BEIRUT: The “fool” is an archetypal character that goes back centuries, spanning cultures, languages and eras but always exhibiting certain characteristics. In Britain, the quintessential fool can be found in Shakespeare’s plays.
A simple, lower class man, thought to be stupid by his social superiors, he is in fact wiser than everyone around him and derives humor from manipulating their behavior.
In France, the ultimate fool is perhaps Polichinelle, or Punch, a commedia dell’arte puppet with a long, hooked nose, who controls events by pretending to be stupider than he is.
The Middle East has Karakouz. The word refers to a type of satirical theater using shadow puppets which originated in Turkey and spread to Tunisia. The main character of this genre of performance, Karakouz is a poor man, simple, often uneducated and ill-spoken and as such is ridiculed by those around him. He possesses an innate cunning, however, which allows him to manipulate the situation for good or evil.
This folkloric character is the focus of the latest solo exhibition by Lebanese painter Raouf Rifai, which is currently on show at Mark Hachem gallery.
The show marks part of Rifai’s long-term series centered on the subject of the “darwish” – a figure that encompasses both the dervish, or Sufi mystic, and a simple, good-hearted peasant. Karakouz is a specific form of darwish, Rifai explains, along with other folkloric characters from the region such as Juha (or Nasreddin) and Abu Zuruf, which, he says, will form the substance of later exhibitions.
Here the artist makes use of both sides of Karakouz’s character, attempting to deploy him as a vehicle for political satire.
“It’s a socio-political critique of people who speak a lot on television, but do nothing,” Rifai explains. “Karakouz is ... a king, or a president, or a minister who does not do [his] duty. For us he becomes a karakouz, a theatrical image ... Karakouz is the character who makes a lot of jokes and is poorly dressed, but he is crafty. He is someone we think we can laugh at, but in reality he is laughing at us.”
Rifai has captured a seemingly endless series of roles for, and interpretations of, his muse. His paintings depict Karakouz as a hero, a villain and everything in between. Resolutely androgynous, Rifai’s Karakouz is often depicted with the bulbous nose of an alcoholic and a fulsome moustache but dressed in women’s clothing – ostensibly symbolizing the character’s ability to represent the masses, both male and female.
“This Karakouz is sometimes an image of the people, like in Egypt with everything that is happening now, or in Tunisia or Syria with the Arab Spring” suggests Rifai. “He is so intelligent that each time that something displeases him he demonstrates. At the same time there is another Karakouz: the people who are in power who manipulate the population.”
This duality of gender and of intention is only the start. While Rifai’s paintings appear fairly straightforward, the artist ascribes a surfeit of symbolic weight to his works, threatening to boggle the mind when explained in full.
An installation piece opposite the gallery entrance, for instance, seeks to personify the Arab Spring, breaking it down into isolated elements that can then be reconnected by the viewer like a mental join-the-dots exercise.
A plastic mummy, the figure’s feet are clad in simple slippers, of the kind worn in a Syrian hammam. Its body, a plastic cast wrapped in plastic bandages, represents both an Egyptian mummy and a body wrapped in a funeral shroud.
“It is someone who is going to die and someone who is resurrected,” says Rifai, “living death. Is he dead or is he still leaving? It’s a question, because in every revolution there are a lot of lies and a lot of truth and my Karakouz is steeped in both.”
Stamped on the figure’s chest is the logo of the Shell petroleum company – representing conflict over resources, the artist explains – while the keffiyeh wrapped around his shoulders embodies the Arab Spring demonstrators. The figure’s dark skin represents Libya, Tunisia and Egypt, while the moustache and beard are a nod to the Gulf. The blue eyes suggest American and European involvement in regional affairs and finally the tarboosh adorning the dummy’s head symbolizes Turkey, “which dominated us for 400 years.”
Other themes covered in the exhibition, Rifai asserts, include women’s struggle for equality, pollution, the decline of the Arabs from the great civilization that led the world in mathematics, astrology, philosophy and medicine during the Middle Ages to a people viewed as fanatics and terrorists, the spiritual emptiness that accompanies rampant materialism, the Palestinian cause and the Lebanese Civil War.
Rifai’s Karakouz is nothing if not versatile. Though the volume of causes they putatively champion is overwhelming, Rifai’s paintings are engaging and playful. His expressive faces, each imbued with its own emotion and character, are rendered in broad, confident strokes and often outlined in black, giving them a childlike aspect.
A palette of rich earth tones and frequent use of complementary colors give his canvasses depth and his figures are often depicted with a cheeky smile and an endearing liveliness.
“My art,” Rifai says, “is very experimental, so I use every style to arrive at something. It doesn’t interest me what style or what material I use. What interests me is to arrive at my goal: to speak the truth, to protect nature and man, to protect humanity and human feeling in the face of materialism throughout the world.”
It’s no small task but, whatever the social repercussions of Rifai’s work, “Karakouz” is a varied exhibition of engaging works of talent and versatility. While the themes addressed may be exhaustingly ambitious, the results are aesthetically pleasing.
Raouf Rifai’s “Karakouz” is on show at Mark Hachem gallery in Downtown Beirut until Feb. 23. To find out more, call 01-999-313.