Talking with celebrated Lebanese artist Mohammad Al Rawas
Mohammad Al Rawas is a leading light on the Lebanese art scene. The 68-year-old artist first earned a BA degree in painting from the Lebanese University and later received a Master’s in printmaking from the Slade School of Fine Art in London. Over a career that has spanned decades, Al Rawas has created magnificent artworks using a variety of materials. In parallel, he’s taught art at both the Lebanese University and the American University of Beirut. Here he shares some thoughts about his life and his work with Selections.
Q: As part of your latest exhibition, you’ve brought together some of your earliest works, such as Train I. What is it like to reconnect with your earlier work after so long?
A: Through appropriation of details from high art or from my own earlier work, I act in line with my awareness that the art of any past era does not simply vanish and that it somehow persists, shapes and affects the succeeding one. The history of art, whether global or personal, progresses in one continuous line of interactive praxis. Quoting elements from my own earlier expressionistic paintings in my present more narrative ones, proved a challenging task. Yet, it was also one that allowed me to reconsider problems that had occupied me over many years, questions of both form and meaning, and how past and present might live together on the canvas.
Q: You’ve described Train II as a response to Train I. I see a lot of new elements, but also a lot of recognisable ones. Do these pieces represent your journey as an artist, where you were versus where you are now?
A: Train I was my graduation project at the Lebanese University back in 1975. The painting was found in 2015, after being lost for 40 years, and it took a month and a half to restore. The restoration process was carried out by myself under the guidance of Mr. Faddoul Khallouf and his staff. During the restoration process, living and interacting with that work on a daily basis kept bringing back vivid memories of my feelings and experience while painting. The restoration work completed, I found myself haunted by the urge to attempt painting the same theme again, 40 years later. And so Train II came about in 2016.
Q: You were just beginning your career at the outset of the Lebanese Civil War. You experienced the conflict first-hand. How do those experiences factor into your work?
A: The Civil War experience was a traumatising one. I stopped painting for two years and fled the country to Rabat (Morocco). I wanted to stop producing paintings that were merely nice visual statements. I thought that being an artist was not simply to render cleverly what your eyes see, even if stylized. I did not want a split between my art and my life. Once I started painting seriously again in Morocco, I wanted my work to involve “concepts,” to express my ideas. Thus the themes of my paintings became related to the events in Lebanon and their consequences for me. My images no longer obeyed the rules of visual perspective. The various elements of the painting were no longer arranged according to the conventions of “realistic” painting. I did not want the eye alone, but analytical and synthetic thought as well, to be involved in the appreciation and reading of my work of art.
A further change that came about in my painting at that time was the introduction of words as both communicatory and compositional elements of expression. My paintings from this time might be described as rather dry, cold, cerebral statements. A reduction in colour is also noticeable during this period. My work started looking very subdued, using greys and desaturated colours.
Another important change was my ever-growing interest in photographic images. An image taken by the camera retains the objective reality of the thing that is photographed, and such images became increasingly present and significant in my painting. By photos I do not mean “artistic” photographs. I do not normally use them in my work, because they are complete works of art in their own right. What I use are the most ordinary and casual photographs, because they can lend themselves to borrowing, adding to and working on.
Some of the works I produced while living in Morocco (those of 1976 and 1977), besides including photos, introduced another innovation: I refrained from applying the paint by brush. Using a brush necessarily expresses the painterly sensibility of the artist’s “hand marks.” Instead I used a method of spraying paint onto the surface using a primitive type of airbrush. By doing this, I was eradicating the artist’s personal signature and all rhetorical or gestural practices. The lines, too, were not drawn with a medium that could communicate feelings: I used a technical drawing pen that would give the same thickness all the way through and produce a line with a consistent, homogeneous quality. My painting now contained shapes that were more geometric than organic.
Although the topics I dealt with at that time were mainly linked to the events in Lebanon, they also included commentaries on human behaviour and reactions. But this emotional and conceptual content was expressed in a subtle, indirect manner, often charged with sarcasm and cynicism.
Q: Do they still factor into your work?
A: Maybe just traces. With time pictorial and conceptual statements in my art evolved in new directions. Once you express a thought and manage to get it out of your system, a new one comes and you get involved with discovering and investigating the new artistic possibilities.
Q: Ultimately, you left Lebanon, and you even stopped painting for a time. What was it that brought you back?
A: After leaving Morocco, I went to the UK to continue my studies in the Slade School of Fine Art, sponsored by a scholarship from the Lebanese University. The scholarship terms required me to come back to teach at the Lebanese University for a period of seven years at least. However, my teaching career lasted for 26 years.
Q: You began your career as a painter, but then you started to work with other materials, like wood and metals. You’ve taken inspiration from photography, fashion and pop culture. Now you’ve become more interested in painting again. What draws you to a particular medium?
A: Each medium has its own artistic expressive qualities. The artist usually chooses the medium he or she finds most suitable for his or her specific theme or statement. I have used several art mediums, like painting, printmaking, sculpture and installation, due to the nature and demands of my statement each time.
Q: You’re an art teacher as well as an artist. Does that inform your interest in different mediums as well?
A: Not necessarily. Teaching was a great experience as far as communication and exchange of thoughts were concerned.
Q: Your work has been described by some as “magical realism.” Would you agree with that?
A: I have always welcomed the reviewers’ descriptions of what they saw in my art. It’s their point of view and I respect that.
Q: You’ve been called one of Lebanon’s most influential contemporary artists. Do you agree? How does that make you feel?A: Once again, it is the reviewer’s opinion. I believe any artist can be influential if he or she manages to bring a new and original statement to the art scene. This novelty is the result of hard work and a high sense of exigency by the artist. An artist should be cautious not to produce the art that has been done before by another artist.
Q: Are you going to continue painting for now, or do you already have something new in mind for the future?A: At the time being, I think I will continue my work in sculpture.
A VERSION OF THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN PRINT IN SELECTIONS, 21 ARTISTS AND A BIENNIAL #49, PAGES 14-15.