Brushing Tradition Aside (profile of Syrian painter Ahmad Moualla)

Be warned, attending an exhibition by Ahmad Moualla is not a passive experience. Expect to become part of a larger, living work of art.

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Perched on a hillside above the Damascus suburb of Qura al-Assad, Syrian painter Ahmad Moualla’s house is one of the addresses that every local taxi driver knows. The white modernist villa – a work of art in itself – is surrounded by dozens of half-finished buildings, which is why Moualla has built high walls around his property to block out the unsightly concrete structures.

As I walk through the heavy metal-plated door in the perimeter wall, Moualla, a burly figure with long messy hair and a straggly beard, greets me warmly. He points to a small adobe house in the garden below which he built himself and tells me his family used to call it home until their impressive villa was completed four months ago.

The contrast between the mud-brick cottage in the garden and the sleek modernist cube I enter couldn’t be starker. Tall bay windows allow the sunlight to stream into the living room, which features a bright-orange U-shaped sofa. Downstairs, the functional white atelier with four-metre -high ceilings is lined with stacks of larger-than-life canvasses. As we sit down, two of his helpers extricate six of them from the pile and arrange them on the wall to form the mammoth 4 x 4.4m al-Ma’arry painting, named after an 11th-century Arab poet.

“I always dreamt of having a large studio to create big works of art in,” Moualla said. “But now that I finally have one, I realise that I need to start breaking my paintings up into smaller canvasses so that they can actually fit through the doors of Syria’s art galleries.”

Behind the grandeur of this new home-cum-atelier, however, lie years of hard work and experimentation with different art forms, including theatre, poetry, photography, calligraphy, sculpting and painting.

“An artist must be educated with a strong cultural background or else he will run out of ideas,” Moualla said. “It’s like water, if it doesn’t snow during the winter and the earth doesn’t preserve the water, there’s no point in digging wells.”

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The al-Ma’arry canvas is a striking example of Moualla’s ever-experimental hand. Combining calligraphy with scenes of crowds making their way up several levels, the painting explores the relationship between the individual and the group. This is a common theme in Moualla’s work, but in this instance he has reinforced his message by weaving in excerpts of Ma’arry’s work. One fragment reads: “I open my eyes, but despite the crowds I see nobody.”

Despite its title, the painting is not meant to be an abstract depiction of Ma’arry. It is in fact a fierce criticism of the state of the Arab world today, which Moualla sees as backward in many respects.

“I can’t help laughing to myself when some people ask me if the painting is a flashback to the era in which Ma’arry lived,” Moualla said. “It’s not, quite the opposite in fact! It’s a step forward to Ma’arry’s era; he was in many ways much more advanced than we are today.”

In other paintings, Moualla uses calligraphy to add a new dynamic to his work. Brushing aside traditional forms of calligraphy, Moualla has even created his own signature style.

In fact, parting with tradition has long been Moualla’s trademark. In an exhibition at the French Institute in Damascus in 1994, called Miró in Three Dimensions, inspired by the works of Spanish surrealist Joan Miró, Moualla used cardboard, wire and mixed media to depict Miró’s shapes in three dimensions. Instead of showcasing the works in a traditional format, he suspended them from the ceiling and in corners of the room, creating a surreal atmosphere. Visitors to the exhibition were asked to don colourful gowns, making them part of a larger work of art, the exhibition itself.

Moualla’s wish to make audiences part of a living, breathing work of art again became apparent when he organised an exhibition as a tribute to the late Syrian playwright Sa’ad Allah Wannous. It featured a water basin in the room, paintings on windows and seats and special sound and light effects.

“In this exhibition, the paintings were no longer the main protagonists,” Moualla said. “I even closed the door of the gallery so that when visitors opened the door they weren’t simply attending a show, but making a conscious decision to enter the room.”

This article was published in Syria Today magazine

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