Sharjah retrospective sheds new light on Hassan Sharif legacy
Avant-garde vision. Late Emirati artist Hassan Sharif. (Sharjah Art Foundation)
2017/11/19 Issue: 132 Page: 22
The Arab Weekly
N.P. Krishna Kumar
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.