Fayez Barakat: 'Something powerful is overflowing'

Bradley Hope, The National, Abu Dhabi, November 19, 2010
A hard-nosed entrepreneur with a talent for spotting priceless artefacts, Fayez Barakat has become an artist whose paintings have been described as 'more powerful and explosive in mood than most abstracts by Pollock and de Kooning'.
The artist and antiquities dealer Fayez Barakat, pictured next to a display of his work at the Khalidiya Palace hotel in Abu Dhabi.
The artist and antiquities dealer Fayez Barakat, pictured next to a display of his work at the Khalidiya Palace hotel in Abu Dhabi.
Fayez Barakat is standing in front of one of his paintings on the first floor of the recently opened Khalidiya Palace hotel. It is a vibrantly coloured abstract work that he says is an expression of something that has been brimming inside him for decades.


"This one," he says. "Look at this one, the colour. Sometimes I paint more than 10 in a day. I wake up in the middle of the night and do this for hours."


But there was a time when Barakat, 61, approached art in an entirely different way. Back then, rather than creating it for personal satisfaction, he bought and resold it for personal gain, eventually rising to the very top of the Middle Eastern antiquities market.


A hard-nosed entrepreneur with a talent for spotting priceless artefacts, he took his business from a small shop in the Jerusalem souq into a dealership with global reach. There are now 10 Barakat Galleries, including outlets in Beverly Hills, London, and two in Abu Dhabi (one at the Emirates Palace hotel and another across the road at Khalidiya Palace). His clients include celebrities and the super-wealthy of the region.


In the last few years, Barakat has become prone to unwieldy causes and grandiosity. One of his more recent ventures had been to convince Abu Dhabi, albeit briefly, to build the tallest tower in the world.


Called al Imlaq (The Giant), the $3.5 billion, 224-storey structure designed by his friend and architect Tommy Landau would have featured an exterior covered with solar panels, a museum, a university and a rooftop centre devoted to astronomy. The plan collapsed within months of its acceptance, he says, when the authorities said al Imlaq would affect air traffic.


Nevertheless, recent events in his personal life have forced Barakat to rethink his perspective: his wife passed away last year, just two years after the death of his son, Sufian. Both had suffered cancer. He has another son, Alexander, in London, and two daughters, Hanna and Joanna, who live in Abu Dhabi.


"To lose something very important to you, that you cannot compare to anything," he says, pausing for breath. "It influences you and affects your way of thinking."


He has found solace in an old passion: painting. When his wife first became ill, he would often retreat to a studio where he would paint into the early hours of the morning. It was the first time he had sat in front of a blank canvas since his teenage years, when he had been first inspired to paint regularly by Pablo Picasso, whom he met briefly in 1960s Jerusalem.


Barakat's current artistic output is astonishing in volume. His apartment in the new Khalidiya Palace complex is packed with hundreds of paintings and, he says, there are thousands more examples of his work in storage.


All his works are easily classified as abstracts, but he scoffs at the idea that they are anything other than a form of realism.


"These are real to me," he says. "They are things that exist in my subconscious mind and impressions of things in the world. For every 10 people who look at them, each person sees something different." He leans over and almost whispers: "Some people think that I am one of the most talented artists living in the world today."


Now, after years as a "secret artist", Barakat is preparing for his art-world debut with an exhibition in Bahrain.


Godfrey Barker, the famed UK art writer, wrote in a recent interview with Barakat that "his paintings are more powerful and explosive in mood than most abstracts by Pollock and de Kooning and they are less elegant than those of [Sam] Francis" .


"They have their own language and they are born of visions and drives and compulsions within him that Fayez Barakat does not wholly understand."


Barakat said in the interview: "Something powerful is overflowing here, something beyond my own comprehension drives me to achieve. I feel at times I am a medium, that something is tapping into me. I receive a lot of subliminal messages that I seek to share."


He likened the artistic process to that of being submerged in an "energy field", where he is contacted by unknown forces and passed subliminal messages.


His rediscovered passion has led him to change the way he views the age-old business of antiquities. After 50 years spent accommodating the whims of private collectors, he now believes that the rightful place of the world's greatest artworks is not in the hands of the super-rich.


He has been tempted by the idea of letting Alexander take over the business and by the thought of selling the majority of his collection to a museum - or, better yet, creating his own museum in a building he owns in Jordan.


"I think that the artists who created such masterpieces did not want someone to own [them] just for their ego," he says. "I have always been a voracious collector. Sometimes, I don't have 10 cents to my name because I spend everything to buy more."


Wandering the corridors of his apartment, he barely seems to notice the Roman busts, antique chests and rare Chinese sculptures that populate the space. Now his own paintings interest him most.


"I breathe art every day," Barakat says. "I spend the majority of my time on this now. I think I have a lot to say, a lot to express. This is an accumulation of my experiences. I am leaving something important behind."