Rita Asfour was not like most artists. How many painters would leave Southern California’s artistic community for Las Vegas—then come out of retirement to paint showgirls, no less?
Then again, most artists were not Rita Asfour. The late painter, sculptor, and gallerist blew up the walls separating highbrow and lowbrow, then danced on the rubble.
Born Markrit Thomassian in 1933, Asfour was the child of refugees who had settled in Egypt after the Armenian Genocide. When she was only eight years, Hitler bombed Egypt; to negate the unpleasant images in her mind, Asfour used crayons to paint flowers. This formative traumatic experience inspired her to spend her life creating beautiful art. Asfour received her early art education at the Leonardo da Vinci Italian International School in Cairo, then worked as a commercial illustrator in Beirut for five years. After emigrating to the U.S. in 1965, she found work as a sketch artist for tourists at Universal Studios in Hollywood. Those inverted professional experiences—rendering photorealistic portrayals of glamorous women in everyday settings, then capturing everyday people in a glamorous setting—informed the keen observational eye Asfour would bring to her later impressionist-style work.
Asfour settled in Malibu, where she lived for 30 years. That period was her most prolific, painting seascapes and experimenting with various artistic mediums. Here, she developed her style and became embedded in the Los Angeles art community, opening her own gallery, Galerie Camille, in Beverly Hills in 1970. She attracted a number of celebrity clients who commissioned her to paint portraits of then-President Richard Nixon’s daughter Tricia, singer Ella Fitzgerald, and Los Angeles Times publisher Otis Chandler.
It was in Malibu, too, that Asfour pursued one of the major throughlines of her career: painting ballet students in motion. She was inspired to focus on dancers after seeing Pepperdine University students perform, observing the corps backstage on multiple occasions. Asfour also shadowed toddler-age dancers at Ballet Studio By The Sea, a private dance studio. She was intrigued by the age groups’ divergent approaches to dance: The Pepperdine dancers approached their craft with rigor and acute self-imposed expectations, while the toddlers were genial and unself-conscious. “It was a joy to watch the little marvels give it all they had in a show that sometimes lasted only a few minutes,” Asfour recalled in the exhibition brochure of a 2016 retrospective at the University of Nevada Las Vegas’s College of Fine Arts.
Asfour married aerospace engineer Jeffrey Asfour in Las Vegas in 1965, and had one child, her daughter Amber, in 1973. That first trip to Las Vegas proved hugely formative: Asfour returned to the city on multiple occasions, taking in shows on the strip. Just as she had the ballet dancers in Malibu, Asfour was struck by Vegas showgirls—their physicality, the intricacy and vibrancy of their costumes. This, too, would prove to be a lasting obsession. When she moved to Las Vegas in 2012, Asfour planned to retire from painting. But Jubilee!, a long-running revue at Bally’s Casino—as well as her friendship with a former showgirl who had fallen on hard times after her performing career ended—inspired Asfour to dedicate the final decade of her career to painting showgirls.
Until her death in 2021, Asfour brought the same keen eye and fanciful imagination to her showgirl paintings as she did her ballet series. Though society labeled the former tradition entertainment and the latter art, Asfour recognized that showgirls cultivated a comparable degree of craft, skill, and commitment as ballerinas, all while navigating brazenly voyeuristic and sexist settings. “Their stride and poise defined the word ‘dignity,’” she later wrote. As did Asfour.
This fall, Asfour’s work will be on view—and for sale— at the Reno Tahoe International Art Show (Sept. 14-17).
View more of the collection at RitaAsfour.com.