Mustafa Lamaj


Radius Magazine on Jan 7, 2012

As East-Coasters, we often view our surroundings through the cynical and sardonic glasses we wear with civic pride. But sometimes it takes an outsider’s eye to remind us of the inherent beauty of the cities, towns and communities we call home. Just ask Mustafa Lamaj.

A rising star on the local art scene, the Albanian-born artist’s work captures the city the way he sees it: full of life, vigor and opportunity. Lamaj’s canvas transforms the gray, gritty and crowded into structured, colorful forms that resonate with invitation rather than apprehension. “I am fascinated by the geometric structure of the city, the way the buildings fit and reflect to each other,” he explains, recounting part of his inspiration for the creation of a series of paintings in Philadelphia he’s dubbed City Structures. “It’s in the way the buildings expand to the sky and the sky to the buildings. It all creates a fascinating, unique and gigantic structure.”

And while Lamaj’s view of his adopted home, too often beset by tales of violence and human indifference, may seem overly optimistic, it is perhaps best understood by reflecting on his past. For as vivid as Lamaj’s work is, his life eclipses even his craft. Born during the reign of one of the most-oppressive regimes of the Eastern-European communist bloc, Lamaj quickly learned that personal and artistic freedoms were hardly guarantees. “I started showing my work with professional artists,” he recalls, “but my colorful and bright paintings started losing their light and became dark and depressive.” Working within a system that endorsed socialist realism as the only “acceptable” means of self-expression, Lamaj quickly became both an outcast and a target. “Art was supposed to serve politics, only optimist art with strong and happy people was considered legal,” he continues. “One day, I was warned by the local government that I had to stop doing dark paintings. It was the last show I had in Albania.”

Like the denouement of a Hollywood script, Lamaj made a daring leap in an attempt to spread his creative wings. “I escaped Albania in 1990 with only a few dollars in my pocket and a bunch of paintings, dreaming for the free world,” he says. Facing persecution from political enemies and threats to his family’s safety, Lamaj fled to nearby Italy.

But as democratic protests spread among the despotic communist strongholds during the 1990s, Albania’s rulers abdicated power in 1992. Lamaj, having spent six years in exile, finally returned home in 1996. However, his homecoming would not last long. As former communist leaders and democratic reformers struggled for control of the country amid a crumbling government, Lamaj was again caught between politics and his artistic ideals. “By 1997, the protests had turned violent. Near my hometown of Vlora, many residents were fighting with weapons looted from the local army barracks,” Lamaj recalls. “My life was in danger.” Armed again with only his work, vision and dreams of securing his artistic liberties, Lamaj sought political asylum in the U.S. and was granted safe harbor.

Landing in Philadelphia, a town sometimes not known for its hospitality, Lamaj has thrived. His style – born of turmoil, struggle and persecution – is reflective of the currents that underlie the East Coast’s urban centers in a way that only a man forced to confront both a spiritual lightness and foreboding can render. And since he began exhibiting regularly, local art authorities have taken notice. “The gritty streets provide him with ideal material for his sense of composition and light,” says Lorraine Riesenbach, director of the Artist’s House Gallery in Old City. “His application of paint is wonderfully fluid and quite textural.”

And it’s the urban influences that continue to resonate in the artist’s own struggle to find the source of his inspiration. “When I paint something, it’s really just a point of departure,” Lamaj says, reflecting on his sometimes artistic uncertainty, “But what I’m creating is the struggle to pull away from a dark and uncertain conscious. I fell out of the light when I lived in a dark era, but now that I’ve found it, I’m painting it again.”

By Justin Elson