Born in Aley, Mount Lebanon, Aref el Rayess (1928 – 2005) was an artist, painter and sculptor – known and loved as much for his colorful and candid language as for his works of art.
He began to draw and paint at the age of eleven, initially using his mother’s paints and brushes and later learnt to draw with charcoal during vacations on visits to his cousin’s home in Choueifat, a suburb of Beirut.
Raised by his mother and grandmother, while his father was in business in Senegal, he remembered: “Aley was a resort where all faiths coexisted, but each curled upon itself. My studies at the boarding school in Aïntoura made me live, for the first time, within a Christian majority. I discovered in this establishment the strength of an almost military discipline and the sense of method “.
At the age of 20, he joined his father in Africa. For a year, he took charge of a counter whose only customers were the “Koniagi”, a primitive tribe who, according to Rayess, had never before seen a white man. He discovered “naked beings, without complexes, dressed only in their inner strength.” More than a day away from any other village, Aref Rayess is alone. He will come back from his African stay full of color and movement of bodies.
“Africa has purified me of all the junk of civilization, and in particular of technology and obsession with superiority. I saw man reduced to his natural strength.”
In 1945 Rayess completed a charcoal and pastel drawing entitled Horror, depicting Hiroshima’s atomic bomb, an event that resonated deeply with the artist. The French painter Georges Cyr, architect Antoine Tabet and art critic Victor Hakim came to view the work at the advice of Arlette Levi, a reporter for L’Orient newspaper who had seen the work during a visit she paid to Rayess’s mother.
In the autumn of 1948, having been impressed by the young Rayess, Cyr, Tabet and Hakim held an exhibition for him in the West Hall of the American University of Beirut (AUB).
Sir Julian Sorell Huxley, the first Director-General of UNESCO, and Peter Belew the chairman of UNESCO’s arts section, saw Rayess’s exhibition at the AUB and decided to take six paintings from the exhibition to hang them in the “Imaginary Roaming Exhibition”, held during the Second UNESCO International Conference in Beirut. The remaining thirty-six paintings were exhibited at the UNESCO Palace.