An otherworldly encounter with Palestinian artist Fayez Barakat
It’s 12 pm, and I’m just about finishing my umpteenth pot of jasmine tea at my regular Mayfair haunt, as I recline on a grand Victorian velvet throne of a chair. I know the man I’m supposed to meet is somewhere in the area, but exactly where, I can’t quite put my finger on. ‘Who are you supposed to see?’ asks my friend. She knows exactly who I’m talking about. ‘His gallery is just around the corner, on Brook Street – you must have seen it’. No, I admit, I haven’t. For all the pounds I’ve blown on clothes and tea in this swanky neighbourhood, I regrettably haven’t done much exploring in terms of galleries, although I’m soon about to get a taste of what I’ve been missing out on.
As I saunter down Brook Street, I’m expecting something of palatial proportions – and naturally so, considering all the fantastic stories I’ve heard about the man in question, most of which have revolved around his amassed fortunes in the antiques business. However, just as I approach the Claridges Hotel, I faintly spot in the corner of my eye the magic word I’ve been looking for: Barakat. For a minute, I second-guess myself, although I’m soon reassured I’m in the right place. Sitting at his desk behind the gallery window, is none other than the man himself, Fayez Barakat.
As we begin to chat, surrounded by his treasure trove of antiquities – probably worth enough to feed a small country – I’m instantly taken aback by his humbleness and affability. Dressed in a simple shirt and trousers, talking in layman terms, and even answering his own telephone and dealing with couriers during our conversations, it’s clear Fayez doesn’t have anything to prove. He’s earned his money the hard way, and knows the true value of things. Having started his own antiquities business back in Palestine – his place of birth – he slowly but surely amassed a fortune, and exported his brand of galleries to some of the world’s glitziest cities. However, none of that wealth could help him overcome the loss of his wife and son, two tragedies that shook his foundations to the core, and set Fayez on a different path. Indeed, it was only after these traumatic moments in his life that the long-dormant artist in Fayez emerged, fuelled by sadness, yet with an unremitting vigour.
There’s much more going on in his abstract alchemy than meets the eye
If Fayez’s demeanour belies his wealth and status, when it comes to art, he’s got no shortage of superlatives in store – and rightly so. As a means of coping with his losses and finding meaning in life again, art has become Fayez’s existence. Wandering about on the third floor of his gallery, I find myself surrounded by canvas after canvas, and every colour of paint you could possibly imagine. ‘Look,’ he says, pointing to three large, drying paintings, ‘I did these today – what do you think?’ If sharks don’t keep swimming, they’ll die, and if Fayez doesn’t paint, his fate is likely to be the same, according to him. To say that Fayez has produced thousands of paintings would not be an understatement; perhaps the figure even far surpasses that. ‘Look at the colours in this one’, he says. ‘Do you know how many colours there are in the background alone?’ Fayez’s countless works – known for their beautiful use of colour and texture – are anything but one-minute creations, and one simply wonders how he finds the time to paint, whilst simultaneously managing a multi-million dollar business. ‘Once I painted for 27 hours straight, dear’, he remarks. At first, you think the man must be joking, but you’re soon brought back to reality by the gravity of his glance.
Since he was a child, Fayez was fascinated with art, and though he made his fortune in the antiquities business, he has forever studied the works of the great masters. Indeed, holding a Ph.D. in Art History, Fayez knows his stuff. While at first, one may be tempted to compare his works with those of Jackson Pollock, for instance, upon deeper reflection, it’s clear that there’s much more going on in his abstract alchemy than meets the eye. ‘Somebody once described each bit of my paintings as “worlds within worlds”’, he mentions. True – there may not be any discernible figures or images in Fayez’s works; yet, they are imbued with an emotion and passion that capture your gaze in an indescribable way. It’s not surprising, then, that Fayez has, for the most part, chosen to name his works, series, and books after particular emotions and feelings. As we quaff our second (or third?) glass of sumptuous red wine over a Persian meal he’s specially ordered, he hands me a series of books he’s recently had published. Beyond Fantasy, Beyond Desire, Beyond Ecstasy - the list goes on. ‘My next book is going to be about the concept of bliss’, he remarks.
As he generously pours my next glass of wine, I start to liken Fayez to his own creations. Like his works, Fayez is incredibly multi-layered and three dimensional, and upon first glance, there’s a lot you wouldn’t grasp. We talk about his life, his family (Fayez still has another son and two daughters), the creative process, and Palestine, among other issues, and far from the portrait of the merciless businessman I had forged in my mind prior to meeting him, I find I’m able to communicate with this man on a level I rarely attain with other individuals. Perhaps this is because – above and beyond anything else – Fayez is a genuine human being. As I head out, he lays two warm kisses on my cheeks in true Middle Eastern fashion, and I leave his gallery on Brook Street with a feeling I can’t quite fathom. I came to meet Fayez to talk about art and simply put a face to our correspondences, and instead I’m leaving with a deeper understanding of life and the human condition.
Perhaps this is the feeling he alludes to in his series, Beyond Consciousness. Then again, my head is reeling with the choicest of wines.