, one called ‘Darawish’ and the other called ‘Circus’. ‘Darawish’ is the plural form of ‘darwish’ and means a person who lives at the margins of civilized society. In Asian and Arab lore, he is a cross between a mendiant and a mystic, often pictured in a patched costume of rags, with a begging bowl before him. By the standards of civilization, he is a ghost, thriving off charity, and huddled along the footpath like a discarded bundle of clothes. Unconnected to the world except by the clink of pennies that passers-by throw at him, he is deeply connected to his inner world and to the oneness of things. The material world which he rejects, with its big and small problems, its envies, and its battles, is far from the fringes of his consciousness, which hovers at a higher level, vertically closer to the Creator.
The larger Middle East, and Lebanon, in particular, has been torn asunder by political conflicts in recent years. These conflicts engender deeper breakdowns of identity, order and existence. The series ‘Circus’ is a comment on the farce that life and politics have become in the Lebanon of today. The precariousness of life itself, and the instability of any structure that claims to hold things in place, makes a mockery of the act of living. The series called ‘Circus’, usually large canvasses populated by figures that have the wherewithal of jesters but speak darker, more macabre truths. Mirth is suggested but never quite felt. From some angle, the grin begins to look like a scowl or a leer, and the playfulness turns to menace. The colour of mirth, red, brings blood to the mind, and their jest seems an act of profound deception and self-deception, as if their fooling not just us but also themselves, and making merry while bathing in blood.
The circus is a metaphor for the joke of what life degenerates into during times of conflict, and the state of the darwish, his mystical grasp of the deeper, higher truth of life, which puts the horror of worldly conflict in perspective, blends into an equation that sums up the state of any region where violence rages or rules. With the spectacle of a tragic-comical farce alternating between merriment and horror, the only meaning to be drawn is not by projecting one’s consciousness outwards into the zone of horror, but upwards towards the true source of things.