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The Beach Series

As a child and teenager growing up, my middle-class family used to go to public beaches, with few amenities, typically frequented by families of similar backgrounds and means: government employee, a family car, reasonably conservative, but open to ways of the world. It was a world--and society--in transition. With my cousin and older brother, we used to stray from the safety and 'decency' of family-oriented sections of the beach, to the beachfronts of neighbouring hotels, crowded with European tourists, and look enviously (in more ways than one) at hotel guests: they had clean beaches, wide parasols, comfortable lounge chairs, fresh drinks, nice-smelling lotions, and hot bodies (well, not all of them, but we didn't look at the other ones). Tunisia being a coastal country, the beach is also where the well-to-do vacation and where the contrast in means and mores with the general public is most evident.

So, to the teenage middle class boy growing in a (thank god!) "controlled openness" environment, the beach epitomized in some ways the lifestyle that I aspired to. What better setting, then, to imagine and paint half-naked bodies--short of having live models.



The next series of three paintings sort of illustrated the view from the 'other side' of my older brother K, my cousin R., and myself. This first shows the view, for someone (of the female persuasion) looking at the sea from a lounge chair, mostly in the shade, except for a little piece of the right things (near the knee) that is exposed in the sun.



Well, the previous was not evocative enough. Here is a full view from the eyes of a voluptuous bikini-ed beachgoer, with an onlooker looking in (could that be me or my brother K. or my cousin R.?).

One of the things I was playing with in this painting is the representation of shade with discrete layers of colour of different intensity levels, with little attempt made to smooth over the edges. Later on, I had become more self-conscious, and unfortunately, got obsessed with the seamlessness of the transition between different tones of colour, and thus, moving away from 'impressionism' to 'literalism/realism'.



The beach tourists from my youth used to have above average bodies, fashionable swimwear, and sweet manners--or at least' I only noticed those. As the Tunisian tourism industry kept sliding in the quality scale, and with the democratization of tourism travel all over the world, one started seeing tourists who were less wealthy, less healthy--not as fit as the well-to-do generations of yesteryear--and sometimes swimwear that was a few generations--we are not talking seasons--behind. I mean, come one guys, tight briefs stopped being popular in the late 80's. So my idea was to draw two characters who fall short of the current standards. It didn't work out as planned: I was only able to indulge the male character with a bit of a beer belly, but the lady has otherwise (what I would consider) a good body.



Not sure of the sequence, but the beach is often where the 'jet set' of Tunisian society meets. I imagined a scene where husband and wife (two leftmost characters) meet a common friend, who is single and has a tumultuous 'interesting life' compared to the wife who is a bore. There is a tension in the encounter. The guy (left) and the lady with issues (right) may share secrets unbeknownst to the wife (middle). The lady with issues is playing with the guy's nerves, by suggesting some complicity with the husband, who is feigning total disinterest. The wife is thinking to her husband 'fantasize all you want, I hold you by the b...s'. And the guy may be thinking/telling the lady with issues  'you may be fun, but you are a load of trouble".

Can't you tell?  

All shapes and sizes (C.R.)


Someone looking at the 'beach series' said "your paintings are not representative: you only paint people/ladies with great bodies. Lest one liken the to an erotic exploration, I painted this one showing a lady with homely features (not sexy) taking her daughter (not sexual) to the beach! A friend of mine took it, for what it represents!



I wanted to play with: 1) faces, and 2) shade. I wanted to paint a carefree brunette, the kind who is fun, pretty, and with whom you want to hang out. The results (this one and the next) have been anything but. I dubbed this one 'Om Kalthoum', who (in case you have been living under a cultural rock), an exceptionally talented, now-deceased, Egyptian singer (, not known for her jovial or flamboyant public persona.



This is my second attempt. Only marginally better. The Nike logo suggests that she is supposed to be a fun person, even though the smile is ambiguous--hence the title :-)



Moving on from "bodies" being the focus (whether shapely or not) to the more mundane activities that can take place, like small talk or gossip. Wanted this to be homely, unassuming, and not the least bit sexy.



You have to be from (or to have been to) a 'sun destination' to understand that there is a whole distorted service ecosystem around the beach, mainly targeted towards foreign tourists, with its predatory practices targeted to the unsuspecting tourist, whose only exposure to the natives may be limited to airport staff and hospitality services personnel. But this one has a double meaning.



I don't remember what I was trying to learn technically, if anything (perhaps perspective, from the back?), but the scene depicts a young woman (girl?) relaxing, worry free in a sort of an enviable state of abandon, in part thanks to a nearby chaperon, who is reading the newspaper (mate? father?)



You sometimes see people who come to the beach to do anything but relax. The women tend to be more subdued, and feeling sad or out of place. The guy is more at ease, attire-wise, but seems to be carrying, or sharing, an unspeakable burden with the woman. In Tunisia, where there are (were) not many public places where non-married couples could get together, and spend time discussing issues, such as 'relationships' people would sometimes go a to restaurant for that purpose. I am like "why spend that much money to have an unpleasant discussion".

Technically, I was trying to show two characters in the dark shade of a parasol, thanks to the strong contrast between "under the sun" and 'under the parasol". However, because I was caught into the details of what was happening under the paragon, there is barely any contrast between the under versus out of the parasol areas. Also, I wasn't daring enough in representing the contrast.



Disappointed by the rest of the previous one, I tried my hand at a quick trial doing a watercolour the way it was supposed to be made:quickly and from "gut". As far as the shade vs sunlight aspect was concerned, I felt that this was better. However, the mood of the two characters was lost.



I don't remember the chronological sequence of this acrylic painting relative to the other watercolours. Technically, I was going for a few things: 1) different views of the human body who look fairly different from the standing up/in movement shape, and 2) reflection and refraction on water surfaces--in this case a swimming pool. I am challenged / fascinated by the painting of water surfaces, and have not managed to make any strides--in six years--along those lines. This is one of my attempts. What the painting is supposed to show is that the immersed part of the woman's legs (half-way through the calf) is distorted by refraction, and because of the wavy nature of the pool's surface. The fact that you probably didn't notice tell you about how successful my attempt was :-).

As for the theme, the woman's womb is the source of everything, mythically, biologically perhaps even erotically. I was inspired by Magritte's style for the eerie blue sky with character-less clouds, and the "hole" in the body.



I wanted to paint a crowded beach by a superposition of scenes. But what I knew instinctively/intuitively, and found out by practice, you cannot convey 'busy'ness or 'crowded'ness by drawing many characters or scenes. If I were to put a subtitle, it would be "many does not a crowd make". An half-decent painter would probably tell you that you need to paint a "shape of a crowd" with a couple of more or less well-defined 'characters who are near the observation point (the painter). I have made a couple of attempts (shown in subsequent 'collections'), including crowds at demonstrations, to little or (only slightly beter) effect.

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