It was already past eleven o’clock on a cold February Damascene night, and the drive to Ahmad Mualla’s new house was tricky in this new, affluent, yet unorganized residential area between al-Sabboura and al-Dimas.
On arriving to this unobtrusive building that served both as a residential villa and an artist’s studio, I realized that Ahmad’s collection of oversized masterpieces has finally found a place where they can be properly displayed. Finally, I told myself, I may have the chance to view those paintings that I had only seen before in his old studio in conditions far from ideal: at a very close distance, the wrong angle, or stacked in a standing position among many other works.
But I was in for a surprise. What I saw exceeded what I used to experience in my numerous previous visits to his old studio in Qudssaya. For reasons only known to the muses (or more properly, demons) of creativity, Ahmad was going through one of his most productive and mind-numbing creative bouts.
We sat there, the three of us: Nabil Asswad, Ahmad Mualla and I, watching his aids hanging one large painting after another against a bare white wall in a very cold, brightly lit and spacious studio that occupied the entire ground floor of his villa.
The three of us were swept by a cascade of colors, people and calligraphy. Ahmad himself was not less surprised and infatuated than Nabil and I. He actually seemed to enjoy the exhibit even more than we did. His very surprise by his own work is a testament to the intrinsically visceral nature of his art. Visceral despite layers above layers of craftsmanship and dexterous technique. I also noted a hint of a mischievously childish smile on his face. Was it out of his pleasure on eying his work, or his bemusement on watching our surprised faces?
This was quintessentially Ahmad Mualla: spontaneous, dramatic, eloquent, expressive, dreamy and a master craftsman.
Ahmad’s spontaneity is integral to his artistic vision. His work seems to stem from the moment we are living in. When we stand in front a painting of his, it is as if an aperture opened and closed instantly, and a residual image was captured for us to look at. An image of something live and dynamic occurring in the moment, beyond what the canvas is allowing us to see. Nevertheless, the freshness and spontaneity are merely a trick by this skilled illusionist. For beneath what we perceive as ‘impromptu’ lays a tight organic structure that relates the present work we are looking at to a thread of past and future works, spanning large time intervals.
His drama is histrionic and theatrical. It stems from the masses populating the realm of his paintings: arguing, thinking, shouting, exclaiming or simply talking.
The large number of people simultaneously talking in his paintings notwithstanding, his work is expressive and eloquent: when we listen to their loud voices we are both overwhelmed and captivated. The power of expression and intensity of voice defies our analytical capacity to understand and critique. It directly addresses our sub-conscious, and we simply perceive what the characters are saying without the need to exactly understand the discourse.
Still, it is a world of dreams. Not the one we live in, but the one we yearn to be part of when dramatized and staged for us to watch and admire. His theatre is about a world full of events occurring and people participating. The lure to be one of them, not a mere external spectator, is tantalizing.
However, Ahmad Mualla is, first and foremost, an artist with a deep appreciation and formidable mastery of his craft’s techniques. He is precise, technically complex and very professional when it comes to oils, pastes, materials, brushes, palettes and tools. A painting by Ahmad is a labor of love. Nothing comes easy or smoothly, every square inch is meticulously crafted and carefully conceived.
Like most artists, Ahmad goes through phases and periods. At times he moves linearly; at others, he spirals in circles. He peaks, and then amuses himself with side-excursions around this new peak, revisiting older styles of his various phases. This starkly illustrates the dichotomy between the creative drive within him for the new and different, and his attachment to what is cherished and integral to his vision. When I visited him this time, he was tap-dancing through different stylistic elements of his oeuvre.
At an early stage in his career, Ahmad would depict people - individuals whose gender is neither distinguishable nor relevant – engaged in a vague ritual: whether it was ceremonial, festive or religious we cannot tell, but the ritual was always a public event, and for that, a loud one with very rare moments of silence.
Gradually, Ahmad’s universe became more populated, sometimes overcrowded, always engaged in seemingly unrelated narratives – just like a snapshot of real life at any given moment.
Then, words started to appear in Ahmad’s works. At first, they were just words that fleeted accidentally from the paintings: utterances from the conversations being held by the masses.
At a later time, the words became more important. Increasingly, they took the center stage. Ahmad revealed a new talent, hitherto unknown of him -that of the gifted calligrapher.
Not only does Ahmad master the intricate art of classical Arabic calligraphy, and knows how to deploy its aesthetics in his artistic vision, but he is also a creative designer of his own ’khatt’ or font.
With the growing importance of words emerging in his work, he introduced us to a new stage of his continuously evolving style. The words we see in his paintings are not utterances escaping from his characters any more; rather, they became the cornerstone for the entire work. A verse, an adage or a literary quotation would appear – intermittently dispersed across his canvas without the need for regularity or intelligibility. They are not there to illuminate the painting or explain it to us. However hard we try, we fail to connect the dots and solve the riddle. A word we capture here, and a couplet there, will only deepen our sense of mystery and intrigue. Soon, we realize that these words are central for ‘them’ within, not for ‘us’ without. They are an integral part of the inner world of the painting not a mere annotation on it.
Ahmad moved on yet again. Words and letters started replacing his masses. He now seemed more interested in the message rather than the messenger, albeit a message that is as mysterious as his theatrical staging. Letters and words intermingled and overlapped. Light, shades and grades of color created a multifaceted impression of the work that was subject to one’s sensory reception, as well as proximity -the distance and angle from which we view his work.
His superb technique played tricks with my eyes. One masterpiece of his latest works seemed to me from a distance an extension of the world of Pollock. As I moved closer, I realized that those ostensible random splashes of paint were but a dazzlingly random overlaying of letters and words. Then, upon further scrutiny of the work I was further surprised to discover that what initially seemed random and arbitrary was in fact meticulously and carefully designed.
I gasped with wonder. Beneath the playful merry-making of the free spirited Ahmad Mualla lays the complex conceptual designs of an extra-ordinarily disciplined artist. This work seemed to concentrate all the elements of Ahmad’s style: beautiful, imaginative, dramatic, and very complex.