ABU DHABI // Not many artists can say their work is owned by millions. Mohammed al Mandi, however, is among those select few. He is one of the only master calligraphers in the Middle East. His angular designs can be found on every banknote in the UAE and Bahrain, as well as the passports of the UAE, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and Kuwait.
Not only that, he is the artist who designed the interior of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. Yesterday, al Mandi gave a free workshop on Saadiyat Island as part of Artscape Madina. The event culminates tonight with an interactive art show, in which he will create his art in front of a live audience, alongside the Chinese Muslim master calligrapher Haji Noor al Deen. Whether it is through banknotes, passports or live shows, becoming a publicly accessible artist is the realisation of a dream for the father of four.
"I never wanted to be an artist who only worked on commission for clients," he said. "I wanted as many people as possible to see my work. Now every person has my art in his pocket." Al Deen and al Mandi both trained in calligraphy in Turkey in the 1970s, under the guidance of Hassan Chalabi. Since then, al Mandi has designed calligraphy for the logos of government ministries, private companies and commercial establishments.
Al Mandi, 50, is known for his distinct style of overlapping words on canvas. He also teaches calligraphy at the National Theatre as part of a project run by the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture & Heritage. But his proudest achievement was his art that was ingrained into public life, he said. He started designing money in 1999 with a Dh50 silver coin, released to mark the 30th anniversary of Abu Dhabi Chamber of Commerce & Industry.
In 2005, he was approached on behalf of the Central Bank to design the Arabic script for the new Dh200 note. Soon after, he would add his mark to the rest of the country's paper money, and was commissioned to do the same for Bahrain's currency, as well as the 200 and 1,000 Syrian pound notes. "For me this kind of work is my favourite," said al Mandi, whose calligraphy can be seen in institutions such as New Dubai Hospital, the Ministry of Justice Court and the Abu Dhabi Police general headquarters.
Al Mandi was drawn to the art form as a teenager. "I remember seeing [it] for the first time in a textbook when I was 15 years old. It was like looking at a picture, not letters or words. I was fascinated by its beauty." He began reading stories about famous ancient calligraphers and buying books on the art. "I began to absorb as much information as I could about calligraphy," he said. "I studied the proportion of the letters, which is the most important thing because you have to follow measurements for the writing to turn out correctly." Following in the footsteps of the living masters of the art at the time, al Mandi left the UAE after high school and enrolled in the Arabic Calligraphy Improvement School in Cairo.
Al Mandi's self-taught knowledge so impressed his teacher, Syed Ibrahim, a well-known calligrapher, that he bypassed the first half of the four-year course. He graduated in 1977 at the top of his class. "After Cairo, I went to Istanbul to continue learning," he said. "There are five different schools of calligraphy and I wanted to learn them all. Turkey has a rich tradition of calligraphy, from 800 years of the Ottoman Empire, so it was the best place to perfect my art."
When he returned to the UAE in the 1980s, he wanted to combine words and letters to make pictures, so he began to develop his signature style of overlaying words to create different layers of shading and colours. It is painstaking work - a single piece can take years - but al Mandi said he never thought about time, only the finished product. In 1999, he had his first public exhibition at the Dubai Shopping Festival. At the festival the following year, his work was put on display in the residence of Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum.
Then, as designs were being laid out for the Grand Mosque at the start of the last decade, he saw his chance to put his brush on the most important canvas. "When I heard about this I prayed to Allah to allow me the chance to design something in the mosque," said al Mandi. "Every mosque has a calligrapher and I knew they would need someone to take on the task." Al Mandi was asked to design the 99 names of Allah that are now inscribed on the inside wall of the mosque, as well as the intricate patterns inside the mehrab - the niche in the wall that indicates the qibla or the direction of the Kaaba.
"The day they asked me to do that I was extremely proud," he said. Although he continues to paint commissions and put together exhibitions, the Grand Mosque was al Mandi's last public piece. Now he spends his spare time teaching calligraphy, taking part in public workshops, and travelling to Europe to conduct similar educational sessions. "In Islam it says that anything you learn in life should be passed on, so for me teaching is very important.
"When I have youngsters in my class with talent I see them like seedlings that need care and attention so that one day they can grow in to trees. "I love passing on my knowledge, it is the only way to keep the art alive." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org