Part Big Daddy Kane, part Rembrandt van Rijn, Mustafa Maluka is taking the international art scene by storm with a contemporary brand of portraiture as culturally and stylistically complex as the world we live in. Dylan Culhane investigates the phenomenon.

Eerily penetrative eyes stare out from bleary, dribbled visages caught in a vice between Pop Art and the Renaissance. It feels impolite to keep staring, but you just can’t help it. Combining the zeal of graffiti art with the sensibility of contemporary graphic design, his work might be called playful were it not for an air of solemnity in the gaze that confronts us. Suspended amidst a frenzy of abstract graphic elements, the facial expressions of his subjects are rendered with the kind of grace and reverence usually reserved for religious portraiture, as hypnotic as they are interrogative.

The art of Mustafa Maluka is, if anything, very easy on the eye. An unnerving realism is offset by the naïveté of boldly patterned backgrounds that demonstrate a superb command of colour and composition. Well versed and actively involved in underground street culture, Maluka’s style bears traces of the spray-can aesthetic insofar as its emphasis on decorative cartoon hues.

A deft painterly touch nevertheless distinguishes his technique from that of the street artist.

Using faces from magazines as his point of departure, Maluka reworks these anonymous facades into hypothetical icons in the throes of surreal decay. His characters are birthed in an imaginary context that transcends place, wealth, class and religion but remain rooted in a conceivable reality.

As Mustafa explains, ‘I think my work deals more with ways of seeing and experiencing life and how the world in turn, sees you. I am inventing the subject and placing it in a context of my own making. The subject, so to speak, is my idea and does not exist outside of my thoughts. Characters in my works exist in very complex societies and particular spaces that could exist in the real world.’

Despite working with inanimate source material, there is an intimate interaction between the artist and his subject that evolves through the process of bringing them to life.

‘My source material is just that, material. I have a lengthy process of editing, mixing and remixing this material and refining it until I am able to use it in the production of a painting. Their origin or original purpose is irrelevant to the reading of my work.’

Likening his role as painter to a film director in charge of a cast of actors, Mustafa asserts that his characters ‘are who I make them to be.’

‘I am the scriptwriter, the costume designer and the lighting technician, ‘ he continues. ‘My characters however, are frozen in a kind of time capsule, doomed to forever be staring out at the viewer and play their part in my production.

The abundant paradoxes in Maluka’s work begin to make sense as one charts the 31-year-old’s career. It’s the story of a young hip-hop head from the flats who, after some obligatory twists of fate, lands a residency at one of the Netherlands’ most prestigious fine-art academies. Ironically (but sadly, unsurprisingly) it was outside of the land of his birth that he first began to attract serious attention. During a four month stint as an artist in residence, Marlene Dumas paid a visit to his Amsterdam studio and shortly thereafter helped set the ball in motion for tenure at De Ateliers – a nurturing ground for imminent sensations.

His time in Holland was formative and, quite rightly, instilled the artistic confidence that has come to characterise his painting. De Ateliers afforded Maluka the time, resources and mentoring neccessary to build up a formidable body of work that now adorns snow-white gallery walls from Buenos Aires to Helsinki.

Currently enrolled as a PhD candidate at the Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis, Mustafa’s artistic impulse springs from an existing pre-occupation with socio-cultural phenomena.

‘I come from a cultural analysis background that taught me to produce work that is relevant in the present. I am using my present reality in the making of these works. They are a reflection of the way life is in many cities across the planet right now. I think what excites people about my approach is that I could be one of the characters that I paint.’

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