NJA MAHDAOUI: strokes of liberation

April 11th, 2011

Nja Mahdaoui is one of the most celebrated living contemporary artists in the arab world. His bold and highly rhythmic work, derived from the arabic letter, is internationally renowned and can be found in ther permanent collections of the Institut du Monde Arabe, The British Museum and The Smithsonian Institution just to name a few.

It’s an exuberance of arabesque forms, a visual melody played out of his hand, that remind us of the great gestural and physical richness of action painting. Famous for his meticulous inks on parchment, this “liberated calligraphy” is worked across a variety of extremely different surfaces — from canvas, brass, wood, melamine and papyrus to skin. Though It seems like writing, it is not. It is rather an interlacing of a dialectic relationship, also found within Western abstraction.

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Naomi Campbell in Azzedine Alaïa for Numéro Magazine. A collaboration between Nja Mahdaoui and René Habermacher

I came across the work of Nja Mahdaoui the first time, while researching calligraphic styles on a project for the French magazine Numéro on a piece about Azzedine Alaïa to which Babeth Djian incited me. The visual impact of Nja’s work struck me at first sight.

Slightly intimidated by the references of the rich body of his work, I first hesitated but then thought to give it a shot, and contacted him. To my surprise he answered me instantly by email, and called me shortly after. Our collaboration was set — and we created a story of imaginary movements around Naomi Campbell as a dark gazelle, in sheer and revealing Alaïa.

But I only met Nja Mahdaoui in person two summers ago in Tunis. It was an all-embracing, hot and sultry August day that lay heavy on the city, matching the emotional state of its people.

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Nja Mahdaoui wit the first prototype of his most recent sculpture. Photography by René Habermacher

A couple of months after the “Jasmine revolution” took place, Nja arrives in full swing to our meeting at a café in sunny, springtime Paris.

He’d come with his daughter Molka Mahdaoui to work on another of his new projects, yet is consumed with excitement by the events. He reacts immediately and impulsively to the question I usually ask last on conversations for The Stimuleye: What is the last thing that stimulated you?

“Stimulated? You’re asking a Tunisian? (laughs). I don’t know if ‘stimulated’ is the word, but it’s the explosion of a generation, I’m completely into it — for us it’s the event of the century!”


Nja Mahdaoui: "Graphemes on Arches 2", 2009, Ink on arches paper; 135cm x 135cm.

With us at the table are the collaborators involved in the process of making his latest project, a sculpture, the main reason for his trip north. Nja loves collaborations – his eyes glow while he talks energetically about upcoming projects. An energy I felt the first time I saw his bold and highly rhythmic work: “a dance of calligraphy”, with Nja as the choreographer of imaginary letters, to which he refers as ‘graphemes’, devoid of actual textual meaning:

“To a non-Arabic speaker it appears as coherent text. In fact even Arabic speakers assume at first that it’s a text with meaning. But when they start reading it they realise it is not an actual word.” he says and recalls an experience:

“It is not easy to write letters in a disjointed way — that is disjointed to not mean anything — and focus only on the aesthetic. There was a study at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. They connected me to a machine in order to test the levels of stress my body was under when I was writing proper words and when I was writing words without meaning. The study showed that my body was 2.5 times more stressed when I was working on words without meaning. So it is a very conscious attempt to create art. I tell people I’m not a calligrapher, but an artist.”

To me his body of work is so vibrant and remarkably innovative that I first had assumed Nja to be in his early 30’s the most, yet he was born in La Marsa, Tunisia, in 1937. As Molka, a filmmaker herself, puts it during our conversation: “sometimes i have to remind myself: Molka, you are thinking older than your own father!”.


Nja Mahdaoui: Design for Gulf Air 50th Anniversary. Image Courtesy of Nja Mahdaoui

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