The Daily Heller: A Master and His Arabic Calligraphy

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Tunisian letterer Nja Mahdaoui (b.1937) earned a reputation for his meticulous calligraphic design in ink on parchment and is referred to by peers as a “Choreographer of Letters.” While his work is inspired by Arabic calligraphy, he considers himself an explorer of signs. His artistic approach is based on abstract signs and compositions— devoid of actual textual meaning— which he refers to as Calligrams or Graphemes.

Photos (left) © Nja Mahdaoui (right) © Ammar Abd Rabbo

Mahdaoui is widely known in the Arab world and has received much international recognition, including the Global Art Awards in 2017, the Grand Prize of Arts and Letters from the Tunisian Ministry of Culture in 2006, and the UNESCO Crafts Prize for the Arab States in 2005. In the United States, his extensive work is barely recognized; such is the compartmentalization of design, even in the age of the internet.

Still, his visibility is not to be denied. He has been honored as speaker and jury member at Sharjah International Arabic Calligraphy Biennial, the International Arts Biennial of Tehran, the Abu Dhabi Art Festival, and the International Jury of the UNESCO Prize for the Promotion of the Arts.

Mahdaoui designed monumental calligraphic works, including windows murals for Facebook Headquarters in Menlo Park, California (2018), window facades for the ALECSO headquarters in Tunis (2015), the KAUST University Campus Mosque in Saudi Arabia (2010), the Gulf Air aircrafts (50th Anniversary, 2000), the Aramco head office in Dharan, Saudi Arabia, and large scale sculptures and tapestries for the airports in Jeddah and Riyadh.

His works have also been featured in numerous exhibitions and publications around the world. This includes Word into Art at the British Museum, The Brush dances & the Ink Signs at the Hermitage Museum, Perspectives: Arab & Iranian modern masters at the Saatchi Gallery, the Arab Book Art at the French National Library. You can also find his work in major public collections around the world, including the British Museum in London, the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC, Mathaf – Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha, IMA – Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris, and The National Gallery of Kuala Lumpur.

Below is a small sampling of how he’s used his artistic mastery to invigorate his environment and culture.

Ghubar, Indian ink, silver and gold on parchment, 60 x 60 cm, c. 2000.
Akmar 1, Indian ink, color ink and gold on linen canvas, 200 x 200 cm, 2009.
Akmar 2, Indian ink, color ink and gold on linen canvas, 200 x 200 cm, 2009.
KAUST MOSQUE SCREEN The Campus Mosque of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, 2010.
(left) CALLIGRAMM ON PARCHMENT Indian ink and gold on parchment. British Museum-London.
(right) THE DRUM’S SILENCE Indian ink on vellum. Double membrane drum. British Museum-London.

Mahdaoui is a fan and player of contemporary African music and dance, and frequently performs with poets, musicians, and dancers in these musical happenings. When in use, the above drum is suspended from the shoulder by a leather belt and played with two wooden beaters. This large drum is similar to those played in Jerba and Kerkenna Islands, and the diameter of this type of drum varies from 40 to 70 centimeters. Religious festivals, ceremonies, and spontaneous public events in Tunisia are usually accompanied by musical performances which include both vocal and percussive elements.

CALLIGRAM 5. Indian ink and gold on parchment paper, 100 x 100 cm, 1985. The British Museum, London
GULF AIR PLANES. Winning project of the international competition for the external designs of 4 aircrafts to mark the Gulf Air 50th Anniversary, Bahrein, 2000. Creation of the external designs of 4 aircrafts: 1 Boeing & 3 Airbus.
MAQAM ESSAFA (MAQAMS OF PURITY). Lost wax bronze sculpture (22,5 carat gold leaf). Edition of 4.
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