Emirati artist Ahmed Al Ansari chronicles UAE’s rich tradition

Our summer series continues with Ahmed Al Ansari, the first person to have a solo exhibition in the UAE.

Ahmed Al Ansari, who has been painting since the age of 10, loves to add colour to his childhood memories. Sarah Dea / The National
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A retired army general, Al Ansari was born in 1954 in Sharjah. He went on to become one of the founding members of the Emirates Fine Arts Society and is considered a pioneer of the arts in the UAE.

Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, the president of Sharjah Art ­Foundation, selected his work to be part of the show 1980 – ­Today: Exhibitions in the United Arab Emirates, at the 56th ­Venice Biennale.

Tell us how it felt to become the first artist to have a solo exhibition in the UAE.

My spirits were high back then. One of my goals was to have a solo exhibition and it came alive thanks to Saeed Amara, the founder of Sharjah Radio, whose idea it was to have an exhibition in the radio building. I was also extremely overwhelmed that Sheikh Dr Sultan Al Qasimi, the ruler of Sharjah, was one of the attendees.

You started painting when you were 10 years old. What sort of help did you get then?

My mother was my number-one supporter. She gave me a room in our house that I converted into a studio. Also, whenever I needed, she would give me 10 riyals [the UAE currency before the dirham was introduced] and I would go to Al Najma Bookshop to buy basic materials such as coloured pencils and wooden drawing boards.

You are a founding member of the Emirates Fine Arts Society. How did it begin?

My friends and I always dreamt of having a place where we could paint, draw and develop our skills. Dr Mohamed Yousif, my childhood friend, worked really hard on this. I was at the military school back then and gave him a drawing of a beggar [one of the pieces showcased at the Venice Biennale]. He took that drawing and literally started begging for support. He received chairs, tables, money and, our biggest dream, the house. That house was a huge gesture from Sheikh Dr Sultan Al Qasimi, who has always been a supporter of talent. This house later became the Emirates Fine Arts Society.

The rich heritage of the UAE is seen in most of your artworks. Can you tell us more about this passion of yours?

Painting scenes from our heritage takes me back in time and reminds me of the days gone by. I have fond memories of my childhood, which was surrounded by forts, castles, the sea and the landscape. I like to bring life to these special memories through my drawings and paintings.

Do you still paint on a regular basis?

I have a studio built as an extension to my house in Sharjah. It is a very relaxing space and I spend a lot of time there. The last painting I did was after a visit to Holland last year. With the help of the UAE Embassy, we hosted an Emirati cultural day in the city of Vaals, where I exhibited some of my works.

How do you feel to be representing the UAE at the 56th Venice Biennale?

I am delighted to have been a part of this event. The pavilion itself is more than 100 years old, and by now you know that I have a particular fondness for old buildings. It was also really special to represent my country at an international event such as this. I think Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi chose a variety of artists, and it is important to highlight older artworks to reflect the fact that we have had artists in the UAE for a long time.

1980 – Today: Exhibitions in the United Arab Emirates, runs until November 22 at the UAE’s ­National Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale