Nja Mahdaoui

(born in 1937, Tunis, lives and works in Tunisia)


In 1967, Nja Mahdaoui graduated from the Academy of Arts of Santa Andrea in Rome and the Ecole du Louvre in 1968 in residence at the Cite Internationale des Arts for two years.

Since 1968, Nja Mahdaoui has got acquainted with Michel Tapié and engaged in the movement "Informel" which allowed him to discover international abstract artists like Lucio Fontana, Sam Francis, Antoni Tapiès and Isidor Isou, and to participate in some important exhibitions bringing together Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Iranian artists such as Hinsho Domoto, Toshimitsu Imai, Hossen Zenderoudi and others. Then, in the early 1980s, he started integrating signs or an "unconstrained grapheme" in his abstract compositions produced on parchment.

Nja Mahdaoui is a visual artist who considers himself "an explorer of signs" and has been described as a "choreographer of letters". His work inspired by Arabic calligraphy is remarkably innovative as the aesthetic dimension of letters brings forth a sense of the poetic "highly rhythmic" arresting us with its rich abstracts compositions. Thus, the concept beyond the works reveals how the ideas are conveyed creatively through the artist choice of materials and medium: Canvas, vellum, parchment, papyrus, arches paper, aluminium, textile, sculpture...

He designed monumental artworks such as sculptures and tapestries in Jeddah and Riyadh airports, Aramco head office in Dahran, KAUST University Campus Mosque in Saudi Arabia, Gulf Air aircrafts (50th Anniversary) and took part in Art Projects, introducing his work in performing art within the framework of theatre and dance.

Famous for his meticulous work in ink on parchment, Mahdaoui stresses the visual impact of his compositions, devoided of actual textual meaning, which he refers to as "calligrams" or "graphemes".

One of the major artists on the contemporary arts scene in the Arab world, Nja Mahdaoui received the Grand Award of Arts and Literature of Tunis in 2006, the Grand Award from UNESCO in 2005, and very recently the Global Art Award in Dubai, in 2017.

Presented in numerous exhibitions worldwide, his work can be found in many private and public collections such as the British Museum in London, the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, the Saatchi Gallery, the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC, Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha, The National Library of France (BNF) and the Institut du Monde Arabe (IMA) in Paris.

Exhibitions selected

Solo Exhibitions (selection)

2018 - AWJ, Rétrospective (1966-2018), Elmarsa Gallery, Tunis

2015 - Jafr. The alchemy of signs, Elmarsa Gallery, Dubai

2010 - Nja Mahdaoui, Invité d?honneur de la 4ème Biennale de Calligraphie de Sharjah

2008 - Nja Mahdaoui, Hewar Art Gallery, Riyadh

2008 - Nja Mahdaoui, Dar Al Funoon, Kuwait City

2007 - Nja Mahdaoui, Meem Gallery, Dubai

2006 - Nja Mahdaoui, Invité d?honneur de la Biennale de Téhéran

2000 - Graphèmes libres, Signes-Signifiances, Comptoir des écritures, Paris

1998 - Nja Madhaoui curaté par Khaled Jemaan, Manama Art Centre, Bahrain

1997 - L?esthétique du signe, Académie Tunisienne des Sciences, des Lettres et des Arts, Carthage

1994 - A choreographer of Letters par Rose Issa, Leighton House Museum, Londres

1992 - Calligrammes, curaté par Rose Issa, SOAS Library, Université de Londres

1989 - Nja Mahdaoui, 3ème Biennale de La Havane, Casa El Arabe, La Havane

1987 - Calligrammes et Corps-Ecriture, curaté par Wolfgang Becker, Neue Galerie - Sammlung Ludwig, Aix La Chapelle

1985 - Pour une esthétique du signe, Institut Français, Rome

1985 - ?uvres de 1981 à 84, Centre National d?Art Vivant, Tunis

1980 - Nja Mahdaoui, Galerie Exler (African and Oceanic Art), Francfort

1980 - L?Image de l?autre, Universités UZH et ETH, Zu?rich

1973 - Nja Mahdaoui, Galerie Yahia, Tunis

1970 - Oeuvres récentes, Galerie Entremonde, Paris

1969 - Nja Mahdaoui, Galerie La Galère, Paris

1967 - Nja Mahdaoui, Exposition itinérante, Galleria Numero, Rome, Milan, Florence et Venise

1966 - Nja Mahdaoui, Galleria El Harka, Palerme

1965 ? Nja Mahdaoui, The Dante Alighieri Italian Cultural Centre, Tunis


Group Exhibitions (selection)

2017 - Lettres ouvertes, de la calligraphie au street art, Institut des Cultures d?Islam, Paris

2014 - Word & Illumination en collaboration avec le British Museum, Meridian Exhibition Hall, Arabie Saoudite

2013 - Contemporary Muslim calligraphy, Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia, Kuala-Lumpur

2012 - Reflections on Heaven, Meditations on Earth, Museo dei Fori Imperiali, Rome

2012 - Salah Stétié et les peintres, Musée Paul Valéry, Sète

2011 - The Art of Writing, curaté by Karin Adrian von Roques, produit par la Written Art Foundation, Art Forum, Wiesbaden

2011 - Written images : contemporary calligraphy from Middle East, Sundaram Tagore Gallery, New York

2010 - Freedom and Innovation : Contemporary Arab Calligraphy, Casa Arabe, Madrid

