mardi 7 juin 2016

Mohammad El Rawas: A Comfortable Discomfort

“But all the foregoing (besides sharing the defect of not existing) are mere optical instruments. The faithful who come to the Amr mosque in Cairo, know very well that the universe lies inside one of the stone columns that surround the central courtyard. …No one, of course, can see it, but those who put their ear to the surface claim to hear, within a short time, the bustling rumor of it. …The mosque dates to the seventh century; the columns were taken from other, pre-Islamic, temples, for as ibn-Khaldun has written: in the republics founded by nomads, the attendance of foreigners is essential for all those things that bear upon masonry.”
Jorge Luis Broges, The Aleph and Other Stories

If, by persistently looking in one direction, you can see, hanging near a goddess or a nymph, a mediaeval map drawn by twelfth century geographer Mohammad al-Idrisi; if this goddess or this nymph is Circe, daughter of Helios, god of the sun, and Perse, the Oceanid; if she is represented as she was during the century of the romantics, in the Pre-Raphaelite style, holding a cup full of a magic potion intended for Odysseus; if she is assisted by an attractive yet peculiar contemporary woman; if you realize that Odysseus himself is not Odysseus anymore but the member of one of the fundamentalist groups of our troubled times, roaming the regions outlined in al-Idrisi’s map, where south is up; if you can discern a slender woman, with long purple hair that cascades to her feet; if this sexy martial art fighter, this Japanese Manga hero is Uncho Kanu, and if she pretends to be – or perhaps actually is – Circe the Greek; if all these objects, people and symbols belong to different stories; if they simultaneously belong to the past, the present and even the future; if they appear to you slightly altered and tell stories they never told before; if you can see all of these objects, symbols and people, and maybe a few others, in just one glimpse, then, there is no doubt, you are in a narrative derived from the imagination of Mohammad El Rawas, the raconteur, the Maker of Realities.

Circe's Assistant, Oil and acrylic on canvas, 140/150cm, 2014

Magical Realism is what best describes El Rawas’ complex constructions – or should we say ‘deconstructions’. Each one of his compositions is a layered assemblage of objects and techniques, ideas and references. He borrows, modifies, alters, copies, pastes, reinterprets and decontextualizes objects and concepts he finds in the history of art from Italian renaissance to contemporary art, through haute couture and fashion, comics, architecture and photography. El Rawas' juxtaposition of styles, genres and techniques, at times brutal and uncomfortable, always surprising, mirrors the intertextuality and absurdity of our contemporary life. He even orders online the sexy figurines of manga characters that populate his works, turning the act of art creation itself into the most postmodern of our everyday life activities: Internet shopping. 

Joseph Cornell, Medici Boy,
Construction, 1942-52 
By introducing a third dimension to his works in the 1980s, Mohammad El Rawas takes the art of assemblage as forged by American artist and sculptor Joseph Cornell (1903-1972) to the realm of Magical Realism. For his "Medici Boy", for example, Cornell borrows Pinturicchio’s famous “Portrait of a Boy” (c. 1500). The box, the juxtaposition of objects, the borrowing, everything evokes a Cornell-Rawas filiation. Mohammad El Rawas is thus part of the tradition of postmodern artists who borrow and decontextualize images shaped by others to combine them with their own creations. In 2013 El Rawas abandons painting to work on creating a series of three-dimensional constructions using multiple materials and techniques. In his latest artistic phase, he goes back to two-dimensional paintings. By doing so, and painting with striking realism the objects, real or imagined, altered or accurate, he juxtaposes on his canvases, he takes the art of assemblage, the process of deconstruction and the idea of Magical Realism to a whole new level of virtuosity.

