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.


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