2009 - Treasures of the World?s Cultures ? British Museum, Exposition itinérante, Espagne, Canada, Allemagne, Abu Dhabi

2009 - Sajjil : A Century of Modern Art, Inaugural Exhibition, Mathaf, Doha

2009 - Perspectives: Arab & Iranian Modern Masters, Saatchi Gallery, Londres

2007 - Dance of Pen and Ink : contemporary Art of Middle East, par Rose Issa, The State Museum of Oriental Art à Moscou et Musée de l?Hermitage, St Pétersbourg

2006 - Word into Art : Artists of the Modern Middle East, The Brisith Museum, Londres

2002 - Le livre international de la Paix, Mémorial de Caen

2001 - L?art du livre arabe : du manuscrit au livre arabe, BNF, Paris

1999 - Artists & Artisans: Perspectives on Tunisian Culture, The British Museum, Londres

1995 - Signs,Traces and Calligraphy, par Rose Issa, Barbican Art Centre ? Londres, Tropenmuseum - Amsterdam

1993 - Art & Tabac, par Pierre Restany, Exposition itinérante, Rome, Milan, Amsterdam, Vienne, Bruxelles

1992 - Contemporary Arab Signs par Nja Mahdaoui, pour l?Exposition Universelle, Séville

1987 - Six peintres tunisiens contemporains, Musée d?Art Moderne, Villeuneuve d?Asq

1985 - Écritures dans la peinture, par Michel Butor, Villa Arson CNAC, Galerie Diagonale, Nice

1982 - Le mouvement de la calligraphie arabe, Galerie Kunstlerteppiche, Art Basel

1978 - 18 peintres tunisiens, par Hatem el Mekki, Grand Palais, Paris

1973 -  Groupe 73, par Michel Tapié, Galerie Cyrus, Paris

1972 - Espaces abstrait II, par Michel Tapié, Galleria Cortina, Milan

1968 - Salon des Beaux-Arts, Grand Palais, Paris

1967 -  Groupe des cinq: Garmadi, Belkhodja, Ben Cheikh, Mahdaoui, Roccheggiani, par Mohamed Aziza, Galerie Yahia, Tunis


Public Collections (selection)     

- The British Museum, Londres

- The National Museum of African Arts - Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.

- Mathaf  - Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha, Qatar

- Bibiothèque Nationale de France ? François Mitterrand, Paris

- Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris

- Islamic Art Museum of Malaysia - IAMM, Kuala Lumpur

-  Contemporary Museum of Calligraphy, Moscow

- Beit Al Quran, Manama, Bahrain

- Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts, Amman

- The National Museum of Scotland, Royaume Uni

- The Ludwig Museum, Aix La Chapelle

- Written Art Foundation, Francfort

- Japan Foundation, Tokyo

- Musée d?Art Contemporain de Baie Saint-Paul, Canada

- The Wilfredo Lam Modern Art Center, La Havane

- The Modern Art Museum, Bagdad, Irak

- Collections Nationales d?Art Moderne, Tunis

- DIFC Art Collection, Dubai

- Farjam Collection, Dubai

- Saudi Aramco, Dhahran, Arabie Saoudite

- Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah

- Al Mansouria Collection, Jeddah


Bibliography (selection)


Books of  the artist

- Remarques sur le style, de Marcel Proust, Fata Morgana, 2016

- Chants de l?autre rive, poèmes de Moëz Majed, Fata Morgana, 2015

- Le Maître d?amour, avecRodrigo de Zayas, Albin Michel, 2004

- L?Art-Calligraphie, L?or du temps, 2001

- La Volupté d?un Mourir, tiré des Mille et une nuits, Editions Alternatives, 2001

- Badr Chaker es Sayyâb: Les poèmes de Djaykoûr, Fata Morgana, 2000


About the artist

- Modern Art in the Arab World, MoMA Primary Documents Publication Series, 2018

- Signs of Our Times : From Calligraphy to Calligraffiti, de Rose Issa,Merrell Publishers, 2016

- Jafr. The Alchemy of Signs, de Molka Mahdaoui, avec des textes de Rose Issa, Venetia Porter, Michel Tapié, Martina Corgnati, Charbel Dagher, Editions Skira, 2015

- Mapping Azimuth : two calligraphic ascensions, Mahdaoui & Ben Slimane, El Marsa Editions, 2014

- Roots and Wings : the art of Calligraphy 1982-2012, Katarina Pieper Edition, 2012

- Art of the Middle East : Modern and Contemporary Art of the Arab World and Iran by Saeb Eigner, Merrell Publishers, 2010

- Re-Orientations : Contemporary Arab Representations, de Rose Issa, Publication de la Communauté Européenne, 2008

- The Dance of Pen and Ink. Contemporary Art of Middle East, de Rose Issa, Triumph Gallery ? Musée de l?Hermitage éditions, 2007

- Word into Art: Artists of the Modern Middle East, de Venetia Porter, British Museum Press, 2006

- L?art du livre arabe: du manuscrit au livre d?artiste, de Marie-Geneviève Guesdon et Annie Vernay-Nouri, Bibliothèque nationale de France, 2001

- Calligraphies : Hommage à Nja Mahdaoui, Horizons Maghrébins, 1998

- Nja Mahdaoui, textes d?Édouard J. Maunick et Ezzedine Madani, Editions Cérès, 1983

- Introduction à la Connaissance esthétique, Michel Tapié, Edizioni del Dioscuro, 1971