Remarkably, by looking at the art of Mohammad El Rawas through the lenses of literature, one can further apprehend his talent as a raconteur. Indeed, El Rawas’ audacious amalgams and borrowings resemble French writer Michel Houellebecq's use of intertextuality and pastiche, while the peculiar atmospheres of the imaginary worlds generated by these very amalgams evoke yet another writer, Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami. Like these two authors, El Rawas epitomizes Postmodernism in its most accessible and understandable dimensions. All three contemporary artists excel at the art of deconstruction.

The Saga of a Reclining Model, Oil, Acrylic,
Mixed media and Assemblage on Plywood panel, 90/89/3cm, 2009
For French philosopher Jacques Derrida who coined the concept, ‘deconstruction’ is not the process of ‘undoing construction’; there is a word for that, it is ‘destruction’. Deconstruction is the amalgam of two words i.e. destruction and construction. Therefore, a process where destruction and construction take place simultaneously is a process of deconstruction. It is a process through which the artist, by inflicting destruction on something, constructs something else. That's what El Rawas does in a composition like “The Saga of a Reclining Model”, Houellebecq in a novel like “The Map and the Territory”, and Murakami in his monumental “1Q84”. Consequeltly, Houellebecq’s literary assemblages and Murakami’s juxtapositions of unrealistic tableaux produce an all too Rawas-ian puzzling uneasiness.

Michel Houellebecq masters the subtle art of borrowing and decontextualizing the styles of authors that predated him. The reader can find in his texts accents suggesting Balzac in a sentence like “Et si le voyageur éphémère veut bien rappeler à sa mémoire...”, Camus in the beginning of the sentence “Assisté à la mort d’un type, aujourd’hui...”, Lautréamont in some of his poetic descriptions of rural France, etc. Houellebecq also makes use of texts he finds outside literature per se. He borrows from sources as diverse as advertising, recipes, math problems or the user’s manuals of electronic devices. He advocates the use of all sorts of ‘raw materials’ in literature. In “The Map and the Territory”, he copied from Wikipedia a description of how flies have sex. He argues that taking passages word for word is not stealing as long as the motives are to recycle them for artistic purposes. His whole style is based on borrowing banal and technical descriptions from everyday life and weaving them into something artistic.

Camille Ammoun Collection
Inclinations, Oil, Acrylic, Mixed media and Assemblage
on Plywood panel, 109/99/6.50cm, 2010 
Haruki Murakami uses creative writing techniques to create altered atmospheres loaded with conspicuous sexual tensions. In his monumental best seller, 1Q84 is an alternate version of year 1984 with an obvious reference to George Orwell. In 1Q84, two moons instead of one are hanging in the sky and the same causes do not produce the same effects. The Sakigake cult described in the novel is a historical reference to the Aum Shinrikyo cult, which was responsible for the Sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway in 1995. The abrupt speech patterns of 17-year-old dyslexic high school student Fuka-Eri is compensated for by the enthralling shape of her breasts, while part-time assassin Aomame, the main female protagonist who thinks her breasts are asymmetrical, has an unbridled sex life with older men she meets in Tokyo’s bars and hotels. Like Murakami, El Rawas makes use of sexual tension and historical or artistic references to create the peculiar atmospheres of his assemblages.

The concomitant use by El Rawas of techniques as opposed as photorealism and surrealism, resonates with the world of Magical Realism, of which some characteristic features are the mingling and juxtaposition of the realistic and the fantastic or bizarre, skillful time shifts, convoluted and even labyrinthine narratives and plots, miscellaneous use of dreams, myths and fairy stories, expressionistic and even surrealistic descriptions, arcane erudition, the element of surprise or abrupt shock, the horrific and the inexplicable. The use of different materials found in places that do not naturally belong together, the mysteries left unresolved, the hentai-like sexual tensions, the altered, foreign yet familiar atmospheres, immerse the Rawas reader in a throbbing comfortable discomfort.
A short version of this text was published in Mohammad El Rawas’ catalogue ‘Apotheosis of Woman’ that accompanied the solo exhibition of the artist at Agial art gallery in Beirut, in May 2016.

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