Decorating SA’s mosques
ACHMAT Soni has decorated 65 mosques around the country – no small feat when one considers the painstaking work and detail; not to mention the logistics of painting the domes. But for many years this humble man, who likes to see himself as an “ordinary man”, has shied away from publicity, his sister Zaitoonisa Soni-Abed, said.
Abed started writing a book on her self-taught artistic brother in 2006 and, as she relates, following many failed attempts to have it published, the idea was put on hold.
Perhaps at the time it was all for the best, because now, with many more decorated mosques under his belt (which would not have been included in the original edition), the book came to fruition when her husband Abbas decided to fund the publication and a community-based Muslim organisation, Awqaf, later stepped in to provide funding for the printing and set up a legacy fund for future generations.
Abed said: “Ten years down the line, Achmat has had much more exposure as an artist and as his sister, this book has brought us even closer. I had thought to myself, my brother is so talented and amazing and his remarkable skills must be brought to public notice.”
Introducing her brother, Abed at the outset of the book, she traces her family’s heritage – her mother born and bred in Cape Town of mixed descent, her grandfather; an Indian who hailed from Natal and her grandmother a “Cape Malay”.
She writes no artistry was evident in her family background, but her mother’s attempt to educate her children included instilling a love of art that no doubt rubbed off on her brother.
Soni, today aged 68, started work at the SA Naval Dockyard in Simon’s Town and what undoubtedly inspired his later work was that he started off as a sign- writer.
He is quoted as saying: “My early years at the dockyard were the springboard to my art career... I was the first sign-writer to write a trade test in the dockyard.”
An association with one of his superiors also influenced him as he was called on to assist in artwork, frame-making and woodcarving. With his background in sign-writing, Soni did his first painting 1982 and continued with his art in the next decade – in 1985 holding his first exhibition at the Islamic Book Shop in Athlone. His work, as his sister said, can best be described as Islamic art influenced by calligraphy. The year 1989 was a watershed year in which Soni was approached by Abdullah Gangraker, a trustee of the Gatesville Mosque, to paint the dome’s interior of the building.
Richly illustrated with the artist’s stunning creations, you’ll come away the wiser and inspired by a humble man’s talent, humanity and dedication.
PORTRAIT OF AN ISLAMIC ARTIST Zaitoonisa Soni-Abed