Soni’s infusion of Islamic art

Achmat Soni takes a seat in the Bo-Kaap museum where his artworks are displayed.

A body of work which opened Achmat Soni’s life to art is on display at the Bo-Kaap Museum until the end of the month.

The exhibition is called Islamic Art – An African Interpretation.

The artist’s first Islamic artwork, Al-Fatiha, is among a collection of his African, modern and traditional paintings, on display in the museum.

He painted this Islamic scripture, which means the opening, in 1982 and it literally opened up his life to art.

“I was painting things of nature, the mountain, flowers, lots of things, and then one Thursday night after reciting the Quran I decided to paint the first page of the Quran. In fact I was inspired and since then I’ve done nothing else but Islamic art,” Mr Soni said.

“When I painted other things I had to think of it, and it was difficult, but when it came to Islamic art, I’ve not had a lack of inspiration since I started,” the 73-year-old said.

The very first painting by Achmat Soni, Al-Fatiha, is not for sale.

He joined the navy in 1964 as a sign-writer/painter and worked there for 25 years where he crafted his skill while earning an income.

“I had three options – blacksmith, a rigger or a painter. Those were the apprenticeships available for coloureds. Fortunately they tested us in all three and the guy that held the workshops said my writing was good and sent me to the art shop. I’m happy I didn’t get to paint a ship, I did signage and boards and so on.”

“There was an English gentleman that trained me and he was a perfectionist. He demanded that I write letters in a certain way which would later benefit me,” Mr Soni said.

Mr Soni’s Islamic artworks were a hobby until he took early retirement in 1989 and started to focus on his passion.

“I thanked God for that early retirement because this is what I wanted to do. I could travel to Durban and Joburg and spread the word about Islamic art.

“I wasn’t allowed to exhibit internationally due to the sanctions but once that ended I travelled to Malaysia in 1994 for my first exhibition, and then Pakistan, Turkey and Syria. I was the only representative from a non-Arab country and they accepted my work, and I became part of the international Islamic art world.”

Mr Soni saw how artists from Morocco, Iran and Turkey had different styles and he then decided to add African influences.

“You cannot change the scripture, it’s the word of God, but you can change the style, add colour and add elements of Africa. As you can see I’ve added elements of the Ndebele art. With this work Ayatul Qursi I’ve added African elements and as you can see the patterns are repeated.

“So Islamic art requires patience as you repeat patterns, you need to be dedicated to making these patterns. I must tell you that when I do modern art it raises my blood pressure, but when I do art with repetition it soothes me.”

Ayatul Qursi with African elements by Achmat Soni.

Not only does he paint on canvas, Mr Soni was challenged to decorate the inside of the Gatesville mosque, and after completing that project he embellished 71 mosques around the world from Ireland to Khayelitsha.

“In 1989 a friend, Abdullah Gangraker, asked me to paint the mosque and I said no, I’ve never done it before. He was persistent and eventually I took on the challenge. I didn’t paint on the walls of the dome. It’s on canvas, and I did it at night after work. I took quite a few leave days and sick leave days,” he said.

“There was resistance from an individual who said I can’t use blue, only black. But after consultation with other learned men I was allowed to paint with blue and it’s still there. I’ve never had to touch it up.”

Over the decades Mr Soni has taught the techniques of Islamic art to a few individuals as well as to prisoners. Some of his students’ artworks can also be seen at the Bo-Kaap museum.

“I’ve planted seeds, I am planting seeds. It’s growing slowly and long after I’m gone this art will continue. The young artists must not copy other people and continue with their style of creating new work, I believe we will have a wonderful, rich history in South Africa.”

Achmat Soni says painting this style tests his creativity.