Trilogy of the Arab Horses sketch

An Egyptian Master in London

An Egyptian Master in London – by Jean Vilain | The Egyptian Bulletin magazine | December 1982

Ahmed Moustafa was born in Alexandria in 1943. He was educated in Egypt and on leaving the Abbasia Secondary School he joined the Faculty of Fine Arts at Alexandria University in 1962. After graduation in 1966 he worked at the Faculty for eight years during which time he exhibited both nationally and internationally and won several prizes and awards; amongst these were the Bienale of Alexandria awards for painting and sculpture which Moustafa won in [968 and 1974. In 1974 Ahmed Moustafa came to London to further his studies and in that same year his work was chosen to be exhibited at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition.

The history of art is littered with landmarks; recognised perhaps only by the aesthete (who could really be the most humble fellah), for his own pleasure, but which provides pointers to the progress of civilisations and runs a tense and incredibly powerful string through the whole of the human adventure.

If the work of Ahmed Moustafa is, similarly and powerfully, dotted with landmarks, it is also a landmark in itself for it bridges the gap between Western and Oriental worlds, regenerates a more universal interest in Arabic art and graphically represents the laws and traditions which govern it.

While acquiring a thorough knowledge of his great predecessors in painting, and maturing his early skill during his studies in Alexandria, Moustafa also gained an extensive understanding of Arabic music, a feature now prominent in his own work (his Fugues, on canvas, and the Koranic Music, a tapestry, are typical examples of his musical affinities).

Painting in the European manner when he arrived in London in 1974, and having mastered this art, Moustafa rediscovered the scientific foundations of Arabic proportional writing; a rigorous set of geometric laws based on a grid defined by medieval masters, of whom he now truly is an inheritor. The loss of this technique in the mists of time had rendered this art mainly imitative and pragmatic; Moustafa’s own far reaching discovery is an authentic revolution and an invaluable contribution to Arabic art. This first shift towards his native culture became fused with his reborn and ever stronger Islamic faith, the mysticism of which was soon to impregnate many of his works.

Today, Ahmed Moustafa is a mature artist of exceptional talent and inspiration, who has united the universality of his painting technique, a rigorous use of Arabic lettering, a powerful mysticism and the harmonies of music composition. A true ‘classic’ painter, this classicism does not lie only in the perfection of his craftmanship: for his inspiration focuses on some of the most refined and illustrious traditions of Arab culture.

Each of his works can, in effect, be seen as a four dimensional creation: a work of art of the most developed and mastered technique, a highly sophisticated and strict exercise in Arabic writing, inspired mysticism or poetry in the non-religious works, and musical composition.

The Ka’aba, or The Landscape of the House of Abraham, a tapestry of obvious religious inspiration and a focal point in his development, now hangs in the Royal Pavilion of King Abdul Aziz International Airport in Jeddah. Although the foreground and background of this intricate and holy subject are interlinked with Koranic calligraphy, the viewer distinguishes at first glance the cube of the Ka’aba in its simplicity, greatness and inspiring outline. In colourful arabesques, the background is formed by a Koranic text, just as the surface of the Ka’aba is constructed by the Bismallah (In the name of God. the Merciful, the Compassionate … ) in a geometrical Kufic style which interlinks with the background without clashing with it, for both the outlines of the Ka’aba and the background give room to each other to create a visual structure containing simplicity and, at the same time, great intricacy. Here we have a typical example of the organic inter-relationship between sign and style, which is a constant theme in Moustafa’s work.

There is a fundamental difference between previous Arabic works of art and those we are admiring today, and this distinction lies in the absolute integration of the various layers of inspiration and techniques used by the artist. The recourse to calligraphy used to have mainly a decorative purpose, an ingredient superimposed, such as a book illumination for instance. With Ahmed Moustafa, we see a total organic interpenetration of the various elements of the work.

The Trilogy of the Arab Horse, a giant tapestry, is exemplary as a composition dominated by grace and Arabic poetry. Here, Moustafa has gone back to one of the favourite subjects in the history of art: the Arab horse, and portrays it with the distinctive features which set it apart from other breeds.

The background and the subject are composed of letter forms (or graphic symbols) both in their outline and in their internal relief. The meaning of the letter forms supersedes the subject and the style, and yet, in turn, the subject and the style precede the letter forms and support them. The geometric laws which preside over the perfected calligraphy serve as a backbone for the enhancement of the holy or poetic text. The integral subject, text and letter forms, are all, and simultaneously, the contents and the components of the work, its contained meaning and its expression such as it is perceived by the viewer. The degree of excellence reached by Moustafa in this manner is outstanding. “Controlling the incontrollable” he said recently as he was putting the last touches to a new work.

The Trilogy of the Arab Horse, a giant tapestry, is exemplary as a composition dominated by grace and Arabic poetry. Here, Moustafa has gone back to one of the favourite subjects in the history of art: the Arab horse, and portrays it with the distinctive features which set it apart from other breeds. The density of its bone structure, its powerful breast and slim limbs, the fineness of its head and the vibrating passion of its movements, its endurance and courage, make it a legendary creature, and one which is exalted by Arab poets. In this case, calligraphy has been based on carefully selected verses of various poets, which inspired Moustafa’s palette to form a visual vocabulary of a strikingly beautiful effect.

This one horse, which develops into three as its motion progresses, gives the viewer a great admiration for the beauty of this eternally galloping creature.

With the Koranic Music, or The Nocturnal journey of the Prophet, we go back to religious inspiration and to the pictorial music. Recently completed, it is a 12 metre long, woven tapestry which runs as a multi-layer holy recitation of the Koran. and splendidly radiates echoes of praying voices in a mosque. With plastic ingredients, the artist has succeeded in expressing the feelings and emotions of a listener to the recital of Koranic verses. The Koran stands as the divine, the miraculous and supreme form of Arabic language; hence the splendid and monumental strength of its rare musical rhythm.

Ahmed Moustafa explores virtually every single form of artistic expression: painting, tapestry, stained glass, silk screen, etc … all of them with brio, skill, inspiration and dash. If art could be defined, perhaps one would say it is craftmanship plus inspiration and creative genius. That is exactly what one will find in Ahmed Moustafa.

Moustafa has developed close links with some of the best European technicians to whom he entrusts the actual crafting of his works when painting is not the final medium. Pinton, perhaps the best independent French tapestry weavers, are weaving for him some of his vast tapestries, for which several hundred colours are required and which pose arduous technical problems.

Born in 1943 in Alexandria. Moustafa now lives in London and is presently working on a number of highly prestigious commissions of a religious nature. A recognised artist in many countries, he is particularly well known in the Arab world. Soon. however, his universality must also be recognised in the Western world .