Having opened on 24 September at Cairo’s Art Talks Gallery, the exhibition titled ‘Samir Rafi Uncensored’ focuses on one of the pioneers of Egyptian surrealism, despite that he spent most of his life outside his homeland.
As we meet the rebellious painter Samir Rafi through his paintings and sketches, we are taken by his international creative vocabulary intertwined with strong links to Egypt. Rafi’s internal struggles and constant search for identity come to the fore in his paintings. It is very clear that even the works created in France carry strong Egyptian influences and themes.
The exhibition reveals many details rooted in life and work of the painter, starting with the 1940s and early 1950s, time when the artist was in close contact with several avant-gardist creative minds.
Together with artists such as Fouad Kamel, Hussein Youssef Amin, brothers Telmessani and Hussein Bicar, Rafi formed an artistic circle that aimed at revolutionising painting and literature as well as society in general. They hoped to inspire a new way of looking at the world, without forgetting themes drawn from history. It was at the moment that the group’s efforts were reaching their peak that Rafi left to Paris.
Born in the Sakkakini district of Cairo in 1926, he died in Paris in 2004, a city that adopted him since his self-imposed exile in 1962.
During his life in France, Rafi would visit Cairo occasionally, but he would also spend time in Algeria where he was appointed director of cultural affairs at the Musee National Des Beaux-Arts d’Alger (1964).
It was in Algeria after a coup d’etat that removed Ahmed Ben Bella from power (1965) that Rafi was arrested and imprisoned on charges of espionage and alleged work as an agent for former President Gamal Abdel Nasser. He was eventually released and deported without a right to take any processions with him.
In France, the pioneering Egyptian surrealist joined numerous artistic movements that represented creative freedom, modernity and progress of the era. The exhibition at Art Talks in Zamalek walks us through the many stages of Rafi’s life. It is here that we find many self-portraits from different decades, including those echoing the years spent in Algeria’s prisons. Rafi paints images of the families visiting relatives in prison, the light of the candles, and women who fill the works with hope.
He became acquainted with Salvador Dalí and Pablo Picasso, both of whom held high respect for the Egyptian artist. Rafi’s unique paintings — in many ways inspired by cubism — has become a trigger for many to refer to him as a founder of “Rafism.”
The exhibition also displays Rafi’s sketches where the details are explained with short texts, a procedure that reminds us of Leonardo da Vinci. Other works representing the figurative surrealism testify to the exceptional aesthetics and complexity. From one work to another, we see how Rafi progressed, how throughout the decades his mind and creative expression took different forms.
The last years of Rafi’s creative life are marked by more contemplative accents. The texts that he inserts into his paintings ask about the meaning of life or describe the world’s vainness. The reality is presented in a spiral way, so we feel enclosed in a vicious circle, without a possibility of exiting it. Somber, enigmatic and somehow bewitching, Rafi approaches those heavy subjects without fearing taboos.
The exhibition continues until 5 November. Art Talks Gallery, 8 El-Kamel Mohamed Street (4th floor), Zamalek, Cairo.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Hebdo.