One of the most eclectic Lebanese artists in style and artistic interest, Aref El-Rayess is undoubtedly one of the leading figures in Lebanese art history. Born in Aley in 1928, his eclectic upbringing between Lebanon, Dakar and Paris exposed him to a plethora of inspirations, including mime, theatre, African textiles and the works of Fernand Léger and André Lhote. As a result, El-Rayess became known as a multi-disciplinary artist and thinker, who expressed himself in sculpture as well as painting, with a rich body of illustrations. He was fast to switch between distinct styles in different periods of his artistic career. Very much influenced by the doctrine of the Druze, El-Rayess' works and thought processes imply a deep-rooted belief in notions of mysticism, reincarnation and the symbiosis of man and universe. A key theme that runs through all his works denotes the plasticity of a thought where mysticism rests on an experience of a vision.
El-Rayess' legacy leaves behind a rich body of works that embrace expressive realism and symbolism while reaching some form of abstraction. Using different channels as the intellectual necessity required, he used research and experimentation with Arabic calligraphy, blocks of shapes, surfaces of objects, light and colour to deconstruct and rebuild notions of man, humanity and the universe.
A champion of Modern art in Lebanon since his return from Africa in 1957, his work has had significant influence on the next generation of artists, particularly as he continued to teach up until his death in several universities, having become the President of the Lebanese Association of Painters and Sculptures in 1973. His atelier in Aley became the centre point for gatherings of teachers, artists, students, poets, intellectuals and art collectors to muse about artistic developments and philosophies of life.
In 1980, in the midst of the Civil War in Lebanon, Aref El-Rayess relocated temporarily to Saudi Arabia at the request of the Mayor of Jeddah at the time, Dr. Mohammed Said Farsi, to become an artistic consultant to Jeddah. Extremely attached to Lebanon, he viewed his tenure in Saudi Arabia to be a self-induced exile of some sorts, not as a necessity imposed by the events of the Civil War that raged in his homeland and was to destroy his atelier on his return in 1990. Once in Jeddah, El-Rayess was commissioned to produce seven beautiful stone and aluminium sculptures that were placed in Jeddah's open-air museum, along with five other monuments in the city of Tabuk. Known for their defined and abstract lines, they were an extension of his painting works of the 1970s that implement a sense of Abstract Expressionism and unique fusion of all of his styles. The most well-known work of this period is a 27 metre high stylised aluminium sculpture entitled Allah as well as the faade of HH Princess Hessa Bint Ahmed al-Sudairi mosque in Riyadh, a work of art comprised entirely of bar reliefs where elements of calligraphy and graphical lines meet with the decorative elements of the Arab-Islamic heritage in an amalgamation of the straight elongated vertical lines, arcs, circles and curves forming verses from the Holy Quran.
Travelling within Saudi Arabia to source marble and stone for these commissions, El-Rayess was heavily drawn to the spirituality and serenity of the landscape of the desert and the long beach shores of Jeddah. He was inspired by the purity of the light, which he considered to be blessed and sacred and was compelled to capture in his works the essence of the mysticism and spirituality in which he so fervently believed. Jeddah (Shatek Al Hadi) from 1982 is a seminal example from this Saudi Arabian period and captures the artist's deep-rooted liberation of mind and soul.
Depicting a serene beach shore of intense blue, interspersed with deep red rocks of varying sizes, it is clear that El-Rayess' intention is to open a new gateway into his soul, longing for a simplicity in form where nature and man are united. Captivated by the simplicity of nature, the role of air and water in shaping the rocks to become softer-edged, abstract forms of their original form, he uses this abstraction and malleability of the elements in his own lines and shape formations. To this end he thus goes beyond the way he had treated abstract Arabic calligraphy forms in painting and sculpture to create a new language and style that is uniquely his.
Having corresponded for many years with Mikhael Nouaymeh, the Lebanese writer whose philosophies, much like the Druze, believed in the mysticism that joined man and universe, it is evident that El-Rayess' spirituality is the fundamental base of this spectacular work. With a sense of lightheartedness, he plays on this note through nuances in his depiction of the rocks. On closer inspection the viewer realises that the rocks take on forms of humans, particularly the large rock at the front that resembles a couple in warm and encompassing full embrace. As if to signify the full circle in which man and earth become one, emerging from the sea as a new start or, from another perspective, merging back into the sea for a beginning, there is a clear sense of a holistic approach that is a vital characteristic of El-Rayess' philosophy. As a wave gently appears to crash against the rocks in the background, the sense of serenity and implicit happiness that emanates from Jeddah (Shatek Al Hadi) leaves the viewer with a sweet aftertaste that can be enjoyed over and over again.