Sharjah retrospective sheds new light on Hassan Sharif legacy

Sunday 19/11/2017
Avant-garde vision. Late Emirati artist Hassan Sharif. (Sharjah Art Foundation)

Sharjah - A landmark retrospective titled “Hassan Sharif: I Am the Single Work Art­ist” at the Sharjah Art Foundation (SAF) cel­ebrates the life and work of the late Emirati artist, a pioneer who liber­ated a nascent art practice in the United Arab Emirates of the early 1970s.

Curated by SAF President Sheikha Hoor al-Qasimi, the exhibition in­cludes approximately 300 works spanning the foundation’s spaces in the Al Mareija Square area and Bait Al Serkal in the Arts Square.

“The show has been in the mak­ing for a number of years with the active involvement of Hassan Sharif himself,” Sheikha Hoor said, “but with the untimely passing away of the artist last year, the exhibition became an occasion to pay homage by those who were intimately con­nected with Sharif and cherished his work, as well as for art and de­sign students and the general pub­lic to immerse themselves in the process of creativity that Sharif did with such zeal and abandon.”

The exhibition traces nearly five decades of the artist’s multimedia practice, which included painting, sculpture, assemblage, drawing, installation, performances and pho­tography. Some of the works have never been exhibited. Some have been recreated by SAF exactly as Sharif conceived with detailed writ­ten instructions and drawings.

The entire contents of Sharif’s studio, donated by the artist’s es­tate, adds another dimension to the show. The studio, including his desk with its markings and jottings, has been recreated in a gallery called “Hassan’s Atelier” exactly the way he had left it along with the last pieces he was working on and the jumble of raw material that he used.

Sheikha Hoor took the “I Am the Single Work Artist” title from Sha­rif’s writings referring to “his con­ceptual exploration of duration and repetition.”

The works are organised into nar­rative chapters, each with its own space. The chapters’ titles were also inspired by Sharif’s own words, col­lected from recorded conversations. The show is arranged as a visual nar­rative that unfolds Sharif’s journey, in six other chapters: “…so I created a semi system,” “My little tiny box,” “I’m loyal to colour,” “Performance is good,” “I’m an object maker” and “Things in my room.”

Born in 1951, Sharif lived and worked mostly in Dubai until his death. He graduated from the Byam Shaw School of Art, London (1984). During his school vacations as well as his return to Dubai and early for­ays into contemporary art practice through installations and perfor­mances, he set the trend and played a major role in steering regional art discourse from calligraphic abstrac­tion.

Sharif also played the role of art­ist, critic, writer and translator, bringing international art trends to the attention of the local commu­nity.

Much of Sharif’s own explora­tion of contemporary art unfolded in Sharjah, which adds another ele­ment of poignancy to this show. In 1980, he cofounded the Emirates Fine Art Society and in 1984 set up the Al Mareija Art Atelier.

A notable group show initiated by Sharif was the exhibition at Shar­jah’s Central Souq in 1985 when a bemused group of people gathered around UAE’s first conceptual art in­stallations. This has been recreated with photographs from the event along with Sharif’s installation us­ing two chequered boards and eight plastic water bottles.

Also on show are Sharif’s early newspaper cartoons illustrating his sharp commentary on contempo­rary Arab society at a time of great economic transition as well as on re­gional and global politics and issues. He abandoned cartooning in the 1970s but this aspect never left his practice, as demonstrated by a play­ful irreverence in whatever he did.

Embracing the concepts of British Constructivism and radical avant-garde movements, Sharif responded to rapid social and economic chang­es in the UAE through his “weav­ing” series of assemblages and “urban archaeology objects” out of mass-produced consumer items. He foregrounds everyday objects that we take for granted and transforms them into lively artwork.

Sharif in the 1980s was fascinat­ed in exploring geometric shapes and forms, creating playful proce­dures and rules of repetition that he termed “semi-systems.”

SAF is planning a comprehensive Arabic/English catalogue, including essays by Sheikha Hoor, Emirati art­ist Mohammed Kazem and Emirati poet Rashid al-Khalid.

The foundation plans to take the show to international venues.

“Hassan Sharif’s art practice was able to influence the nature of [lo­cal] art production, transforming it from a state of mimicry and simplic­ity to a new art form with variety and range,” Sheikha Hoor said.

The show will be on view through February 3.