How to continue the growth of Emirati art

One of the founding fathers of the UAE's contemporary art scene says the longevity of Emirati art depends on its institutionalisation.

The artist Hassan Sharif at his studio at The Flying House in Al Quoz, Dubai. Antonie Robertson / The National
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From the still of his loft studio, with only the low hum of air conditioning and a small window chinking bright sunlight to keep him company, the Emirati artist Hassan Sharif creates his striking contemporary pieces.

Often described as the founding father of modern art in the Emirates, Sharif began his professional career in the 1970s, drawing caricatures for daily newspapers in the UAE.

His artistic work didn't gain much attention in the beginning, he admits, but it was collected by Sheikh Hassan Bin Ali Al Thani, the vice-chairperson of the Qatar Museums Authority (QMA) for more than 15 years.

In 2011 Sheikh Hassan's vast collection formed Mathaf, the Museum of Modern Art in Doha, Qatar. Sharif's work was thus shown to the public on a large scale.

The lack of attention paid to his work in the past and the increased appreciation for it today - along with UAE art in general - is both generational and societal, Sharif says.

"It's not only art but all fields of life have changed - architecture, politics, society, education, and the lives of this generation have totally changed, and so art has taken part in this change. Art has changed for lots of reasons - everything has changed, especially through education," Sharif says from his workspace at The Flying House (TFH) arts centre in Dubai.

Based in a two-storey villa near Al Quoz, the non-profit Arab art space TFH is not only Sharif's studio, it's also his home, something he says is necessary for his work.

"I'm always awake - artists must always be awake. Because if you sleep you get nightmares, so to get rid of nightmares you must be awake all your life. I don't wake up in the morning and know that I'm an artist and I want to produce art; even when I'm sleeping I'm an artist. Being with my work is important," he says.

The centre was set up by the artist's brother Abdulraheem Sharif in December 2007, with an aim of promoting contemporary Emirati artists. Fellow artists Layla Juma and Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim are also members of TFH, using the house as their base and as a space to showcase their work.

Born in 1951 in Dubai, Sharif studied in London before going on to found the Emirates Fine Art Society in 1980 and the Art Atelier in the Youth Theatre and Arts, Dubai, in 1987. He has held numerous solo shows across the UAE and abroad and has taken part in the Sharjah Art Biennale since its inception in 1993.

While the 61-year-old artist's work is termed contemporary, he doesn't appreciate this classification and believes that other artists don't appreciate being categorised, either.

"I am an artist and artists observe the small things and the big things and whatever is happening in society, and how people behave and how people deal with materials and problems … it's not a question of why I'm not a traditional artist or I'm a contemporary artist: I am an artist. I make art and through art I mould my thoughts, so it's not a matter of being contemporary or non-contemporary," he says.

"There's no need to define whether an artist is contemporary or modern or postmodern or classic. We are living in an indeterminate age … I can't determine that I am a contemporary artist or any other manner of artist - I'm an artist, as I say," he continues.

Sharif's piece Spoons 3 cascades down TFH's entrance, the bent metal utensils moulding together to produce a waterfall effect.

This work - among others - typifies consumer life, the artist says.

"We are living in a consumerist time of mass production. I am not anti-consumerist, nor am I with them, I am observing, again. It is a reflection of my living in a consumer society," he says.

Just as a consumer would, Sharif bought the spoons, used them and then changed their function by bending them into a work of art.

There's no denying that art and its importance in the UAE has increased in the past 30 years, with the Sharjah Biennale, Art Dubai and Abu Dhabi Art all placing the Emirates firmly on the artistic map. This status as an arts hub in the Middle East has come through the institutionalisation of art, Sharif says.

"It is not a natural evolution … but it is institutionalised. When the institutes in society become aware of the importance of art, so they take care of it, they will think of it. It's [also] to do with education. When people in society are educated, the importance of art will be more: they can see the importance of art," he says. "You don't know about the importance of art if you're uneducated, if you're illiterate."

Hassan Sharif will be taking part in the Louvre Abu Dhabi Talking Arts series, delivering a lecture analysing realism and impressionism tomorrow at 6.45pm at Manarat Al Saadiyat.


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