Mohammed Mandi has the hands of a wizard. On a slice of ivory, the calligrapher carves a pen out of a bamboo stick and dips it into a pot of silk thread drenched in ink. In a matter of minutes, he draws a bird from the curves of a single word and sets it aside to dry.
‘My art is in your pocket,’ he chuckles as he pulls a cluster of banknotes out from a transparent sleeve. He’s not joking. His work lines the folds of every wallet in the United Arab Emirates. ‘Ten years ago I was asked to create the script for the new 200 dirham banknote,’ he says, tracing a note with his finger. ‘I provided four options, each on a card the size of a tissue box.’ He sent his selection to the design team at De La Rue, a commercial banknote printing company commissioned to produce the UAE’s currency. ‘I advised them to use the Kufic script as it’s modern and easy to read,’ he continues, explaining how the Kufic also complements the graphic outline of the notes’ illustrations.
De La Rue was clearly impressed with Mandi’s input, as the company continued to hire him to design scripts for the Bahraini and Syrian currencies. It also commissioned him to provide calligraphy for the passports of Qatar, Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain and the UAE. ‘Even the functional should be beautiful,’ he says as he takes out coins, badges and official documents embellished with his words.
There appears to be no object Mandi hasn’t penned. From flags to peacock feathers, every item in his studio seems to be speckled with ink. ‘When I was at school, I used to draw on the walls,’ he laughs. ‘Once I dipped gypsum chalk in warm water so I could plaster shapes on the blackboard. Paper is perishable. I wanted something more concrete, more permanent.’
Fortunately, Mandi’s family understood his creative tendencies. ‘Most of my relatives were artistic. Some liked to draw; others enjoyed sculpture, embroidery, interior design.’ His father used to paint in his spare time. A beautifully pigmented self-portrait hangs at the centre of the studio, to which Mandi gestures lovingly, ‘My father asked me to include his painting at every one of my exhibitions.’
Mandi was a teenager when he became interested in Arabic calligraphy. He was captivated by the Quranic script he found in Islamic textbooks and wanted to learn more about the art. He read books about ancient calligraphers and started to imitate their work. ‘I used to go to the printers after school and ask them for scraps of paper I could practice on,’ he says, proud of his resourcefulness. ‘I would sleep with a pen in my hand and ink on my pillow.’
Nonetheless, Mandi was keen to root his passion in discipline. ‘These days, young people seem to think that art comes purely from inspiration, but that is not right. At the end of the day, art is a craft, and crafts need to be taught.’
In 1975 he travelled to Cairo to enroll at the Arabic Calligraphy Improvement School, where he studied under the tutelage of Syed Ibrahim. He graduated at the top of his class and continued his education in Istanbul with the renowned scribe Hassan Chalabi.
As he describes his apprenticeship in Istanbul, it’s easy to imagine the workshop of an Ottoman master under the reign of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. ‘The classes were beautifully ceremonial,’ he reminisces. ‘Ustad Chalabi would start each day by cutting his pen and writing a du’aa [prayer] for us.’
In the first few weeks, students would concentrate solely on individual letters of the alphabet. ‘We had to write alif, ba, ta, tha… all the way to ya over and over and over again,’ he says as he draws loops in the air with his finger. ‘Then we moved on to pairs of letters, then words, then sentences.’
Once the students had perfected their technique, they were able to write on special paper called ‘waraq muqahhar’. ‘It has a excellent texture,’ he says of the handmade paper, used by Islamic scribes for centuries.
The Ottoman version was often coated in a mixture of egg whites, aluminium sulphate and fish glue to provide a smooth surface for the ink to glide over. When asked if this is his preferred medium, he smiles. Mandi is too eclectic for preferences.
‘I love to experiment,’ he says. ‘I love to try different materials, techniques, colours.’ A retrospective of his work at the Abu Dhabi National Theatre demonstrates the vast range of his capabilities. On the one hand, there are the pieces anchored in tradition, where black lines are perfectly aligned like a troop of janissaries. On the other hand, there are works that flow more freely, where letters swim in a sea of colour.
Some works deviate from the page altogether. His calligraphy of the call to prayer has been cut into the steel minaret of a mosque in Penzberg, Germany, earning its architect an award for ‘The Best Building in Bavaria’. In Austria, his script laces the glass minaret of a mosque in such a way that at night, it lights up the sky with words.
The pinnacle of Mandi’s pride, however, lies closer to home. He supervised the calligraphy at the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi and designed a Kufic script for the 99 names of God that adorn an inner wall. ‘I feel an enormous sense of peace there,’ he says, ‘and try to visit every day during Ramadan.’
Perhaps it is his spirituality that keeps him grounded. In spite of his chaotic schedule, Mandi makes time for everyone. He even leads a calligraphy workshop twice a week at the Abu Dhabi National Theatre.
‘Teaching is my duty,’ he says with conviction. On UAE National Day this year, Mandi will collaborate with four of his students for an exhibition at the Université Paris-Sorbonne Abu Dhabi in honour of the late Sheikh Zayed. ‘What kind of teacher would I be if I taught them all these skills and didn’t provide them with a platform to use them?’
This article can be found in Brownbook’s November/December 2014 Issue.
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