In a 1974 oil painting by Samir Rafi, a wolf snarls in the face of an encaged man. The animal wears an expression of grim determination, and he encroaches on the space of the hapless prisoner, curled up behind bars. Both man and wolf are painted in fine, spindly brushstrokes, with slightly angular contours that make them look like emblems of folktales, and their eyes are interchangeable.
There's no suggestion of an equal power dynamic, though – the beast is the clear winner.
Celebrating Egypt's common man
Rafi’s work was animated by the political struggles and social inequality of his native Egypt. He translated this into powerful paintings of wild animals, pharaonic symbols, and – perhaps surprisingly – distinctly everyday items, such as wooden chairs and earthenware jugs, in a celebration of the common man of Egypt. Historically, he is a bit of a conundrum among the canon of modern Arab art.
He was part of the Art et Liberte in Cairo in the late 1930s and 1940s, the main exponents of Surrealism in Egypt, as well as of the Contemporary Art Group that followed – whose concern with Egyptology was looked down upon by the more internationally minded Surrealists.
Rafi left Cairo in 1950 when he received a scholarship to the Sorbonne in Paris, and thereafter remained aloof from the main currents of Egyptian art. Perhaps his starry new pals in France's capital were too much of a draw. Although mostly described as an introvert, he managed to cross paths with both Picasso and Le Corbusier.
His work therefore has a sui generis quality to it, with recurrent themes and scenarios that examined his country from afar. Rafi lived in Paris until his death in 2004.
The new show in Dubai
“He really developed his own language,” says Yasmin Atassi of Green Art Gallery, who has mounted a show of the Egyptian Modernist’s paintings and works on paper at her Alserkal Avenue space. “There’s a loneliness and melancholy to Rafi’s works, but also resolve.”
Atassi curated Spotlight on Samir Rafi with Ubuntu Art Gallery in Cairo, an institution that displays many of his works, in order to allow what she calls a "longer time span" for people to see Rafi's paintings. "He's been very present at auctions and at fairs," she says. "But I wanted to give people in Dubai a chance to engage with it over a longer time period. And his work feels so contemporary to me."
The works in Dubai, produced using oils and pastels, range from 1943 to 1993 and include two loans from the Barjeel Art Foundation. The politically inflected Surrealism that was explored by the Art et Liberte group – which Rafi, slightly younger than the other members, was a late addition to – is a constant throughout, as is Egypt, whether as a source of ancient inspiration or political frustration.
Walls are cracked, rooms are small, the subjects' dress is Egyptian and traditional. But, while there is evident anger in his work, there is also sheer relish. The freedom that Art et Liberte promised its artists, of a breaking away from the reigning academic style, likewise never seems to have worn off.
An untitled work from 1974 evokes not the sunny delta of the Nile, but the darkened forests of northern Europe in the wildness of the snarling wolves with their interlocking jaws. It is also evident in the rueful mystery of one of his most unusual paintings, both within his oeuvre and more generally, where a small brass bed floats mid-canvas, above a yawning abyss that has opened in the otherwise sparse but normal room. The painting's subject matter is clear – as the title indicates, it is Life's Tragedy for the prone figure on the four-poster bed.
'Unlocking Egypt's richness'
Rafi's are legible paintings and part of the joy in viewing them is that you get to ask that otherwise naive question: what is this artwork about? Sam Bardaouil, who co-curated a revelatory show of Art et Liberte work, argues that Rafi's juxtaposition of ancient Egyptian emblems and the trappings of everyday Egyptian life was crucial to his message.
"Rafi seems to be telling us that the only true entry into unlocking Egypt's richness and understanding its true complexity is through the person of the local, poor, working-class, perhaps even peasant or farmer Egyptian, who is the true embodiment of Egypt," Bardaouil says. "His coffee shop seat is more like a throne and he is the new pharaoh of Egypt!"
Though this is not a large show, it is substantial, and gets across some of the main motifs in Rafi's work, from the thobe-wearing Egyptian perching above an empty chair (in Fleur pour Blanche VI) to the renditions of wolves that bookend the show. A 1965 work of two figures striped by folkloric textile patterns – a work that was at Art Dubai Modern this year, at Ubuntu's stall – is stunning. The figures, with their ancient emblems, appear hemmed in by the traditional patterns. History here is jailer, rather than the source of authenticity it plays elsewhere. Only two doves transcend the pattern of the foreground, perching calmly on the bars that encage the man and woman. "Rafi is important," says Atassi. "He reflected on the nation of Egypt as it was just forming, and today, parts of the region are seeing the same kind of political shifts."
Atassi's gallery typically follows a contemporary programme, but adds one historical show a year. Last year, she focused on female painters of early Egypt. "Bringing in history is really the ethos of Green Art," she says. "We wanted to contextualise Rafi's work in a contemporary setting."
Rafi's work itself, indeed, resists being tied down to a singular moment. If his reinterpretation of ancient symbols tells us anything, it's that wolves and men will always have new reasons to snarl or mourn.
Spotlight on Samir Rafi is at Green Art Gallery, Alserkal Avenue, Al Quoz, Dubai, until March 5