Mandala: Art that demands patience

Maryam Suleiman.

In the TV show House of Cards, there is a scene in which a group of monks work on a giant piece of work in the White House every single day for a month, painstakingly funnelling different colours of sand onto curved geometrical shapes based on circles on the canvas. Their eyes are inches away from their work and they work from dusk till dawn. Somewhere here in Nairobi, we find a young woman working on something similar, lost in her work - except she’s using paint, rather than sand. 

The brushes she is using are the tiniest she can find. She has already drawn the circles and patterns and is now filling them in millimeter by millimeter.

Her name is Maryam Suleiman, 25, and the intricate pieces that she and the monks do is Mandala art. 

“Mandala is a word in Sanskrit meaning a circle,” she tells us.

“Back then, they used Mandala to represent spirituality. It was used to symbolise religion, aspects of the body and stuff like that but I did not want to dwell much on the religious aspects of art. So I put a twist in the artwork and decided to let it have no meaning. I’m just someone who loves mandalas and has a passion for it. I combined mandala artworks and Islamic geometric art to get distinguishing unique patterns,” she says.

As I look at the detail in her work, I conclude that doing mandala requires near-divine patience and attention to detail, which she confirms. “With such patterns, you have to be patient but in the end, the results are very fulfilling,” she says.

Notable work

She has done it for six years, in tandem with Islamic geometric art, but a giant mural that she did at the historical Mackinnon Market (Marikiti) in Mombasa has gained her notoriety. 

When Suleiman completed high school in 2014, she wasn’t sure what to do with her life, so she followed her sister who was in China and studied Chinese for a year. While there, she saw monks just like the ones on House of Cards making sand mandalas.

“We went on a visit to a specific temple where we had a chance to meet these monks who were doing these sand mandalas. You know this colourful sand and then they make these patterns. It was like a magnet to me. It was really interesting,” she says.

“So when I came back and I started searching for Mandalas, I realised it’s not only about sand Mandalas, and after research, I realised I could do it. I just loved it.”

Before becoming a Mandala artist, she used to do spray paints. She shows me a few of the pieces she had done back then that still adorn her walls, veritable works of art. She could have succeeded in the genre too if she had chosen to, I decide. 

But then I’m subsequently floored by the sheer number of plants that she has in her balcony, over 100 of them, but so well arranged I realise she could have been an interior designer or landscaper, even. She has an eye for patterns.

Maryam Suleiman at work on the mural at Marikiti market, Mombasa.

She had indeed thought of doing interior design, she tells me. It’s another passion of hers. But when she was done with Chinese, mandala art proved too fascinating for her, and she began the journey of teaching herself and becoming a recognizable practitioner of the very niche art in Kenya.

A compass is a Mandala artist’s best friend.

“The first thing is getting an idea. Then once you have the canvas with you, you have to prime it, you have to give it a good colour background and you have to have a compass. It is the main tool in Mandala art. It helps with the circles. I draw the circles and then after that I make the patterns. I call them basic patterns. Beginner patterns. Something that you can work on without thinking.” she explains.

She then explains further using the piece she is currently in the middle of.

“And then you go on to something like this, which are the advanced patterns for me. I have to look for them, get the idea on how to draw them and then use tracing paper because Mandala art is a process of repeating the same patterns round. 

“You can’t draw the same pattern freehand. So you have to take one, do it yourself, get tracing paper and then duplicate it. That’s Islamic geometric art. That’s how it goes with this art. So once I’m done with the basic patterns, I do the complex patterns.”

It seems complex, but for her the hardest part is the colours, because she isn’t always sure which colours will go best together.

“Then once you have decided on the colours...there’s the tiniest brush…” she picks up a brush from the tin of tools “...this is my favourite brush. Number zero zero. A really tiny brush. I know you’re wondering, sometimes you get a huge canvas and you’re using this brush. When will you ever finish? It requires a lot of patience.”

Every artist has a signature, and hers is gemstones. She has even stuck them onto the planters and vases in her balcony.

“The last part of it is when I add a twist to my Mandala, where you can see I usually put stones on them. This part is like putting soul into the mandalas. When you hear artists saying, ‘We have put our soul and heart into our pieces’, this is the part that brings life into my mandalas. I can work on mandalas and not like them but that is my favourite part. When it comes to the stone lay, this is it. This is my favourite part. After that it’s just signing off and we’re done!” she says.

“Now I’m wondering where the stones will go on here,” I tell her, looking at the piece. 

“It’s just a matter of where you want to put them. One can decide to leave it just like this, the way it is. For me I can decide to just start putting in between here…” she says pointing to a specific point on the piece,! “ between the light green or dark green colours - it just depends. There isn’t a specific process where to put them.”

Maryam Suleiman at work on the mural at Marikiti market, Mombasa.

“So you haven’t even decided where you’ll put them, you decide as you go along?” I ask 

My weakness

“Yeah exactly. One thing about my Mandalas is that I just go with the flow. It’s like a weakness I have. I can’t follow a specific idea I get on the internet. I’m like, I will do this same thing. But once I put the dot on the canvas it’s totally different,” she says.

Suleiman is so into her craft that she nearly didn’t get her hair made for her wedding day in 2018 to finish a Mandala she was working on.

“I was working on the final touches for a Persian carpet. In the evening I was actually supposed to go to the wedding hall. It was my wedding day. I was supposed to be at the salon!

“So while I’m doing it, my mum is like, ‘Maryam where are you?!’ I’m like, ‘I’m coming out of the house right now! ’I wanted it to be displayed in the hall next to me while the pictures were being taken. It was a success,” she says. It is still her most precious piece to date. 

Mandala art is a popular form of art therapy, which Suleiman says comes in handy for her.

“They say depression and creativity go hand in hand most of the time, and most artists will tell you they have had a phase where they went through depression,” she says.

“Mandala art is like a bonus for me. Right now people are paying to do art therapy and most of the time you find mandala art being used for that. These things were like sacred symbols back then. They help in realigning yourself. Bringing yourself back on track. It helps with depression. Every time I’m done with the specific piece, I come out feeling recharged, like a new person.”

There are a few other mandala artists in Kenya, especially in Mombasa, but it is yet to really catch on as an art form in Kenya.  

“Here in Kenya people mostly like portraits, landscapes and such, but once you mention Mandala, everyone is like, ‘What is that?” says Suleiman.

“In future I really hope that I can open up a workshop, teach people how to do this. We will have workshops and exhibitions so that people know what Mandala art is.”