A man’s catharsis through paintings

BEIRUT: People stepping into Saifi’s Galerie Piece Unique this week will be flabbergasted by its latest untitled exhibition, which showcases a selection of paintings by Lebanese artist Khalil Mufarrij. Thirty acrylic on canvas works – along with three mixed media pieces – dress the white walls of the gallery, plunging onlookers into the painter’s world. Born in 1947, Mufarrij – an Arab nationalist and political activist – believed the region needed to be modernized. He studied political science at the American University of Beirut, where he founded the political movement Al-Shaab al-Raii (The Idea Holders) with some university comrades.

Mufarrij never took art classes. Self-taught, he started focusing on his career as a painter in 1998 in his house in Broumana, Metn.

Viewers unfamiliar with Mufarrij’s work would never guess that such bright and colorful paintings are the artistic offspring of a painter who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at a young age.

Some of the main symptoms of this autoimmune disease are numbness, a loss of sensitivity and chronic pain – as though the body is imprisoned in an iron shell. When onlookers meander through the gallery, however, they quickly forget about Mufarrij’s health and simply stare in surprise and admiration at his artwork.

All the abstract works employ a wide palette of purples, reds, blues and gold (to name a few), as a means to draw onlookers into a psychedelic realm.

In an interview with The Daily Star in Feb. 2012, Mufarrij confessed that he never pre-envisions his paintings. “I start with the colors and don’t plan,” he said, “I let myself feel the freedom.” And this is exactly what viewers feel while admiring his works – a refreshing freedom.

In his acrylic on canvas work, entitled “Viagra” (80x80 cm), the thickly textured canvas jumps out at the viewer with an explosion of colors, a statement of the joy of life and physical pleasure that illness prevents some people from experiencing.

This colorful firework-like painting fills the onlooker with a sense of freedom and delight. Although the title may disturb some more reserved viewers, this painting seems to serve as a form of the artist’s therapy – an emotional reaction to a physical imprisonment.

Mufarrij’s abstracts enable viewers to imagine and interpret whatever they want – or, more precisely, what they feel. “Everybody sees different things in [the paintings],” he said in a former interview, “I respect the viewer.”

In the acrylic on canvas work, “Better Than Life” (80x80 cm), onlookers face a painting that is also an abstract, but the colors are less congested. Unlike the other artworks in which lines, spots and scrawls cover the entire canvas, “Better Than Life” is laid out in a fashion which enables the onlooker to focus on each element.

The more we focus, the more we ponder what these featured items are. Their nature is uncertain, though this doesn’t prevent the viewer from enjoying the resulting image. Blotches of all colors inhabit the canvas like fantastic creatures in a surreal world.

“Maduhka” (100x150 cm) combines two different techniques. On the one hand, there are the thick layers and daubs of colors; on the other hand, there is a blurry frame engulfing the centerpiece. This mixture of techniques adds depth to the work.

The meaning of the title is unknown, but here again, onlookers have a freedom of interpretation. Are these colorful scribbles in the center representations of people celebrating? Or are we looking at a cracked pi?ata?

The intention of the artist remains uncertain, but this exhibition is a testimony to Mufarrij’s will to express himself through art – to forget about his physical suffering using painting as a means of liberation.

Khalil Mufarrij’s works are on display at Saifi’s Galerie Piece Unique until Oct. 6. For more information, please call 01-975-655.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 28, 2012, on page 16.




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