As a Spanish-Morrocan artist, Anuar Khalifi explores the cross-examination of colonialism, orientalism, and the complexities of living between two worlds. By exploring his personal experiences, Khalifi creates work that serves as cultural touchstones. “My goal is not simply to put brown individuals on display in museums as if they were advertisements,” says Khalifi. “Form and content carry a living knowledge and potential for answers.”

Khalifi has the ability to paint personable yet accessible work that greets viewers of all backgrounds with a welcoming invitation. His current solo exhibition at Third Line Gallery, titled Mirror Ball, extends that invitation even further. Khalifi’s unique sensibility is on full display – each painting has its own journey but simultaneously exists in an ever-shifting perspective that the exhibition space urges you to explore. As you walk through the gallery and around the “mirror ball”, each angle meets you with a new question.

“Painting is an art form that is not utilitarian, although it can be transformative for both the artist and the viewer,” Khalifi shares. He has always believed that “Al Ma’ani Kabla Al Mabani” (meaning precedes appearances). By prompting viewers to engage with appearances as a catalyst for dialogue, Mirror Ball becomes more than just an exhibition – it is an opportunity for reflection.

١ What is your earliest memory of art?

My family had a ryad in the Medina of Fez. I remember looking at the geometric engravings that framed the open sky of the courtyard, trying to decipher them for hours. It was an encounter with infinity. As a child, I also spent many hours drawing, and I can vividly remember my mother teaching me how to draw my first face, always starting with the eyes.

٢ How did you find your style in paintings?

Style is connected to the first way of drawing. As time goes by, that form arises again and again. It’s in drawing where the author’s singularity lies. One could say that it is a journey of return and getting rid of tricks and special effects. While my works are portraits, I believe all art is ultimately abstract.

٣ Since you are also a DJ, do you usually listen to anything specific when you paint?

I listen to a wide range of music and appreciate silence, both of which can help me enter a state of mind conducive to my art. While creating “Mirror Ball,” I listened to a lot of Bad Brains, which may not be apparent in the finished work but was certainly a motivating factor during certain stages of the creative process.

٤ As an avid reader, do any books inspire your thought process?

I read about topics that interest me and directly influence my life and art. My search is not “research” for creating a specific body of work. I can name a few books that have had an impact on me and to which I often return: Tarkovsky’s “Sculpting in Time,” Ernst Jünger’s “The Ambush,” “The Hundred Steps” by Abdel-Qadir al-Sufi, “The Book of Strangers” by Ian Dallas, and Oliver Potzsch’s “Sounds of Eternity”.

٥ Your paintings can come across as surrealist and satirical at times. How do you employ colour and form to convey that?

The use of colour can have different connotations depending on where you come from. In my case, they reflect the geographic space I inhabit internally and externally. Colour can be used in many ways and can have aggressive connotations due to marketing or advertising campaigns. Nature itself has patterns of using certain colours to warn of dangerous species.

٦ Are there any reoccurring motifs you’d like to always bring back in your work?

An artist functions as a satellite surrounded by a cosmos of meanings and symbols that appear and disappear in their work. These are necessary to maintain control over the narrative. If these symbols have a universal meaning, they can create a conversation or understanding between the artist and the viewer. If they have a meaning that can only be interpreted by a certain group, they create a sense of complicity in some and interest or rejection in others. In my work, I use symbols that are known by a certain group but not in a way that creates a barrier to a more instinctive understanding. On the contrary, it is an invitation to enter through the door, not the window.

٧ How do you approach personal identity and diversity in your artwork?

For me, identity is tied to dignity; they go hand in hand. If it were not for historical and present-day injustices towards individuals who come from the same internal and external geographical zones as myself, I might not place as much importance on the concept of identity. Identity can take many forms but has deep historical roots.

٨ When you describe your work as semi-autobiographical, what specific aspects of your personal experiences do you draw upon in your art?

In my practice, I don’t separate my professional work from my personal life or the things that impact me. While it’s possible that I might take a more analytical or scientific approach to other topics in the future, that will also influence and change the way I present my work. I believe that my work will still be influenced by my personal experiences. As I evolve as an artist, my approach might change, but it will always be connected to who I am as a person.

٩ You’ve mentioned that your artwork examines the possibility of an authentic identity at the intersection of modernity and tradition.

I see it more as navigating “modernity” without burying or extinguishing the past. Every artwork is connected and in dialogue with another work of art. Trying to disconnect from tradition or the past is absurd, just like the idea of individualism; it is not how we work. Painting, in particular, has the ability to capture a moment in time and space, and I believe that it can point towards the past and the future, both internally and externally.

١٠ You often draw inspiration from various sources, including stereotypes of Islamic culture and contemporary society. Could you tell us more about their significance?

The stereotypes of Muslim culture have not been a source of inspiration for me. Instead, I see it as something that I had to deconstruct. Stereotyping Muslims are not just a contemporary problem though it is very specific to the West; it has happened historically, and I had to confront it growing up in Spain, disguised under a thin veil. Even if we tried to forget or erase it, the past would still be present in the language and landscape. As a figurative painter, I have had to find a way to engage with my own language without contradicting the form and content.

١١ What type of dialogue do you wish to spark amongst people when viewing your work?

The most significant thing that has come out of this exhibition is the number of people who have told me that they saw themselves reflected in my work, even though they might seem quite different to my personal identity. There is something universal that resonates within us, and it can be reflected in art through symbols that have been used by people before us. The title of the exhibition was revealed in the reaction of those who observed it: “Mirror Ball.”

Mirror Ball is running until the 19th of May at Third Line Gallery, Alserkal Avenue.

Credits: Anuar Khalilfi’s portrait photographed by Luqman Nieto

Rand Al-Hadethi is an art, culture, and fashion writer who approaches all her creative endeavours with a penchant for storytelling. She explores the intersection of fashion, culture, and society and sheds light on talent and cultural movements across the Middle East and the world. Rand also publishes a bi-monthly themed substack newsletter called WebWeaver™. To reach Rand, email her at rand@khamsa5.com or follow her on social media @rundoozz.
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