Four decades of UAE art
Sharjah - 1980-Today: Exhibitions in the United Arab Emirates offers a chance to glimpse highlights of four decades of art in the United Arab Emirates from the early days of the country’s formation.
Displaying 120 works by 15 Emirati artists, the show, on display at the Flying Saucer, in Sharjah, was internationally acclaimed when it was presented in Venice in 2015 by the National Pavilion UAE in La Biennale di Venezia 56th International Art Exhibition.
Curated by Sheikha Hoor al-Qasimi, daughter of Sharjah’s ruler, the exhibit embraces the pioneering work of the Emirates Fine Art Society (EFAS), a non-profit institution founded in 1980 that has been instrumental in training artists and nurturing talent.
It took Sheikha Hoor and her team a year of research before the works were compiled. The archives of EFAS and old issues of the EFAS’s publication, Al Tashkeel, were a veritable goldmine. Other sources included newspaper articles, artists’ writings, exhibition catalogues and interviews with artists and cultural practitioners.
“I conceived this show for the Venice Biennale with the UAE audience in mind. It is important to acknowledge the work of these pioneers who worked together as a group,” Sheikha Hoor, who is also the president of the Sharjah Art Foundation, said.
“The UAE is growing very fast, so it was important that we document the artworks that were produced under the pioneering efforts of the Emirates Fine Arts Society, which is still very active in promoting UAE art and artists.”
Giuseppe Moscatello, director of Maraya Art Centre in Sharjah, said: “It is an important show that tracks history. It is important for the future. For the first time, young Emirati artists can reference the past and look back at the art produced at a different period in time.”
Rather than following a chronology, the exhibition creates the sense of wandering through dense collections in conversation with one another. The selection of pieces focused on sharing fundamental stages of the artists’ careers as well as that of the UAE art scene collectively.
Najat Meky and Abdul Rahim Salim have worked primarily on paper or canvas since the 1990s. However, their earlier practice focused on sculpture and reliefs. Meky’s iron sculptures from 1982-84 and her relief on clay titled Palestine (1995) shed light on the variety of her styles, feminine concerns and strength of conviction.
“My works have been excavated, collected and exhibited. The show has played a great role in presenting UAE art,” said Meky, the pre-eminent woman artist in the UAE.
Mohamed Yousif has in recent years been working with found objects and elements from his natural surroundings, while his older work included traditional wooden sculptures. Motion and stillness feature prominently in his works.
Abdul Qader al-Rais is best known today for his landscapes and abstract paintings but a series of his early figurative paintings are shown. One of the earliest works at the show is his The Wait (1968), which predates the formation of the UAE. The other works from Rais are a Self-Portrait (1973) and Fear (1978). The landscape Sad Day Afternoon (1989) provides hints at the expressionistic and calligraphic paths that the artist would successfully embark on later.
Recalling his early days as a student in Kuwait and his journey into art, Rais said: “Society and the elders would tell you that ‘Art will not feed you.’ This was largely the case from the ‘60s to the ‘80s.”
Khor Fakkan-based Abdullah al- Saadi’s series of sculptures titled The Cavity Room (1991) is made from animal bones collected from his surroundings and casts a spell on viewers. It speaks of the meditative quality that Saadi brings to his work, which encompasses drawing, photography, artist’s diaries and found objects.
The pioneer of conceptual art Hassan Sharif has diverse works including live performance, drawing, photography, multimedia and synthetic works. Sharif’s works from 1985 incorporating zinc and boiled linseed oil on canvas are paired with Notebooks, a series he has been working on since the early 1980s.
The veterans’ journey into arts was an uphill course. But it was ideological and artistic impulses that drove them to stick to the difficult path of realising their individual visions and the collective vision of creating a plastic arts movement in the UAE.
“In the early days, when there was no public support or awareness about art, it was not a matter of luxury. The Emirates Fine Arts Society in Sharjah was our HQ and our own dream,” said Yousif.
“The fine arts movement in the country is doing fine. We need more interaction between the old and the young now. The Venice Biennale gave us good momentum. We will work together to take the ship to other journeys, other shores.”