Anuar Khalifi's 'Mirror Ball' paints Arab-ness as transitory
Walking around the latest exhibition of paintings by Spanish-Moroccan artist Anuar Khalifi at The Third Line gallery in Dubai, one encounters ageless characters in moments of solitude. They are on a personal journey, the artist explains.
Some have been created through his imagination, while others are based on real-life experiences and people he has crossed paths with. "I'm doing characters that look alone but are not lonely. They're interacting with each other in a way," Anuar said in an interview with The New Arab.
Entitled Mirror Ball, Anuar presents a series of colourful paintings, contrasting with the gallery's white walls, that centre around a reflective mirror sculpture. "Even if they came from different parts of the Arab world, viewers were saying, 'I see myself reflected in them' and it was really nice to hear," he said.
"In a world where contemporary art has gone beyond the canvas, Anuar has chosen painting as his medium for communication"
From the smallest of details, like the Mercedes Benz hood ornament that stands on the sculpture (a nod to the car his father drove on road trips), the show is personal in several ways. It is a homage to Anuar's childhood memories spent between Morocco and Spain, two cultures that are alike in more ways than one.
Based in Barcelona, Anuar was born to Moroccan parents in the charming coastal town of Lloret de Mar in the northern Catalonian region in Spain. During his school days, prior to the accessible internet era, he copied things he was captivated with on television, such as Japanese cartoons, through drawing.
Once a year, he and his family would embark on a trip, heading south to Morocco by car. He was quietly observing. Passing through the Arab-influenced southern region of Andalusia, where certain sights and sounds that reminded him of his identity have stayed with him over the years.
"I have a romantic idea of these moments," he said. For instance, in "The Trip" painting, referring to a vehicle crossing borders, Anuar portrays the car's roof-mounted with bags, a sight he’s become familiar with.
Visiting Morocco was hugely influential too. He particularly talked about the city of Fes, where its colourful streets "used to blow my mind. . . When I came back from Morocco, I was amazed by my own culture."
What also impacted his artistic practice were eye-opening visits to the grand Prado Museum in Madrid. Established in the 19th century, it houses iconic works of art by Spanish masters Goya, Velazquez, and El Greco, among others. But, something didn't seem right in the eyes of Anuar.
"Every time I go to the Prado, I try to find Arabs or black people there. . . I'm trying to look for someone that looks like me. Normally, they're depicted in a bad way," he explained. The theme of identity is present in his work, but it wasn't self-chosen. "If there wasn't all these clichés about the Arab world, I probably wouldn't do it. We are misrepresented in a way."
In Anuar's paintings, he shows tan male characters in differing settings, coloured with bold tones. With a direct gaze, some are wearing traditional red fez hats, while others are playfully wrestling, expressing undertones of tension (as seen in "Transmission" and "Mirror Ball," resembling Henri Matisse's famed "Dance" painting). Anuar made his paintings in pairs, forming a dialogue and a connection between them.
In "The Hundred Step," a dignified, scholarly man stands against a cloudy blue sky, and there are footsteps behind him. Dressed in a black suit and cape, he holds a red book. For this painting, Anuar was inspired by a book on Sufism, "The Hundred Steps," written by Abdalqadir as-Sufi.
It's an image that is related to another one, called "Sirr," where a man in white robes stands in front of a green car with the sun setting in the distance. "It's not about how you start, but how you end," he said of the character. "Maybe the character is you, or the idea of who you want to become."
An often recurring motif he uses is the red nose. It's something of a trademark and a joke to Anuar, explaining that it symbolizes deep human emotion and the weather’s effects on the body.
He says a work from the show that is closest to him is "Green for the Eyes." It's a small canvas, depicting a young man sitting on a black horse with the road ahead of him, yet he is looking backwards towards the viewer. It symbolizes, once again, the essential theme of the show: going on a journey, literally and figuratively.
In a world where contemporary art has gone beyond the canvas, Anuar has chosen painting as his medium for communication. "What amazes me about painting is that it's an extremely difficult craft. You're never going to know its secrets. . . Painting is relevant. It captures time and space, and how the artist felt at that moment. Photos can document things, but it can never be like painting, capturing the emotion. Sometimes it feels like painting is more alive."
Rawaa Talass is a freelance journalist focusing on art and culture emerging from the Middle East. Her work has been published in Art Dubai, Arab News, Al Arabiya English, Artsy, The Art Newspaper, Kayhan Life, Dubai Collection, and The National.
Follow her on Twitter: @byrawaatalass