Whatever happened to Rafik Majzoub? For more than a decade, starting in the mid 1990s, he was one of Beirut’s most promising and prolific painters. His agitated self-portraits, with their disquieting blend of aggression and delicacy, filled galleries for a steady succession of solo shows.
He anchored group exhibitions with paintings that pared down the pretensionsof political art to disillusionment, paranoia and despair. Whenever he wasn’t finishing work for an art space, he was opening his studio to the public, spray-painting stencils on construction sites or drawing sharp political critiques on flyers and then pasting them on walls across the city.
A few years ago, however, Majzoub seems to have dropped out of the local art scene. His work has been mostly absent from exhibition programs, and the few remaining traces of his urban interventions are old. A new book of diary-style drawings doesn’t quite mark his return to form, but it does help to explain where he’s been.
“Sober Days,” a limited edition artist’s book just published by Plan Bey in Mar Mikhail is an anguished record of the days and months following Majzoub’s decision, in 2009, to check himself into a hospital to dry out and stop drinking.
A reproduction of the artist’s actual rehab journal, the book runs through an unforgiving sequence of ink-and-coffee drawings, depicting Majzoub’s face sunken and his body diminished.
We see scrawls of him scowling at a doctor, hooked up to an IV and slumped over a desk doing nothing. We see scans of bar receipts and images of broken bottles. Most unsettling of all, we see the strange scorecards listing the results of daily card games between Team A (for alcoholics) and Team H (for heroin addicts).
The alcoholics always won, Majzoub says, because the heroin addicts were more heavily medicated, and therefore catatonic, than their opponents.
“I wanted to print this because it’s a real experience,” he says of the book. “Maybe people in the same situation will see something they recognize. It was quite an experience. I think it’s good from time to time to face reality.”
“Sober Days” does not cast the artist in a particularly favorable light. Nor does it celebrate self-destruction as romantic or heroic – a crucial distinction that lends the book a thread of responsibility. The notion that creative temperaments are prone to excess is nothing new, but no young or up-and-coming artist is likely to flip through Majzoub’s drawings and conclude that out-of-control alcohol consumption is anything but devastating for one’s life and work.
“I lost a lot of friends,” says Majzoub of the phase in his life covered by “Sober Days.” “I lost my lover because of drinking and bad temper. Since 2009, I’ve only done one solo exhibition. It’s not enough. I used to finish a sketchbook in a week. Now I’ve had the same one for three years. Sketching is my therapy, even just to put the pen to paper and draw lines or scribble. But it’s a shame I’m not doing more.”
Majzoub ended up spending two weeks in the hospital. He describes his time there as detox rather than rehab, and he is sure the doctors and psychiatrists who dealt with him misdiagnosed him, treating him for bipolar and obsessive-compulsive disorders rather than alcoholism per se. He is withering about the effects of lithium, which he was prescribed to take for several months.
Although it offers no hard facts or critical assessments of his medical treatment, “Sober Days” does raise a few roundabout questions about how a society responds to the substance abuse of a generation that is all too familiar with extreme and pernicious stress.
That generational predicament has long been evident in Majzoub’s work. In 2005, the critic Joseph Tarrab wrote that, after the collapse of so many value systems during the Civil War and post-Civil War eras, and in the absence of viable political ideologies or credible social programs, the painter and his peers had “no recourse other than to lose [themselves] in [a] daze of alcohol, sex, drugs, music, endless entertainment and aimless wandering in cyberspace.
“Disempowered, the pathetic children of this lost generation indulge in wounded irony, bitter sarcasm, desperate derision, revulsion from the world ... The other angry painters ... early on dropped out after having been simply co-opted and integrated into the system. Rafik Majzoub is the only one left.”
In the end, however, his sobriety didn’t last, and it remains to be seen whether Tarrab’s conclusion will hold. When Majzoub met a reporter recently to talk about his book, he matched his interviewer’s tea and water with a beer and a flask of whiskey. It was noon. He fell off the wagon three years ago, after only four months of abstention.
At first, his return to drinking was disastrous, he says. He remembers nothing of his 2010 exhibition at the Agial Art Gallery in Hamra, except sinking into a couch in the corner and being so drunk he was unable to move. Now, Majzoub says he’s managing.
“For a while it’s been better. I’m living like a saint. I’m not looking for a lover. I’m taking care of myself. I drink during the day and then I put myself to bed and I sleep. A lot has changed.”
His work, however, hasn’t regained its full force. Majzoub says he’s hoping the production and publication of “Sober Days” will put the experience behind him, and allow him to move on.
“I should be more productive,” he says, “but I’m not. I’m trying to work on each project one by one. I’m taking my time. For some reason I’m not in a rush. If I want to say something, then it has to be good. Otherwise, it’s just: ‘Rafik Majzoub is having a solo show.’ So what? For me doing this book is much better than having a solo show.”
“Sober Days” may be beautifully printed and bound, it may capture the rough edge of Majzoub’s talent, but it offers nothing close to redemption, resolution or recovery. As much as Majzoub deems his hospitalization a failure, he says he’d do it again. “If I had money, I would do it again just to sleep. If I had money, I would do it again just to be put to bed.”
Rafik Majzoub’s “Sober Days” is published by Play Bey in Mar Mikhail For more information, please see www.plan-bey.com