With an air of studied abandon, artist Mai Refky combines figurative drawing with vivid patterns, layering them to create dynamic visual compositions.
In pencil and charcoal, Refky’s figures are like sketches from different viewpoints, layered and layered to be several moments at once. The lush patterns - from florals to geometrics - are bright and saturated, as the artist skillfully manipulates oil paints into the watery consistency of acrylics; transparent and dripping at the edges.
Refky's work is like a study of all possible relationships between both elements; the human form and patterns. Her interest lies in the tension between the organic human form, and the inert structures found in patterns, as she experiments with contrast and harmony.
She is an artist building a personal visual vocabulary, her process is as academic as it is playful. Her subject matter makes use of her formal training in painting and Traditional Islamic arts and crafts. Refky’s paintings have become a means of breaking free from the self-consciousness nurtured in academia, while instead giving in to exploration, intuition, and rediscovering the spontaneity and playfulness reminiscent of children’s art.
This studied carelessness makes her paintings seem as if they were made in one spirited sitting. Yet it’s precisely because she works over extended periods of time that her paintings are exposed to all the different energies she approaches them with. Within her paintings there are mornings and evenings, joy and sorrow, bravado and reluctance. Her emotive process feeds the final piece to add yet another layer that can only be felt if not seen.
In previous years Refky’s figures were classic portraiture. She then began bringing patterns into her work, only to strip them out at some point to re-focus on figures. Upon reintroducing patterns, she had a new approach and heightened sensitivity to composition. Over time figures and patterns have intertwined, no longer strictly subject and background. If she was leaning on an excuse to use patterns - as a background or as clothing fabric - she let that go. She now exhibits an understanding of their inner workings that allows her to manipulate them playfully.
In Retraced, Refky builds on her 2013 collection Transient Chronicles. She departed from the visual memoir in the latter and gave the patterns a stronger role and presence.
The patterns breathe life into the figures, possibly as insights into their private worlds, their outer surroundings, or neither. The artist has freed the paintings from the symbolic meaning or philosophical interpretations that could be placed upon these patterns. The arrangement of the figures mimics the language of patterns. They are treated as units that can be rotated, repeated or mirrored, disassembled or reconnected, like a visual puzzle inviting you to unravel it.
Her figures are faceless or averting their gaze, leaving the limbs to do all the communication. A raised toe suggests tension, while a dropped hand speaks of surrender. The paintings could be double exposed photographs from a contemporary dance piece, where the language of the body is center stage. The swooping motion of Refky’s lines leads the eye from head to hands to feet, and back to elbows, thighs and fingertips.
Depicted in static poses, seated and often curled into their own, the energy is in their relation with surrounding patterns and colors. In pieces like ‘Echoed’ and ‘Reflection’ the figure occupies the canvas from edge to edge, as if the four sides of a frame can’t contain her. In others, such as ‘Confinement’ she keeps to one side despite the ample surrounding space.
Most of the Retraced collection was created in pairs. Every Yin has its Yang, a moment andit's mirror. This duality is most pronounced in pairs like Half Empty and those in the Reflection series. It is not about symmetry, but rather an exploration of a state and it's opposite.
As an extension of this duality Refky focuses on contrast, an aspect more pronounced with her artistic maturity. Contrast is embedded on several levels, lighting a spark between the elements and filling in for a dramatic event. There is contrast in her choice of medium that reinforces the inherent contrast between figures and patterns. Fine pencil lines contrast with areas of paint, as she composes with skilled sensitivity to weight and lightness, densely worked areas and plain white canvas.
Her process presents another polarity. While the execution of patterns demands accuracy and proximity to the canvas, it is the figures that are in pencil and graphite - tools of accuracy. Those lines are as riveting and confident as they are unassertive. As if striving for the right stroke, but also relishing in the suggestive nature and the elusiveness of a correct one.
It is this dual spirit that marks Refky’s work in Retraced, as the eye wanders through her complex compositions and into her labyrinth of layers. Noticing the many ways she employs contrast and duality, and balances precision with freedom is perhaps key to enjoying the poeticism of her work. As the eye wanders through her complex compositions, it pulls you into her labyrinth of layers.
Written by Soha El Sirgany, ArtlitEdited by Saida El Harakant, Adsum Art Consultancy