Following the creation of the United Arab Emirates in 1971, “a new culture of radical, formal, and conceptual experimentation, in both art and writing” began to emerge there (Exh. Cat., New York, NYUAD Art Gallery, But We Cannot See Them: Tracing a UAE Art Community 1988-2008, 2017, p. 2). The catalyst of conceptual art in the UAE began in 1980 with the return of Hassan Sharif from his studies at the Byam Shaw School of Art (present day Central Saint Martins, London); dubbing him the forefather of this movement within the visual arts realm. Community, dialogue and exchange fed the curious nature of the group, who in time became the cannons of conceptual art regionally.
Sharif’s home was where artists, writers and intellectuals of the 1980s took sanctuary; a place of teaching and making, which rapidly became the cornerstone for intellectual activity. Readings were exchanged, writings and art works proposed and created, and critical thinking embraced, and through this a community was made. Sharif produced work within his home and extended his space to all those around him. The space brought together the likes of artist Mohamed Kazem, poet Adel Khozam and Sharif’s brother Hussain Sharif, who was also an artist.
Parallel to this time, in the northern region of the UAE, on the coastal town of Khor Fakkan, there was a library run by the distinguished poet Ahmed Rashid Thani. Throughout the 1990s artists Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim and Abdullah Al Saadi used the library space as their studios. Soon after, the artists were introduced to those in the Satwa house and the group expanded into what is known as the “Group of Five.”
Through these gatherings of the avant-guard thinkers, in Sharif’s home, a network of tremendous importance was being built towards the future of Contemporary Art History in the UAE and the wider region.
The 1990s solidified the community of artists. During the two decades of the 1980s and the 1990s the artists created their own ecosystem through their support for one another, which then lead to direct influence on one another stylistically. “They were motivated by innovation, critique, and productive risk taking.” (Exh. Cat., New York, NYUAD Art Gallery, But We Cannot See Them: Tracing a UAE Art Community 1988-2008, 2017, p. 7).
With the end of the 1990s came the end of the Sand Palace, a makeshift space on a sand-dune between Ajman and Sharjah. This informal space proved to be of importance as it was a community which existed outside of the establishment. The gathering extended to creatives beyond visual artists, conversations and exchanges included writers and actors. Alongside these efforts and through the Sharjah Art Museum and the Emirates Fine Arts Society co-founded by Sharif, Al Marijah Art Atelier founded by Sharif in Sharjah and the Sharjah Biennale the artists were showing their experimental artworks for the first time in public spaces in the UAE. The exhibitions showcased works that caused heated debates, allowed for collaboration and further questioned the role of artists with such practices in the wider UAE society.
Hassan Sharif was a powerhouse of immense impact on the art scene. Before his higher education in the arts, Sharif produced a series of caricatures that were printed in the local newspaper Akhbar Dubai. His work was frank, and satirical criticizing the climate of the Middle East during the 1970s and the rapidly changing social and physical structures of the Emirates. Wanting to further his practice, and remove himself from regional political discourse of Arab Nationalism and the rise in calligraphic abstraction, he moved to the UK in 1979. During these formative years he studied under Tam Giles, the head of Abstract and Experimental Department, where Giles fed Sharif’s interest in British Constructionism leading him to Kenneth Martin’s ‘notion of chance and order.’ This body of work heavily inspired Sharif’s major series, ‘Semi-System.’ He studied European and American experimental art of the 1960s and 1970s both the minimal and conceptual movements happening at the time that impacted his intellectual base and inspired his early works which were later labeled as ‘Experiments’ and ‘Performances.’ The influences in his work, and the direction he took echoed the art trends of the 1960s, predominantly post-painterly abstraction, hard-edge painting, Op Art, minimalism, performance art, the Fluxus movement and Pop Art from the 1950s.
Sharif began producing his main body of work during his educational years. He began Experiments and Semi-System Drawings in 1981 and introduced the simple object and experimental processes that became a signature style in his work. In 1982 he started producing the prolific body of Performances, which focused on simplicity, absurdity, and the use of the body as an artistic medium.
In 1984, Sharif’s return to Dubai pushed towards the community we know today that galvanizes the art scene. “From the very start, he realized that he could not simply work on art in isolation; the circumstances demanded that he should cultivate an audience, make friends, and new intellectual connections, and create a platform for creation, discussion and teaching of art.” (Hassan Sharif, Hassan Sharif: Works 1973-2011, Ostfildern 2011, p. 48). Upon his repatriation, Sharif returned to the practice of painting between 1984-86. The subject of his work revolved around the idea of complex contemporary thought and the use of basic materials. The spirit of the paintings was full of exploration, and a pursuit for pleasure. Through these works he addressed sensitive topics in which he described as dialogue building art. Alongside the production of his earlier paintings was the creation of his first phase of sculptures created through found objects. These objects were illustrations of the banality found in the visual fabric and landscape surrounding Sharif. This series was the start of what we began to see in his sculptural work of his ‘Mature Period” between 1999-2010. During this time Sharif returned to painting again. Conceptually he was looking at mass production and consumer culture of the late 20th century and early 21st century. His sculptures moved away from the organic forms found in his natural landscape and were replaced with contemporary forms of material culture such as packaging, broken home appliances, and other things he deemed as useless. In conversation with these sculptures, he created paintings of these found objects, but as opposed to showcasing these objects in their original decaying and useless forms, he presented them in their best light as new and intact objects.
Towards 2008, the human figure began to emerge in Sharif’s paintings, Olympiad No 4 (Lot 6) is a perfect example of his figurative period. The human figure was depicted in a single form or as a group. These human forms were always depicted in a visual landscape that repeats a single set of mass produced objects such as balls, bats, airplanes, cars and teacups. The object depicted is tied symbolically back to the human subject being painted. The style of this body of work “reverts to a narrative way of expression and a cartoonish style of representation.” (Hassan Sharif, Hassan Sharif: Works 1973-2011, Ostfildern 2011, p. 64.)
Sharif continued to produce work within the mentioned mediums, and continued to pave the way for thinkers, writers, and artists for many generations to come after his passing. His role as a community builder set the tone, situated the base for which many practicing artists in the UAE now build on.
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