Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 18 March 2018

The blossoming talent behind the floral mosaics of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

Meet the British artist Kevin Dean, the designer of the botanic mosaics at the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, to discover the secrets behind Abu Dhabi's largest floral display.

An aerial view of the courtyard designed by Kevin Dean at the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi. Courtesy Kevin Dean
An aerial view of the courtyard designed by Kevin Dean at the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi. Courtesy Kevin Dean

Beds of dark-pink bougainvillea provide the only accent in the formal gardens that envelop the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, a near-monochrome landscape that’s as restrained as it is green.

Featuring hedges of clipped Indian privet (Clerodendron inerme) and Texas ranger (Leucophyllum frutescens) as well as date palms and fragrant frangipani (Plumeria obtusa), the gardens form a buffer that helps to calm tourists and worshippers alike, while filtering out the roar of nearby traffic with the sound of fountains and ­birdsong.

It’s a very different picture inside, where vigorous vines and flowers appear to grow across the mosque’s entrances and courtyard with an exuberance that’s absent from the regimented planting outside. The difference is a matter of substance as well as style.

Executed in brightly coloured mosaic and white marble low-relief, the mosque’s main floral displays are not the work of a garden designer or a landscape architect but of Kevin Dean, an artist and designer trained at the Royal College of Art (RCA) who has worked for clients such as the Natural History Museum in London and the Smithsonian Institution in ­Washington.

Dean took time out from an exhibition at Dubai’s Majlis Gallery and a two-day mural-painting workshop at Cranleigh Abu Dhabi to give me a personal tour of his largest project to date.

“I first came out here in 2001, when this place was literally a building site and I was taken to the courtyard or sahan. It was desert at the time,” he says, explaining why he was initially sceptical. “They said: ‘This is going to be a marble courtyard.’ And I thought: ‘OK... ’”

A colleague from the RCA had put forward Dean’s name – and, after submitting drawings, he was chosen to work alongside the mosque’s Italian architects, Spatium, and the architectural-marble-and-mosaic specialists Fantini Mosaici of Milan, the company that’s now decorating the 76 domes of Abu Dhabi’s new Presidential Palace with gold mosaic.

Dean was appointed by Sheikh Sultan bin Zayed, the then Deputy Prime Minister of the UAE, who was also responsible for overseeing the mosque’s construction at the time.

“Sheikh Sultan had a sketch that he had drawn that showed lots of flowers on a piece of square paper and I could immediately relate to that,” the softly spoken Englishman remembers.

Dean was already an established designer of floral designs and motifs, producing designs for clients such as Marks & Spencer, John Lewis and Laura Ashley. He had also provided the botanic illustrations for several best-selling ­children’s books, including Jungles: Nature Hide & Seek, with the eminent zoological artist and illustrator John Norris Wood.

“I come from a family of gardeners,” Dean explains. “My brother is a very successful landscape gardener in the UK, and I’ve always been interested in flowers and drawn them since I was quite young.”

Despite this experience, however, Dean admits that the scale of the project took a little getting used to. The mosque’s main courtyard alone provided an 18,000-square-metre canvas.

“It’s a bit daunting when you think about the scale, but if you forget about all that and just treat it as a design within a space then everything follows,” he recollects.

Dean started the design process the traditional way with hand-rendered drawings and paintings on paper.

“I went away and did several ideas for what the courtyard might look like – the sahan was always the main focus – and from then on, I was asked to look at the archways looking into the courtyard and then internal floors and walls as well.

“For the main courtyard I used flowers that can be found in the Middle Eastern region – mostly irises, tulips, lilies and roses,” Dean recollects.

“The original idea was that they would cover the whole of the sahan, but it was decided in the end to take out a lot of the design.

“In the main prayer hall, the species come from the Middle East; at the north entrance, they come from the northern hemisphere; and at the south entrance, they come from the south. The idea was to represent the fact that Islam is an international faith.”

The flowers in the sahan include poppies (Papaver orientale), while Dean selected jasmine (Jasminum officinale) for the northern entrance and red frangipani (Plumeria rubra) on the opposite side.

For the entrance to the mosque’s main prayer hall – the only part of his design where floor mosaics are transferred to the walls – Dean used morning glories and the desert-dwelling ­Pergularia tomentosa.

“It’s a wild plant that you can find in the desert,” says Dean. “I got the idea from somebody at the municipality. They were very helpful and they gave me books and literature that I took away with me.”

A low-growing perennial with heart-shaped leaves, Pergularia, or ghalqah as it is known in Arabic, is commonly found in the north-eastern part of Abu Dhabi and the Northern Emirates, where its latex-like sap was traditionally used as a treatment for skin disorders and in the preparation of hides for tanning.

Once Dean had finished his “painted designs”, he then spent time travelling between the UK, Abu Dhabi and Fantini Mosaici’s workshops in Carrara, Italy, to see his vision transferred from watercolour to marble.

“In all, there are about 30 colours that occur in marble naturally, and we selected the most appropriate marble colours to suit my design,” he explains.

“Fantini Mosaici have a special programme whereby a painted flower can be converted into what looks like a marble design with all of the different textures and colours, which made it quite easy to see what the final design would look like.”

It was only when he was working at the marble workshops in Italy that Dean finally started to appreciate the enormity of the design.

Once Dean’s idea had been transferred to a marble slab using computer-aided drawings, the stone was then cut using a water jet.

The flowers were then mounted on four-metre-square concrete slabs, like the pieces of some enormous jigsaw, before being shipped to Abu Dhabi.

Finally, as the elements of the design neared completion, they were hand-finished by craftsmen using chips of white marble. Dean remembers visiting the construction site at a time when 400 men were employed just to add the finishing touches to the mosaic.

The area where those workmen toiled is now filled with tourists and worshippers. More than 3.3 million people visited the mosque in 2013, with the building attracting 15,000 tourists a day in high season. An estimated 40,000 worshippers congregated for Eid Al Fitr prayers in July 2014.

Dean finds the numbers amazing, and he’s still coming to terms with his involvement in a project that became rather more than just a job.

“In a way, this job changed my life. When I tell people at home, they’re amazed that someone should have done this for a mosque, as I have a lot of sympathy for Islam but I am not a Muslim,” the designer explains.

“I still get a lot of emails from people who’ve come here and then want to ask me questions about it. They often say that they were amazed to hear that an Englishman was responsible for the design.

“I think it was very generous of the people involved to have allowed an Englishman to design something that is so important to Abu Dhabi [and] I am very humbled by that, really.”