Artist Rafiee Ghani satiates his wanderlust with an epic adventure and accompanying exhibition.
Rafiee Ghani is almost poetic when recollecting the sights and sounds of North Africa – he describes the vastness of the land, the cerulean blue skies, and the desert that recedes into the horizon; the traditional mudstone Berber fortresses, luscious dates orchards, and ‘oasis’ of figs, promegranates and little houses snaking around the valley.
It was while he was driving across the Sahara Desert, all tinted with reds, ochres and pink during sunrise and sunset, that the song Desert Rose, sung by Sting and Algerian singer Cheb Mami, came to mind – and thus the exhibition title was born.
“Desert Rose is a big expressive visual diary,” says Rafiee about his new solo exhibition
“A recollection of memories, feelings of lost love and longings and adventure. In this set of paintings, I wasn’t trying to ‘geo-tag’ it to any location – this is an abstraction of landscapes, colours, patterns, textures and the overall mood I had during my travels.”
The 24 works at Galeri Chandan, all done with oil on canvas, were produced between 2012 and this year.
Tide is high: Rafiee Ghani’s The Following Sea (oil on canvas, 2013), which is a vivid splash of colour. This work is part of his Desert Rose exhibition.
The 52-year-old artist first visited Morocco in 1986 as a young man, and since 2011, has spent two months each year in the Moroccan-Algerian-Tunisian region.
“I was interested in these region for a few reasons. It is Africa but not really ‘African’ because of its proximity with Europe. I like the architecture and the influence of the Moorish Islamic architecture and calligraphy on modern arts. And it amazes me every time when the people of the desert can actually accept you are a ‘working’ artist,” he says, sharing that total strangers have, on several occasions, invited him to spend the night in their homes, huts and makeshift tents.
“I began to become the curious world citizen and traveller. I made many friends and brought back many memories, some of which I can’t even translate into words or paintings.”
But for those that he attempts to put to canvas, Rafiee considers The Following Sea the painting that best speaks for the exhibition as a whole.
A large piece measuring 314 x 214 cm depicting elements of landscapes like rolling clouds and crushing waves, Rafiee shares this is the scene that comes to his mind when thinking about North Africa – a place where “the desert meets the Atlantic Ocean”; where the land is “red, orange, brown and barren”, and the ocean brings rain and harvest to the area.
“One part is dry, and the other is rich, strong and full of life. This represents life in this area: they have climatic changes, political upheavals in the age of information flux, yet they carry on and get stronger.”
It must be a truly special place indeed, if it has managed to capture Rafiee’s heart this way.
The avid traveller – he has been travelling since his teens – has seen most of Europe, most of the Middle East, and North and South Africa.
He has been to “all corners” of the Indian subcontinent, from Peshawar in the northwest to the tip of Bangladesh in the east; Kanyakumari, the southern-most tip of India; and also in Gilgit in the north of Pakistan, where he attempted to cross over to China on a bicycle.
“I have driven across North America, coast to coast a few times, I can draw the map of Indochina blindfolded, and I have a friend in every Thai city,” says the Kedah-born artist who grew up in Kelantan.
Next, he hopes to visit China during a multi-month travel stint around central Asia.
And when he knows he is in a location that has been featured in a certain painting, he considers it quite an inspiration.
At the Maritime Alps in France, he contends that French painter Cezanne succeeded in translating “the light, the atmopshere and the colours of the region successfully onto his canvas”. Driving along the Californian coast, he soaked in the myriads of colours and shades along the way, pondering on how this region influenced his favourite American painter, Richard Diebenkom.
“It’s very eye-opening,” he says. “It is like watching a movie and you happen to come across the location where it was shot.”
“When I was in Northern Thailand and Indo-China I tried to see what inspired our Latiff Mohidin to write his epic poetry ‘Sungei Mekong’ and the series of paintings known as Pago-Pago.”
In Morocco, he sat in the cafe where Matisse the French painter did his sketches. He was also in Tunisia where the the German-born painter Paul Klee lived and produced some works for a while.
“I think all these travels helped me to refine my observation, understanding and enrich my creative process.”
Rafiee encourages people, especially young Malaysians, to travel more, to embark on a less-beaten track and rediscover what is written in books and shown in movies.
“When I was younger,” he shares, “I was told many times by my father that to be able to go places, I have to master two skills: to communicate either way and to be able to survive on anything local.”
To that end, Rafiee has picked up basic Arabic, French, Swahili, Thai and Urdu on his travels, and among other food-relates stories, has survived a Pakistani summer by eating dhaal day in and day out, with some bread and no meat at all.
He is convinced that the “real education” is to be found out there.
“Our decisions, views and aspirations will be redefined if we can see how our fellow world-citizens live and run their lives. In conclusion, good people are everywhere.”
Rafiee Ghani’s Desert Rose is on at Galeri Chandan (Lot 24 & 25 (G4), Block C5, Publika, Jalan Dutamas 1, Kuala Lumpur) till April 26. Call 03-6201 5360 or visit galerichandan.com for more information.