DUBAI: The Lebanese Pop artist Ihab Ahmad was born in 1983, in the midst of Lebanon’s brutal civil war. To escape the violence, Ahmad and his family moved to Cyprus in 1988. He may have been only five years old at the time, but the environment of the Mediterranean island made a lasting impression on him and now heavily influences his art.
Ahmad started to paint and draw at the age of eight. “I felt I needed to do something with art to explore my emotions and to express myself,” he tells Arab News. Even though he studied (and worked in) business management and hospitality, he continued to practice art on the side. Eventually, he says, “I decided to do what I love.” He became a full-time painter.
When Ahmad and his family returned to their native country in 1991 the war was over, but something felt off. “It was difficult for me,” says Ahmad. “It was a big shift from the Lebanon that I knew. It wasn’t easy to meet new friends, a new circle of people.”
The feeling of being dislocated from home continued into adulthood. Last year, Ahmad moved from Beirut to Dubai as a result of Lebanon’s multidimensional social and political crises, from financial collapse to power failure, which were impacting his day-to-day life and productivity. “In Beirut, you have different reactions because you’re exposed to problems every day. Life in Dubai is more stable. It’s smoother. Beirut is very crowded,” he says.
“Crowded” is an apt description of Ahmad’s artwork too: maze-like, colorful canvases and sculptures full of juxtaposed symbols, from eyes to animals, crowns to flowers, and hearts to squares. He is inspired by the giants of 20th-century modernism, including Paul Klee, Joan Miró, and Pablo Picasso. And color, dictating the mood of every piece, plays a key role.
“The most important element is color. Color is abstract yet you can reflect all your emotions through it. If you put one color, you can express many feelings, so it’s a strong element in art,” he explains.
Ahmad’s paintings have been exhibited across the region, most recently at Dubai’s upscale restaurant La Cantine du Faubourg. A large vertical mural he created stands in Beirut’s Achrafieh neighborhood. He also opened the Beirut Art Studio — a cultural hub that he hopes will nurture the creative skills of children and adults — in 2016.
It usually takes Ahmad around one week to finish a piece. He does not sketch out his ideas beforehand — a surprising revelation, given how much detail each work contains. “It’s spontaneous. I create the composition in my mind before I start. Of course, I think about the colors and the style, but not in detail. I leave myself to experiment on the canvas, because sometimes I start working on a piece, then after two or three days, I find myself ending up with a different piece,” he says. “I don’t think much when I work, honestly. I’m always experimenting. It’s a way to express my thoughts.”
Ahmad describes his work as joyful, but you could also argue that there is a sense of confusion, tension and discomfort in its crowded characters contoured with thick black lines. It could be viewed as a representation of modern life’s constant sensory overload, particularly in pieces such as “Lost in Google Maps,” “Marshmallow City,” or “Inner Peace.”
Undeniably, there is joy here too, though, in his visions of abundance, energy, wildness, dreams, and hope. Ahmad’s work is an homage to youth and all its memories. He hopes his work makes people happy.
“I try to escape with my art to another place, where you find peace, love, and beauty,” he says. “All my artworks reflect joy and happiness. In art, I think people miss that.”