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Fighting Multiple Sclerosis With Acrylics


Vivid abstract paintings hang in each room of the Mufarrij household and it is surprising how they harmonize so subtly their elegant traditional furniture. In a small back room furnished with a bed and a desk, Khalil Muffarij sits by the window, speaking with elegant, gentle gestures.

This article was featured on the Daily Star’s website ( on February the 18th, 2012, written by Sophia Tillie.
Mufarrij was born in Beirut in 1947, the youngest and only son. As a young man he was an idealist and a committed Arab nationalist activist who felt that the Arab homeland needs to be modernized by revolutionary means. His role model was Kamal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish republic.
At 17, Mufarrij and some fellow AUB students founded the political movement Al-Shaab al-Raii (the idea-holders), which later developed into a broad-based student movement.
Mufarrij obtained his BA in political science at the American University of Beirut in 1973. One semester before graduation, however, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. This did not prevent his pursuing work in the Middle East and Europe but the MS’s creeping symptoms prevented his traveling to the U.S. and gradually bound him to this Broumana house.
Here, starting in 1998, he chose a path of self-discovery through painting.
“Happiness, anger, sorrow, contradictory feelings,” Mufarrij says when asked how he feels about his illness. “This is how I feel.”
It’s hard to find any traces of anger and sorrow in his paintings, which radiate luminosity of color and dynamism.
“When I paint, I do what I feel,” he explains. “I start with the colors and don’t plan. I once drew and planned with pencil and then I got stuck ... so this was the first and last time I planned. Now I let myself really feel my freedom.”
Mufarrij received little formal instruction in the arts and his early works were pencil and pen-and-ink drawings on paper, mostly portraits. His drawings were personal commentaries, both descriptive and suggestive, but always perfectly coherent.
He started experimenting with oil pastels in 2001 using them in some of this works in 2002. He was prolific from 1998 until 2002, completing an average of 17 pieces a year. After that he lost easy control of his pen and he dropped to two drawings a year, completing only one work in 2009.
Mufarrij shifted to acrylic on canvas in 2003, creating representational, often figurative, works. Figuration gradually drained from his work after 2006 as MS took hold and in 2009 the work became totally abstract. He now produces a work every few weeks.
His abstractions often have a subtle narrative intention. “I do name the painting and each painting has a story but that doesn’t mean that that is it,” Mufarrij says. “Everybody sees different things in it and I respect the viewer. As for myself, I leave the painting to tell me something.”
His paintings are expressive, subjective and wildly spontaneous creations. As he drifted toward abstract expressionism, he entered a domain where straight lines and geometric form are supplanted by the dynamic energy of color.
His paintings are the emotional response of a highly cultured spirit defiant of his bodily imprisonment. This is most evident in the internal dynamism of his painting, in the viscosity, speed and impact of his laying paint on canvas.
“I am trying to protest,” he says. “I am protesting about everything. I am tackling with God, not protesting just about the state of planet earth. Human nature is strong but with many loop-holes, as if God did not finish his work. For me this is the real civil war.”
Mufarrij himself grew up during Lebanon’s Civil War. “I lived the war,” he says. “The war affected me. I was against it. Some people believe in war like they do religion. I am often asked why I don’t paint my feelings about the war. But I did not wish to draw a Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ of screaming heads and broken bodies.”
In painting, Mufarrij seems to be searching for his own vocabulary, making his work an exhilarating discovery of different levels of self. “Religion is like sex,” he explains. “It is deeply personal, and spirituality, for me, is a constant tension between the spiritual and material. You do not know where to settle yourself.”
His restless brush stokes seem to transgress these dualistic tensions. Yet what is most striking is how he manages to fuse this intensity and range of color with such speed without destroying or muddying the purity of his colors.
He achieves this through a variety of experimental paint-application techniques, augmenting brushes with kitchen knives and tree branches, sometimes applying paint directly from the tube. There are no rules and no boundaries, especially in his constant exploration and experimentation with color. “I try to discover new colors, new methods. When I achieve this I fly out of earth.”
Mufarrij only uses acrylic paint. “Acrlylic dries quicker and I have no patience,” he explains. “It suits me and oil is clumsy. I try to expose it and give it more life by discovering the colors as the tube doesn’t give it to you. You have to prepare your colors and to do so you have to know your colors.”
Lebanese painting is renowned for its use of vivid and luminous colors, attributed to the quality of sunlight here. With his range of synchronized color combination, Mufarrij pushes the boundaries of color viscosity to a point where color seems to become sound. It is here that he enters unchartered territory.
“Talent is one thing but you have to educate it,” he says. “It is like a fountain. It does not stop.”
Mufarij’s talent is still being discovered. He acknowledges his influences and shows concern about mimicry. “You cannot but be influenced by painters but I do not want to imitate anyone,” he says. “I want to make something new. I feel I have something different.”
He says he never used to want to exhibit his work as he was not interested in the materialistic side of the art world. Art for him was therapeutic and he would give his paintings as gifts to friends and family.
Art critic Cesar Nammour argued that the public should see his work and published the artist’s full collection in his book “Khalil Mufarrij.” Last year, Mufarrij exhibited his paintings at the Surface Libre Gallery in his first and only exhibition, “Evolution.”
“You cannot have peace in the world without art,” he says. “It is the only solution to keeping an open mind. It teaches tolerance and how to be creative. It makes you try things. I for myself am no longer a nationalist. The whole planet is one village. We are all very close to feeling the same.”                           
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 18, 2012, on page 16.



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