Mattar Bin Lahej: The Art of Power
At more than eight metres tall and six metres wide, it is difficult to miss the most recent installation to emerge from the studio of Emirati artist Mattar Bin Lahej. As it stands in place in Dubai’s pedestrianised urban zone of City Walk, the stainless-steel monument almost lures in its viewers with a kind of awe and amazement. The piece – titled Aya – is a cascading curtain of lettering made from the classic Arabic font thuluth and it sits atop a water feature, giving the metal a sense of movement, almost like a wave. Although it is made from four tonnes of steel, the letters seem light and are accentuated by the black background. It is a statement of power and talent and is also an expression of faith because the ayah (or verse from the Quran) that Bin Lahej has used, is a combination of a quote that mentions the Prophet Mohammed’s role as the messenger of God and one of the final pieces from the Holy Book: al-Ikhlas, which expresses among other things, the Oneness of God.
In many ways, the artwork captures the different elements of Mattar Bin Lahej’s long career. Firstly, it shows his constantly evolving talent. Born in 1968, Bin Lahej faced many obstacles at the beginning, namely that art was not appreciated or considered a career choice. Nevertheless, thanks to support from his father who had a deep appreciation of his son’s talent and an inner self belief, he strived to make his mark on the artistic landscape.
In 2005, he opened his eponymous gallery and workshop space Marsam Mattar as a way of keeping in touch with the public as well as starting his education programme, through which he has helped and mentored thousands of pupils. His dedication to what he calls “normal people” has been always been paramount in his thinking as an artist. “I am an artist of the people and for the people,” he says. “I am interested in making art not for the few who visit galleries and museums but for everyone. That is why I want my art to live in public places.”
Aya is just one of a long list of public art projects Bin Lahej has undertaken in the past few years. In 2013, his nine-piece sculpture Moon Reflections was installed in The Dubai Mall for the month of Ramadan. It was made of two-metre high stainless-steel discs that represented the phases of the moon and were decorated with gold and silver tones. The following year, also for Ramadan, Encyclopedia, was installed in the Waterfall Atrium at the mall. At 15 metres long and almost three metres at its highest point, the curves and sweeps of the stainless steel were incredibly cast in flawless detail.
All of his pieces are made in his personal foundry in Dubai, which makes them unusual because many other artists outsource work on this scale to China and other mass-producing nations. However, Bin Lahej makes a point of keeping everything local. Aya was made with the help of 20 skilled artisans over a period of 45 days and is part of Bin Lahej’s ongoing legacy in his “quest to leave a mark in the world of Arabic art.”
This goal of leaving a legacy is something Bin Lahej talks of quite frequently during interviews and indeed, it does help one to understand the scope of his practice. Whether it is through calligraphy or indeed through his multiple artworks that attempt to embody power and movement, his practice seems to be a kind of tribute to the UAE itself.
“I am born and bred in Dubai and strength is my strategy. When you need to be strong, be with the strong people. If you need to run, run with the best. Our city is very strong and I feel inspired by it. It pushes me to new ideas and helps me to raise my own level higher and higher. My designs do not begin on paper, they begin in my imagination and I search to find the language for that place. In that way, like my city, I too can never stand still or stop.”
One of Bin Lahej’s enduring symbols is that of the horse. Visitors to Dubai’s Jumeirah Al Naseem hotel will see a stunning sculpture of galloping camels in the driveway and inside the lobby, many paintings of galloping horses. The Mattar Bin Lahej Gallery in Dubai’s Box Park, which opened in 2017, is also adorned with paintings featuring the same striking animals. Of all the works that the artist has produced, these seem the nearest to self-portraits. “I first chose to depict the horse because of its power and now its movement represents my movement,” he says. His magnetic personality, ambitious character and commanding presence certainly convey a sense of power as you talk to him, but he is not conceited or proud. He is, in fact, very clear about his own accomplishments. “I think the secret to my success is belief. I don’t set myself any limitations, I visualise and I believe I can do it. I am interested in helping others and I look for those with the same inner confidence. This you can’t teach but you can encourage.”
Mattar Bin Lahej Gallery , 487 Al Wasl Road Dubai. Open daily from 9am – 11pm.