Abu Dhabi: One of the UAE’s most prominent artists and a pioneer in developing conceptual art in the country has died at the age of 65 on Sunday in Dubai.
Hassan Sharif was born in 1951 at a time when arts did not have a real presence in the country. He was suffering from cancer.
Unfazed by the challenges that stood in his way and society’s reaction to a man who wanted to pursue a career in the arts, he followed his passion and studied arts until the end.
“He was working until the last minute. We were working on some big international projects. Although he was not at his full capacity he was still sketching and we continued the conversations until the end,” said Mohammad Kazem, a prominent Emirati artist who grew up with Sharif as his mentor and was with him hours before his death.
Sharif’s early work in the 1970s included caricatures, published in the UAE press, highlighting the rapid industrialisation of the emirates.
Sharif secured a scholarship in London’s The Byam Shaw School of Art in 1979 but returned to the UAE shortly after graduating in 1984 where he started to work continuously towards developing the contemporary art scene in the Gulf region.
He started with the basics, such as translating art materials to make them accessible for Emirati and Arab artists.
Sharif founded the Al Marijah Art Atelier in Sharjah, and was a founding member of the Emirates Fine Art Society and of the Art Atelier in the Youth Theatre and Arts, Dubai. In 2005, he was one of four artists to establish The Flying House, a Dubai art space dedicated to promoting contemporary Emirati artists that is primarily used as a museum nowadays.
Sharif dedicated his life to the arts and went on to have his work exhibited around the world but always continued to educate and inspire Emirati artists, from all backgrounds and styles.
Kazem, one of the most prolific artists to emerge from the region, first met Sharif when he was 14 years old in the 1980s and the two would go on to become close friends and colleagues. However, Kazem is adamant that he never stopped learning from Sharif and always sought his guidance.
“Over the last 30 years, I learnt a lot from him. He was the one that could really go through your mind and capture those elements in your mind,” said Kazem.
“He would guide you but let you have your own style. That was his talent,” added Kazem.
According to Kazem there weren’t many exhibitions in the UAE in the ’80s and ’90s but Sharif ensured that the artists, writers and poets had the opportunity to meet and exchange ideas.
“His death is a great loss to the country and the art world.”
Sharif’s talent as a teacher was echoed by a young Emirati artist who first met Sharif when she was studying for her bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts.
“What inspired me the most about Hassan Sharif was his energy as an artist, his personality. He wasn’t just an artist, he studied,” said Alia Zaal Lootah, a 27-year-old Emirati artist.
Lootah continued to keep in touch with Sharif and learn from him at every opportunity and was in the process of working with him on a project.
The one lesson that Lootah said she will cherish for life from the time she spent with Sharif is “to read, never stop reading”.
“Without artists like Hassan Sharif you would not see this generation of artists, you would maybe see the traditional artists and you would see the contemporary artists that were influenced by everything around them. That in between, “Hassan in between” Sharif, is our backbone,” added Lootah.
She added that although his passing away is a great loss, his life and work are a huge asset to the country and one that will forever be celebrated.
Contemporary artist Zeinab Al Hashemi, who had the opportunity to meet Sharif during a residency, echoed what Lootah said about Sharif’s energy as an artist and said that he paved the way for artists like her.
The UAE Writers Union also mourned the death of Hassan Sharif.
The Union expressed its heartfelt sorrow over the loss of one of the most important figures in Emirati culture and the UAE’s fine arts movement.
The Union said that Sharif’s work invoked questions about the meaning of life, and that his creative achievements won him fame that will resonate in the Arab and global arenas. It said that Sharif never paid much attention to his fame because he was always deeply engrossed in the details of his innovative work. The Union said that Sharif’s soul will live on through his work, and that his experience will span future generations to come.