Born in Damascus, Mohamed Al Mufti is an artist, architect and a professor at Alba (Académie Libanaise des Beaux-Arts). He moved to Versailles, France in 1994 to pursue his studies in architecture, where he graduated from ENSAV (Ecole Nationale Supérieure D’Architecture de Versailles). Mufti held his first exhibition in France in 2003. Soon after, his work was featured in galleries and museums in France, Italy, Finland, Turkey, Lebanon, Syria and the United Arab Emirates. In 2012, he moved to Beirut where his work depicted themes and reflections on Syria’s political and social scene. As a documentary artist, his work is an inspection of the urban landscape and its symbolic architectural structures.
His recent work provokes and questions collective memory and its vestiges by deconstructing and reinterpreting its inherited meanings and symbols. In rebuilding our memory, he posits that there are fundamental questions that we need to raise: What are the forms of our collective memory? What are its symbols and values today? What remains of it?
Reign of the Sixth
I liked the number six for its variety of connotations – the sixth sky, just under god's reign according to local culture, or six as the number of Assad’s presidential mandates in Syria since 1971. The building in the painting was once called the Yalbougha Complex. Its construction started in the late 1970s, but it has never been completed. At the time, it was a symbol of sweeping modernism and was to be the highest structure in Damascus. But then construction stopped. Modernity stopped. Time stopped. I wanted to capture that state, that sense of stasis. With that in mind, the advertising board in the top left is ironic in its declaration that “40 Years and We Grow Younger” (the slogan of an electronics brand called Hafez), and you will notice I’ve painted a lone (lonely?) donkey on the sixth floor. He’s not there to symbolise loyalty or hard work, but rather, stubbornness.
Concerto for Two Violins and a Tank
Titles, dates (even formats to some extent) all contribute to the reading of my artwork. Perhaps it’s my architectural background that makes me believe that without context, the works would lose some of their essence and strength. Having said that, artwork titles shouldn’t overtly explain an artwork, as much as provide clues or a topic to explore. Personally, I find joy in ironic, even sarcastic titles, that occasionally mislead the viewer – such is the case in Concerto for Two Violins and a Tank. In this work I wanted to confront two things: the realism of the tank, and the abstraction of human presence. The latter needed to be done through straight black and white lines. To create order, such as straight lines, is so human. So to signify the collapse and destruction of the social order, I wanted to paint these lines in a disordered state. It is significant that the tank is the only colourful element in the work - it is facing the light, leaving behind the darkness. This is the new reality. One day in the future I hope things will have changed and I can repaint this same scene, but with the tank as the faded memory, the lines straight and pure again.
As an architect, perhaps I give higher importance to depth, perspective, light and texture. Angles and symmetry (or their absence) are very impactful, particularly because in reality, very few things are perfectly symmetrical. Light and shadow, for example, are by nature different on either side of an object. This can be extremely useful in orienting the viewer’s attention – such is the case with Ghost House.
Hob Hob refers to the urban lingo used for transportation – I think it must derive from some version of ‘hop in, hop out’, but in Arabic we have replaced the ‘p’ with the ‘b’. This type of bus is so anchored in our collective memory: it’s a people's bus. It goes from one city to another, it bounces, and emits strange smoke and sounds. This kind of bus is almost folklore. But it truly had an official purpose once (in addition to transporting people), which was to carry the mail from one governate to another. A Hob Hob bus was a messenger, full of mail. It acts as a relic, a container or body for messages, poems, funny quotes, religious symbols, sexual hints – the list goes on. In this version of the Hob Hob, I wanted to connect these messages in the context of Syria today, adding some political hints, old quotes that resonate today, and so on: in doing so, the bus becomes its content, what it contains comes to embody what it is, as content and container merge.
The graffiti I depict in this piece is gathered from across the city – some phrases actually only exist orally, not written down. The school in the painting isn’t one specific place, rather a prototype of the kind of schools that were built all over Syria as a Baathist educational prototype. They are all so similar, so they resonate with every single Syrian and are anchored, like the Hob Hob bus, in a collective memory. And, strangely, these schools (at least to me), always resemble prisons. But the graffiti also harks to the idea that it is often the people, or a people’s movement, that sets off a spark.
Hijab of the City
This work actually isn’t about Syria, but about Lebanon. Back in Syria, before the war, before we came to Beirut, we had a certain image of Lebanon: open, free and modern. However, after spending eight years here, I can but face the truth that contradicts this glorious image we once had, which is a city that has a deep conservatism underneath its modern exterior. Hijab of the City is part of a series of work I’m currently working on about false modernity. It depicts the Christian Mar Mickhael district of Beirut, where the street level is made up of bars, pubs and clubs, while the upper floors of its residential buildings are almost completely veiled, a firm intention of not seeing and not being seen. This is such a vivid expression of the rupture within the city, of modern life that begins only once you descend to the ground floor. It's an interesting dystopia to explore.