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Nja Mahdaoui (Tunisian, b. 1937)
Nja Mahdaoui (Tunisian, b. 1937)

Eshq 1

Nja Mahdaoui (Tunisian, b. 1937)
Eshq 1
signed in Arabic and dated '14' (lower right)
ink, acrylic and metallic paint on canvas
70 7/8 x 70 7/8in. (180 x 180cm.)
Painted in 2014
Acquired directly from the artist by the present owner.
M. Mahdaoui (ed.), Nja Mahdaoui-Jafr. The Alchemy of Signs, Milan 2015 (illustrated in colour, p. 361).

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Lot Essay

'The use of fragments of letters or symbols in my work is due to my instinctive rejection of the transfiguration of the value of characters. In calligraphy, the written letters acquire a symbolic status which they maintain until they vehicle a significance. But as soon as the letter loses its contours, the reader is bound to resort to his imagination in order to decode and reach the meaning of the word.' (The artist quoted in Nja Mahdaoui, exh. cat., Dubai, Meem Gallery, 2007, unpaged).

Charmingly known as the 'Choreographer of Letters', Tunisian artist Nja Mahdaoui is heavily inspired by Arabic calligraphy and has managed to transform the Arabic letter into pictorial art. Remarkably innovative in his use of an aesthetic dimension, he creates dispositions between clearly marked geometrical figures and flows of tiny gold writings that are undecipherable. Closely linked to the evolution of Arabic calligraphy in contemporary art, he masters the art of adapting traditional ancient art into a contemporary practice that deconstructs conventional and tradition notions of calligraphy. Strongly influenced by Tunisian cultural traditions, such as textile arts, Mahdaoui manages to harmonise traditional calligraphic styles with a thoroughly modern sensibility. Based on the shapes associated with the various cursive and Kufic Arabic scripts, Nja Mahdaoui fills the spaces of his works with special illusions of stylised classical Arabic calligraphy. More interested in movement, the rhythms, the visual effects of the act of writing and the expressive potential of the morphology of letters than the content itself, his words create interlinking relationships that are rarely decipherable, but express melodic and rhythmic compositions.

Mahdaoui emphasises that the content of words in his works are secondary to their visual movement and aesthetic achievement. The artist and viewer alike become 'explorers of signs,' constructing their own personal, even spiritual meaning. Mahdaoui uses abstract letterism, interlinking the words literally and metaphorically.

In the present work entitled Eshq 1 (Love 1), festive and traditional colours are layered and fluid, swirling into a vortex around the edges of the composition, interspersed with bursts of gold letters or graphemes. A grapheme is the smallest semantically distinguishing unit in a written language. Mahdaoui breaks conventional rules in his word- choreography: words do not need be legible to be meaningful and can break out of shapes and meanings mean to contain them. Thus, his words swirl and morph out of the piece's circular motif. The lines are beautifully split on the canvas between flamboyant rainbow colours and the classic black of traditional calligraphy that fill the centre. The letters seem to rotate around creating a flowing dialogue between the two geometric shapes.

Although the calligraphy is indecipherable, the vibrant colour palette of oranges, yellows and pinks convey a refreshing and expressive message. The square inscribed in the circle is filled with sinuous yellow scribbles juxtaposed over the black writings and the black horizontal band on top creates a compelling imbalance in the composition. The varying size of the calligraphy also underlines the beauty of this roaming instability. In the four half-circles, the vivid curves of the letters criss-cross forming a wonderful lattice. It is of particular poignancy that Mahdaoui chooses to use the circle as the basis of the composition; symbolising eternity, he thus implies and expresses the never-ending and continuously moving and evolving passion of love.

In the present work the colour palette Mahdaoui implements shows his strong influence of Tunisian cultural traditions, but in his almost Far Eastern style manages to harmonise traditional calligraphic styles with contemporary abstract art.
Though the artist intentionally leaves his pieces up to personal interpretation, his unique style and mastery of the pen is overwhelmingly clear. No matter what meaning the viewer extracts from his intricate works, Mahdaoui reveals that at the core of his work is one element. 'What pervades my work is love' he maintains (ibid.).

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