Visual artist Rafiee Ghani’s career on canvas has long been inspired by his travels. Whenever he discovers an inspiring sight abroad, he takes a photograph of it, and uses it as a reference to create a painting afterwards.
It didn’t always use to be like this. As the story goes, the Kulim, Kedah-born artist would try to sketch on the spot. But everything changed, however, after a trip to Tunisia a few years ago, when Rafiee had a brush with the law.
Rafiee describes how he had wanted to sketch by a river and an old bridge, not realising there was a Tunisian army camp nearby.
“I was sketching, and then all of a sudden, I was surrounded by the army! They opened my car and my bag, and saw I had a lot of sketches of mosques, buildings, bridges. And I had a lot of mechanical pencils and cameras … they looked like spy tools!” recalls Rafiee, 55, with a chuckle.
“Here I was, a foreigner, coming with all these gadgets, making sketches and notes … it looked very suspicious! So they had to question me, although they were all very nice. We live in times of suspicion.”
This experience, thankfully, did not sour Klang Valley-based Rafiee’s view of the region.
Indeed, the man remains very much in love with the soul of North Africa.
His latest exhibition, Adventures In Wonderland, is a visual diary of the wonderful places he visited while on a month-long solo trip to Morocco in 2012. In many ways, this new show is an extension of his North African-inspired epic Desert Rose exhibition held in KL in 2014.
The new show’s title, the artist says, refers to how most people now associate Arab countries with conflict and political turmoil, when in reality, these regions are full of life. It is a more uplifting exhibition compared to last year’s Homeland, a show reflecting his thoughts on the world’s migrant crisis, dislocation and endless war.
Adventures In Wonderland sees a cheerful Rafiee on canvas.
“You drive in the desert, you can see people playing football in their full costumes, their jelabah. And their markets are huge and bustling affairs. They (Moroccans) are not affected by what is going on in other parts of the Middle East. And I find that very joyful,” says Rafiee.
“In the morning and the evening, the houses are very colourful. They are made of red clay, so sometimes you get very brilliant orange colours in the sunset. It’s unforgettable.”
His latest exhibition, Adventures In Wonderland, is a collection of 15 semi-abstract watercolour artworks depicting scenes from Rafiee’s trip to Morocco.
Whether it is the rugged casbahs or crowded medinas of Moroccan cities, or the vastness of desert sands at night, the artist captures the essence of a beautiful country with striking, brilliant hues and free-flowing lines.
“It’s just the way I paint. I never paint things realistically. I feel you need to put more of your personal touch, to let people see how you look at things.
“I appreciate the realism that other artists are doing. But I’m more about emotions. To me, it’s a challenge to minimise details, but still keep (a scene’s) character,” explains Rafiee, who admired painters like Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso in his early days.
The artist first paid a visit to Morocco in 1986, inspired by tales of the greats like Matisse and Paul Klee, who also made visits to North Africa to create their works. He has since made another two trips there in 2008 and 2012.
Two of Rafiee’s favourite new works in the exhibition include Kasbah 1 and Kasbah 2, which depict old Moroccan fortresses that once served as defences as well as places for a local leader to live.
“They depict what Morocco is all about. It’s all part of their national heritage, you can’t find these anywhere else in the world.”
Another highlight is Medina (a distinct city section in a Moroccan town), a piece which Rafiee captures vividly, complete with high walls and many maze-like streets. It is fitting that Rafiee’s depiction resembles a patchwork quilt of various intermerging shapes, colours and forms.
“The medina is the vibe, the heart of the city. You can hear people cooking, people shouting at each other, kids fighting … it’s like a melting pot of the local culture.”
One of his favourite memories of his trip was driving into the Sahara desert, which inspired the painting Sahara Night.
“There’s basically nothing there, a lot of shrubbery. But the sunsets there are very colourful. I thought the desert was a very plain, barren land, but I was surprised at how colourful it could be. And it could be very cold at night!” says Rafiee.
“We took a four-wheel-drive into the desert, almost to the Algerian border, like no-man’s land. It was very nice, seeing how people used to travel across the desert. Of course, they used camels then! At night, the desert is so quiet, you can hear the wind, the pinging in your ears!”
Rafiee is now planning a book, which will contain his sketches and photography of Morocco. The book is due to be launched in November.
Meanwhile, the artist is planning another trip to the region.
His advice to people travelling to Morocco? Use common sense, and while most Moroccans were nice, one should be careful around extra friendly characters, particularly in the big cities.
“If you travel with an open heart, and open eyes, you will see good people everywhere. And if you see good people, even the mundane places can be very interesting. It’s the people who make the place,” he says.
Adventures In Wonderland is showing at Vallette Gallery, 52 Jalan Doraisamy, The Row, 54-01-01 in Kuala Lumpur till June 30. The gallery is open daily, 10am-5pm. For more info, visit www.vallettegallery.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Call 019-3012-569.