Oud master Naseer Shamma unveils hidden talent in debut art exhibition

Shamma's Half Life exhibition harmonises music and visual art at Abu Dhabi's Etihad Modern Art Gallery

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Iraqi oud virtuoso Naseer Shamma, 61, has unveiled his inaugural art exhibition, titled Half Life, at the Etihad Modern Art Gallery.

The exhibition includes more than 70 paintings, illustrating a comprehensive visual narrative of Shamma's artistic evolution spanning four decades. He delivered an oud performance at the opening, which was held under the patronage of Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, Minister of Tolerance and Coexistence, along with other VIP attendees.

Speaking to The National, Shamma describes his approach to art as driven by a set of motivating factors. Among them is his concern for humanity, especially those enduring famine, war and natural disasters, navigating the dialectics of abundance and scarcity. This stems from his role as a musician and a Unesco Artist for Peace.

The scenes capture a spectrum of emotions in volcanic, fiery tones akin to mountainous tragedies and the aftermath of fires and ruins. Another painting blends sandy hues with vibrant turquoise, evoking desert warmth and serene skies. Layers of colour create a textured, multidimensional effect, inviting viewers to explore depth and movement within the artwork. Other pieces feature vibrant spring flowers, infusing Shamma's collection with natural beauty, renewal and hope.

"Within each maqam (musical scale) lie vocal degrees, each resonating with a corresponding colour. Though one may perceive the painting as purple, blue, green or yellow, it embodies a myriad of hues, akin to the diversity of musical notes. For example, I asked myself which colour corresponds to the doe note in the musical scale? Or if the doe note is with a minor or major, what implications would arise?" Shamma says, describing his creative process.

His passion for art goes back to the 1980s, originating in Baghdad and continuing throughout his life in Tunisia, Jordan and Egypt.

"Currently, I have over 120 paintings in Egypt, all carefully wrapped and hidden. Initially, I created these artworks solely for my personal enjoyment, unaware of their potential beyond myself. It was only when friends, particularly those well-versed in painting, and gallery owners encountered my pieces in my office that they recognised their significance," he says.

I use acrylic on canvas and an unexpected ingredient, the sawdust of the oud
Naseer Shamma

The exhibition displays a blend of old and new works, capturing moments from the artist's past to the present, through a combination of mediums.

"I use acrylic on canvas and an unexpected ingredient, the sawdust of the oud, repurposing the material, instead of disposing sawdust generated during the manufacturing process. We recycle it by infusing it with colours and other mixtures, transforming it into a textured, three-dimensional element within my artwork."

Shamma's creativity has been a prominent part of his life. Aged five, he was already dreaming of playing the oud, and his interest in the visual arts came after.

"My passion for music came before my interest in art. I started learning music at the age of 11, however, my fascination with the oud began much earlier, at the age of five. I asked for an oud then, but the instruments available were too big for me at the time," he says.

For one of the world's premier players of the oud instrument, Shamma sees art and music transcending mere entertainment, serving instead as essential channels for navigating life's complexities.

"I approach art much like I approach music. It's not merely for entertainment, but rather a vital outlet for relieving stress and expressing thoughts and emotions about the world and current challenges. Through art, whether in the form of visual art, music, or a combination of both, individuals who may struggle to express themselves in one medium can find expression through another," he says.

Hassan Nadhem, former Iraqi Minister of Culture, offered insight into his perception of Shamma's paintings, describing them as capturing a vivid array of scenes. "Drawing is silent music, and music is a painting that speaks," he says of the unique fusion of artistic mediums showcased in Shamma's work.

Naseer Shamma's Half Life is on display at the Etihad Modern Art Gallery, Abu Dhabi until March 8

Updated: February 11, 2024, 1:21 PM