Jack Lee: Realism in art

Heritage painting offers a good living but the shifting sands of UAE culture can be hard for outsiders to navigate, finds one artist.

Jack Lee, a Chinese expatriate, pictured in his studio in Abu Dhabi with three examples of his work. He describes himself as a “realistic” painter.  Ravindranath.K / The National
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Jack Lee, an award-winning artist and entrepreneur, is something of an Abu Dhabi exhibitionist. I met him last at September's hunting and equestrian exhibition, otherwise known as Adihex. He was perched on a stool in front of an enormous stretched canvas on which he was midway through his latest portrait of Sheikh Zayed. His chair and artwork partly rested in one of the corridors that ran between the stands in the cavernous halls of Adnec and somewhat within the confines of his own display area, where a dozen of his paintings of sheikhs and scenes of national culture were attached to its frame.

Hustled along by the weekend crowd of outdoor-pursuits enthusiasts and distracted by Lee's work, I nearly tripped over his stool. At which point, my attempts to evade artist and canvas took me headlong into his stand and almost straight into a discussion with his mother, who was acting as his temporary sales agent and show assistant. Sensing a sale, or at least the sniff of one, Lee abandoned his work and we engaged in a brief discussion during which I expressed mild surprise at the price he quoted for one piece that caught my eye, a brightly coloured desert scene involving falcons and camels. Discretion forbids me from naming the price I was quoted, but I am still not sure whether it was meant as the opening salvo in a long haggling session or simply the prix fixe. Nevertheless, sensing there was no middle ground to be found, we went our separate ways - me to find my children in the neighbouring weaponry hall, him back to his perch.

Today, I am back in a corridor once more, waiting patiently for Lee to answer the door to his 10th-floor apartment close to the city centre. Lee, a Chinese expatriate, made his home in Abu Dhabi four years ago, having first visited the Emirates in 2004, a subject we will return to later. A graduate of Luxun Academy of Fine Art in China, Lee was employed as a designer for a firm of wedding planners in the capital before being asked, in 2007, if he would be interested in hosting a few painting workshops for aspiring artists. He was, and for the past three years, he has occupied his time teaching students and with private commissions. And so Lee joined the army of expatriate painters who supply the UAE's market for heritage scenes.

His work, which he calls "realistic painting", is regularly offered for sale on temporary booths set up at the city's malls - most recently at Al Wahda, but also previously at Khalidiyah - and can be found in the foyers and reception areas of many of the city's hotels. He has a reputation as an unofficial painter of sheikhs. Lee answers the door and leads me into his bright but spartan studio, which sits at one end of his apartment and boasts views over a traffic jam that is beginning to gather strength far below us on Airport Road.

His materials are stacked on shelving units on one side of the room, while large finished canvases occupy the other. The space is organised and tidy. We sit down side-by-side on two plastic-backed seats in the middle of the room, rather like two passengers on the back seat of a car. I had read that he won awards for his work at Adihex in 2007, 2008 and 2009, so it seemed reasonable to ask how he had fared this year. Had he made it a big four in 2010? Sadly not. "Last year I was painting one sheikh with one horse for Adihex and won first prize. This year again I painted one sheikh in a heritage scene, but the organisers told me that you are not allowed to use a face in your pictures. But  we didn't know about this rule change until it was too late. So I had no chance to win," he tells me without rancour, all the while apologising for his command of English, which is actually quite good.

A spectacular portrait of Sheikh Zayed sits in the corner of the room, Aviator-style sunglasses shielding his eyes from the desert sun, falcon perched on his left arm. Another portrait of Sheikh Zayed, the one he was working on at the exhibition, is displayed a few feet away. When, I wondered, did he first paint the father of the nation? "That was in 2007," he says, three years after he first set foot in the UAE for the first time, when he travelled to the northern emirates to visit his cousin. This trip coincided with Sheikh Zayed's untimely death.

"I heard a lot about this great man, but I was new to the country. I did not know at that time that he had helped so many people, that he had helped create this country. "Then, when I returned here as a resident, I saw a painting of Sheikh Zayed somewhere in the street and I thought it was not very good, so I decided to paint one myself. Now people always ask me to paint him, especially hotels." He has just finished a new portrait of the UAE's founder, this one bound for the foyer of one of the many hotels that are still springing up all around Abu Dhabi.

I ask him to tell me about another of the desert scenes that litter his studio. "This painting is wrong," he says, pointing at a picture of Sheikh Nayhan with a falcon perched on his right arm. "When you stay in this country every day you learn new things. The local tradition says you cannot use your right hand for a falcon, this hand is for shaking hands and the falcon is for the left hand. "You know I painted this picture in the mall and many Arabic people came to me and said 'you made a mistake'. I had spent four or five days on it already." Lee says his subject had seen the picture, but was tactful enough not to mention the error.

Doesn't he find it distracting to paint in exhibition halls and shopping malls? "I am a teacher. Always I have had to paint in front of students and I have to express myself in a classroom. If lots of people are around me I feel happy. I paint faster, I am happier when I work in public." We chat a little about his classroom techniques and I listen to the very charitable advice he has for those of us who are not blessed with his talents.

One should not be discouraged, he says, "everyone is an artist. If you put some colour on a piece of canvas, then you can say you are an abstract artist." As I am about to leave, I notice his faithful reproduction of the Mona Lisa hanging in the hallway. "I study all the techniques - if you ask me to work like that, I can do it," he says.