Described as a 'choreographer of letters', Nja Mahdaoui's work comprises paintings, prints, tapestries, book covers and illustrations. He works with a variety of media including parchment, papyrus, wood, aluminium, brass, melamine and linen, and derives inspiration from aspects of local culture such as Tunisian textile design. He is also a performance artist. In 2000, he was selected by Gulf Air to design the external decoration of its fleet for the airline's fiftieth anniversary. He lives and works in Tunisia.
Mahdaoui has participated in solo and group exhibitions worldwide and his work can be found in private and public international collections, including the Museum of Modern Art, Tunis; Museum of Modern Art, Baghdad; British Museum, London; Smithsonian Museum, Washington, DC; Bibliothéque Nationale and Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris; National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh; Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts, Amman; and Jeddah and Riyadh's international airports. He is a member of the International Jury of the Arts Prize of UNESCO, and has received numerous awards including the Grand Prix des Art et des Lettres, Tunisia, UNESCO Crafts Prize, and First Prize at the Fifth International Calligraphy and Calligraph-Art Exhibition, in Kabul.
Mahdaoui initially received his artistic training at Atelier Libre in Carthage, after which he studied at the Accademia Santa Andréa in Rome, where he specialized in graphic design. He then went on to study at École du Louvre in Paris, graduating in 1967, and pursued his academic studies and training further, with a scholarship from the Tunisian government, at Cité Internationale des Arts. Mahdaoui is of a generation of Arab artists who studied abroad but sought inspiration from their native culture. Experimentation with the formal qualities of Arabic script and calligraphy, as a means of developing a local style, began in the 1950s – a trend popularly known as Hurufiyah – gaining momentum in the 1960s. It was not until the early 1970s, however, that Mahdaoui began to explore the aesthetic possibilities offered by the Arabic letter—after working under the influence of Hossein Zenderoudi, one of the pioneers of the Saqqakhaneh School in Iran. Since then, Mahdaoui has focused on the abstraction of calligraphic letters and shapes, creating a distinctive style and approach to this form of art.