The Tunisian artist and calligrapher Nja Mahdaoui refers to himself as an “explorer of signs” and a “choreographer of letters.” Influenced by the Iranian artist Hossein Zenderoudi (1937), Mahdaoui developed a style of abstraction based on Arabic words that focuses on individual letters. Text became the basis of an important expressive artistic form in the Arab world during the early 1950s and 1960s as part of the pioneering post-independence art movements that focused on surrounding realities and local identities. Some artists took words, with their textual meanings and references, as the core of their practice, while others, like Mahdaoui, explored the letter as a sole entity in order to construct shapes rather than words. Mahdaoui’s works break up single letters into their parts — lines, dots and curves — turning them into dynamic compositions that are purely visual. In recent years, and as part of a broader tendency within the region, Mahdaoui has adapted his calligraphic compositions into objects and large-scale installations.
Mahdaoui works with materials that range from parchment, papyrus, wood and aluminum to paint and ink on canvas, as in Aghir 3. In this composition, strong colors contrast with the monochromatic background while extended diagonal lines create a sense of movement. Named after a beach on the Tunisian island of Djerba, the painting establishes a contrast between the suggestion of houses and the seashore while emphasizing the dynamics of the area and the mythology associated with the island. Creating a vivid geometric landscape, Mahdaoui also proposes new forms of language. Writing with shapes and colors and merging the poetic with the abstract, landscape and mythology, he strips his compositions of their worldly connotations, transforming them into what, in reference to the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire, he calls “calligrams.”