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 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 art work, 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 inside dome of the building.
As Abed wrote: “To say he (Soni) was overwhelmed is an understatement. He was petrified!”
The project was both a technical and a logistical challenge and while there was a lone dissenting voice, his painting on the dome, was “unanimously approved”, Abed wrote.
Soni took a year to complete the work. He mastered the calligraphic decorations of the interior of the dome and then had to tackle the arabesque design.
Friend, mentor and scholar Dr Cassim D’Arcy commented that “the mathematical ingenuity required to design, execute and install such a work was astounding. The calligraphy was not out by as much as a centimetre”.
It was the start of many more commissions and despite still being employed at the dockyard until the 1990s, Soni was kept busy, as related in the book, with exhibitions and requests for paintings.
Abed describes how his art became an all-consuming passion, devouring his time and how it transported him to another world. Over the years, she wrote, he became highly sought after and attended many conventions, travelling overseas to present his unique works of art which combined his visions of Islam with his designs, which later incorporated African art.
Abed wrote, often with a quirky sense of humour, that one of the issues that became a point of contention both with friends and family, was that such was his humility that he found it difficult to put a real price on his work. This was often to his detriment as his highly skilled work, so precise; yet so creative and individual deserved better remuneration.But as his sister wrote, Soni repeatedly gently admonished: “You cannot put a price on art.”
Today, Soni is revered as an Islamic artist both locally and abroad, viewed as a mentor and esteemed teacher and deservedly has won pride of place as having “brought Islamic art home to the people”.
In her epilogue, Abed writes clearly of the distinction between calligraphy and art: “Achmat uses calligraphy as a script element in his Islamic art... he refers to himself as an Islamic artist and has never made any claim that he is a calligrapher.”
Mosques decorated by the man called tiny for his small physical size but a huge talent, range from dozens in the Cape from the Hanafi Mosque in the Bo-Kaap; that in Strandfontein; the Islamia Mosque in Lansdowne to that in Mowbray; the Nural Islam; the Diep River Mosque and the UCT Jamaat Khaana.
The book is a tribute to him and the work he has done; warmly portrayed by his sister. It is also a valuable testament to what has often been an ignored part of South African culture and is a definitely worthy of a read regardless of religious belief.
Richly illustrated with the artist’s stunning creations, you’ll come away the wiser and deeply inspired by a humble man’s talent, humanity and dedication.
● The book can be ordered by calling 072 171 0036.