Aref el Rayess


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Aref in Aley

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.


Paris & Rome

The artist moved to Paris in the spring of 1948, where he studied painting in the studios of Fernand Leger and Andre Lâ’hote, etching with Friedlander and sculpture with Ossip Zadkine amongst others, pantomime with Étienne Ducroux and  Marcel Marceau, while studying at the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere.
 Between 1954 and 1956, Rayess travelled in Senegal, West Africa, spending time exploring the jungles and living with local tribes. During this period he was deeply influenced by the cultural primitivism of the region. African stylization and motifs would become a notable feature of his work at this time, as well as for a large portion of his career. Returning to Paris in 1956, he spent his time attending exhibitions, mixing in artistic circles and concentrating primarily on the skill of etching. He returned to Lebanon between 1957 and 1958 and commenced studies on Phoenician, Assyrian, Sumarite and Pharaonic art.

He moved to Florence, Rome in 1959 after the Italian Government offered him a one-year scholarship. He then went on to live in Rome from 1960 to 1963, all the while maintaining studios in both cities. It was in Italy that his studies of ancient Semitic art forms manifested themselves in his work through the exploration of symbolism, leading to a large exhibition of works attributed to his “Sand Period”, an epoque comprising the early 1960s. He presented these works first at Galeria Pogliani in Rome, and then at La Licorne, Beirut, in November 1963, in an exhibition entitled “Temps et Mursâ”.

Back to Beirut

In 1963, Rayess returned to Beirut and won first prizes in sculpture and tapestry at the national contest of sculpture for the Palace of Justice. In 1969 he was elected chairman of Lebanese Association of Artists and Sculptors, a position he held until 1977. He also taught fine art at the Lebanese University. He counted a number of high profile and respected artists and figures from the art world amongst his friends, including Saloua Raouda Choucair, Michel Basbous and Chafic Abboud. His opinions were also sought and respected by people such as Joseph Abou-Rizk, the director of the Fine Arts department of the National Ministry of Education and he was instrumental in building the Lebanese arts and gallery scene, which was lacking in the 1960s.
 With the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War, Rayess was one of the artists who interpreted the tragic events in art. Staying in Algiers, he produced in 1976 a series of etchings entitled “Tarik al Salam” (The Road to Peace). This work gave its name to an exhibition Saleh Barakat curated in 2009 at the Beirut Art Center, encompassing Lebanese visual arts between 1975 and 1991.

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swords of god - aref el rayess-saudi arabia

Public Sculptures

Aref El Rayess also developed a practice of abstract sculpture. In the 1980s, Rayess travelled regularly to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, spending time living in the country at the beginning of the decade after the outbreak of civil war in Lebanon. He was appointed as the Art Consultant for the city of Jeddah and was commissioned to produce a number of monumental public sculptures for the country, the most ambitious of which was a twenty-seven metre high aluminium sculpture of the stylized name of Allah that stands in Palestine Square in Jeddah. Among the artist’s later works was a series of oil paintings capturing the nature and feeling of the Arabian desert.

"My solitude raises me and devours me"

Aref el Rayess

He travelled to London in 1990 and worked on a number of projects including private commissions around England. In 1999 he held an exhibition of introspective works,  entitled “Labyrinths” – produced during the years he spent caring for his ill father, a time of loneliness and anxiety relieved only by the time he found to paint after his father would fall asleep. 
Rayess spent his latter years working in Lebanon, organising the annual Symposium of Art and Sculpture, the first of which was in held in Aley in 1999.

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A man of solitude

Despite his colorful language and character, and international success, Aref el Rayess was a man of artistic temperament, often times consumed by self-doubt, who described his life as “entirely made of silence”.

“My solitude raises me and devours me.”

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Heather & Sami Eljurdi

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