Born in Aley (Lebanon) in 1928, Aref El Rayess started to paint at the age of eleven. In 1948, he had his first exhibition in Beirut. From 1948 to 1957, El Rayess travelled between Senegal and Paris, where he started art at the Academy of Fine Arts and trained in the studios of Fernand Léger and André Lhôte, among others. He returned to Lebanon in 1957, and in 1959 was offered a grant to study in Italy. In 1963, the Lebanese government commissioned two sculptures from him to represent Lebanon at the World’s Fair in New York. In 1967, he returned once more to Lebanon, a country then greatly affected by events in the Arab world. He was a founder member of the Department of Fine Arts at the Lebanese university. From then on, El Rayess organised, attended and took part in conferences and exhibitions on politics and art in the Arab world. In 1975, he was invited to Algeria, where he made a series of drawings on the Lebanese civil war, and in 1978, he took part in the International Art Exhibition in Solidarity with Palestine. During that period, he started to work in Saudi Arabia, where he produced some 13 sculptures in the cities of Jeddah, Tabuk and Riyadh. He lived in Jeddah until 1987, and some years later, in 1992, he returned to Aley in Lebanon, where he lived until his death in 2005.
Aref El Rayess is a fundamental figure in the Lebanese cultural panorama from the 1960s to the 1980s. In its paradoxes and singularity, its flashes and its blind alleys, the oeuvre of Aref El Rayess exemplifies an uncompromising modern artistic career that follows solely the “inner demand” of a concerned subject, more attentive and sympathetic to the political, social and cultural crises of his time than to the “isms” and expected sequences of the modern canon. Precociously talented and largely self-taught, extremely gifted and generally undisciplined, he was an entertaining and often caustic observer, fascinated in his adolescence by timeless “impressions of Africa” that accompanied him throughout his life. El Rayess’s formal career and work evolved mainly in cycles, reiterations and reminiscences, and in the various disciplines he fostered in his turn (drawing, engraving, painting, sculpture, collage).
This exhibition is centred on the years 1958 to 1978, from El Rayess’s return to Beirut after his formative years in Senegal, Paris and Lebanon until the beginnings of the civil war (1975-1990). In many respects, his work of this period is a seismograph that records the frustrated desires and hopes of an era through heterogeneous formal expressions inspired by the insurrection of the Druze people (1958), the Algerian war of independence, the liberation struggles of the “Third World” and the war in Lebanon.