• May 28, 2018
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‘Positive irony’ pursued over four decades

An exhibition in Sharjah celebrates Hassan Sharif’s lifelong role as an advocate and pioneer for the development of contemporary art and thought in the UAE

By N.P. Krishna KumarSpecial to Weekend Review
15:26 December 20, 2017
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The landmark retrospective Hassan Sharif: I Am The Single Work Artist paying homage to the pioneering Emirati artist at the Sharjah Art Foundation has been drawing widespread praise from the art community as well as from the art-loving public from across the UAE and from visitors.

The exhibition traces nearly five decades of the artist’s multimedia practice from 1973 to 2016, including painting, sculpture, assemblage, drawing, installation and photography. Some of the works have never been exhibited before.

Curated by Shaikha Hoor Al Qasimi, President and Director of Sharjah Art Foundation, the exhibition is organised thematically into narrative chapters, each with its own space. The exhibition title, according to Shaikha Hoor is a reflection of his “conceptual exploration of duration and repetition.”

The retrospective spans all of Sharjah Art Foundation’s spaces in the Al Mureijah Square area and Bait Al Serkal in Arts Square.

The chapters have been given titles inspired by Sharif’s own words: ‘…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’.

An additional space, with the chapter title ‘Hassan’s Atelier’, houses the contents of Sharif’s studio, recently donated to SAF by the artist’s estate.

The best way to view the exhibition would be to start at Gallery 1 housing Sharif’s studio which gives a clue to his methodology, materials and themes that he worked on and end the tour with ‘Things in my room’ at Bait Al Serkal.

Born in 1951, Sharif lived and worked in Dubai until his death last year [2016]. He graduated from the Byam Shaw School of Art, London, in 1984. During his college vacations as well as his return to Dubai and early forays into contemporary art practice through installations and performances, he set the template in steering away the Emirati and regional art discourse from calligraphic abstraction.

Sharif was an artist, critic, writer — translating historical texts and art manifestos into Arabic — bringing international art trends to the attention of the local community.

Much of Sharif’s own exploration of contemporary art unfolded in Sharjah, cofounding the Emirates Fine Art Society in 1980 and setting up the Al Mareija Art Atelier in 1984.

The retrospective is the culmination of the artist’s lifelong role as an advocate and pioneer for the development of contemporary art and thought in the UAE.

A notable group show initiated by Sharif, and still talked about in art circles, was the exhibition held at Sharjah’s Central Souq in 1985 where an unsuspecting public had their encounter with UAE’s first conceptual art installations. This has been recreated at the SAF retrospective with photos taken at that time along with Sharif’s installation using two chequered boards and eight plastic water bottles.

Hassan Sharif: I Am The Single Work Artist is organised thematically and follows the development of Sharif’s conceptual art practice from 1973 to 2016, highlighting his unprecedented influence through key series of works he revisited throughout his life. These works illustrate his enduring social and philosophical reflections on mathematical systems, time and the banality of the everyday.

Some of the earliest works presented in the exhibition are Sharif’s newspaper caricatures and comic strips of the 1970s, which predate his radical shift towards experimentation and conceptualism. The cartoons are very incisive in their observations of Arab and international affairs, as well as Emirati social and business life. They also reveal his prevailing interest in the rapid industrialisation and globalisation of the UAE.

Sharif did not persist with cartooning, but that aspect of his personality never left him and can be seen in all his art work.

The exhibition also features what are perhaps his best-known works — his ‘weaving’ series of assemblages and ‘urban archaeology objects’ — which were created from inexpensive and mass-produced consumer materials and, for Sharif, represented the transformation of industrial excess into art.

Sharif’s ‘semi-systems’ of the 1980s reveal the artist’s fascination with constructing intricate systems and methodologies. Often taking the form of drawings, these works illustrate playful procedures and rules of repetition developed by the artist, which are carried out on paper and result in geometric shapes and forms.

“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,” says Shaikha Hoor. “The Emirate of Sharjah has always been and will always remain the main host of Hassan’s art practice.”

At the Byam Shaw School of Art, UK, Sharif was influenced by British Constructivism which explored geometric structures, and the relationship of form, space and movement.

Sharif developed these concepts into his ‘semi-sytems’, performances and public art, and experiments characterised by physical and sensory participation.

The contemporary art movement in the UAE began as a group activity cutting across art, poetry and theatre and Sharif’s role was crucial in shaping many leading artists who are still active in the country, as well as supporting several generations of artists who were later to follow.

In 2007, he was one of the co-founders of The Flying House, a Dubai institution for promoting contemporary Emirati artists.

Through the repetitive process of creating his artworks using mass consumer products, he wanted to peel way the mysterious and exalted nature of creativity, and at the same time call attention to modern consumption patterns and overindulgence in consumerism.

Sharif had a clear vision of contemporary art and his absurdist, repetitive and seemingly boring practices were his own studied response to the functionality of a globalised market place. He called it ‘positive irony’, pursuing it relentlessly over the years across many mediums.

As part of the retrospective, SAF is also publishing a comprehensive bilingual (Arabic/English) catalogue, including essays by the artist, Shaikha Hoor Al Qasimi, Emirati artist Mohammad Kazem and Emirati poet Rashid Al Khalid.

N.P. Krishna Kumar is a writer based in Dubai.

Hassan Sharif: I Am The Single Work Artist will run at the Sharjah Art Foundation through February 3, 2018. The show will then will travel to partner venues internationally.