Emirati artist Mattar Bin Lahej shares the inspiration behind his Arabic calligraphy sculptures on display at Abu Dhabi’s Presidential Palace – Qasr Al Watan
Creative expression in the Middle East has always followed a different form of hierarchy compared to the west. A stark contrast to western ideals, where painting and sculpture are hailed as the two most important art forms, calligraphy has remained one of the most revered artistic mediums in the Islamic world. This can be attributed to its use in the pages of the Qur’an as well as other significant religious texts.
In the Middle Ages, calligraphers in the region were handsomely rewarded for their craft. They were commissioned with penning fine manuscripts, creating inscriptions for street murals and adorning the walls of mosques. Even today, examples of Arabic calligraphy can be found in abundance throughout the region, etched into traditional ornaments, inscribed on the walls of important cultural landmarks and intertwined in modern architecture. It appears often, woven into the very fabric of the country, visible everywhere once you start to look for it.
In the UAE capital, one such masterful example of Arabic calligraphy can be found within the premises of the stunning Qasr Al Watan, which is the Presidential Palace in Abu Dhabi. The structure itself is a phenomenal tribute to Arabian artistry, with its architecture echoing the aesthetic principles of Middle Eastern art. Inside, visitors will find a splendid curation of installations and objects that nod to local design heritage.
Walking through the Palace Gardens to the main entryway of Qasr Al Watan, guests will notice two stunning Arabic calligraphy sculptures come into full view. Rendered in silver, the sunlight reflecting off its shiny surfaces and the rays that filter through the installations together create a mesmerising effect, bathing these structures in a mystical glow.
Titled Power of Words, these two masterpieces are smaller replicas of the original gold sculpture, bearing the same name, housed within the Great Hall of the Presidential Palace.
Taking pride of place beneath one of the largest domes in the world, the Power of Words sculpture was conceived by Emirati artist Mattar Bin Lahej. The interlaced inscription is inspired by the words of the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the founding father of the UAE. It reads: “Wealth is not money or oil, wealth lies in people and it is worthless if not dedicated to serve the people.”
When discussing its conception, Lahej said: “I’ve always been inspired by the wise words of the UAE’s founding father. Their depth, meaning and what they represent have always had a profound impact on me, my work and also on society. Through this sculpture, I wanted to commemorate his voice as a physical piece with which the public could engage.”
Weighing six tonnes, the bigger sculpture in the Great Hall was designed using marine-grade stainless steel, chosen for its corrosion-resistant properties. The material was then dipped in gold water, resulting in its glimmering sheen.
The smaller silver replicas on display in the Palace Gardens weigh four tonnes each and are also crafted from stainless steel but finished with silver. These consist of letters that are shaped inwards within the sculpture itself and embody two more inspiring quotes by the founding father.
The first sculpture reads: “Science and history walk side by side. By using science, man can record his history and preserve it for generations to come, so others may learn from it and come to know what their ancestors achieved.”
The second translates to: “The education of our people is a great wealth. We are proud of our educated nation because through knowledge and science we will open the horizon to a glorious future.”
The three sculptures commissioned exclusively for the palace took Lahej roughly three and a half months to complete. “I started the process by digitally mapping out the designs. Once the designs were finalised, I began working on the three-dimensional pieces using a science-based approach, bringing the masterpieces to life in my art studio.
“My biggest challenge when sculpting these masterpieces was creating the Arabic calligraphy and reflecting its aesthetic with the large letters and curves. After a complex and rewarding journey, my ideas came to life.”
The final result, a symbol of pride for Lahej, can now be viewed within the Great Hall and in the Palace Gardens at Qasr Al Watan. “It is an honour to have my work on display at Qasr Al Watan, which is considered one of the most important architectural and cultural edifices in the world.
“These sculptures truly are symbolic of the late Sheikh Zayed and his inspirational legacy. I am proud to have been able to bring his words to life in three masterpieces of this magnitude. I consider myself very lucky to leave my mark at Qasr Al Watan and be part of something so extraordinary.”