Sharjah | Hassan Sharif’s landmark retrospective explores his incredible life and career

In July 1989, during one of the regular comment pieces that he used to write for many of the UAE’s national newspapers, Hassan Sharif coined the phrase that would come to summarise his practice almost 30 years later.

“I am the single work artist,” he wrote in Al Bayan, one of Dubai’s Arabic newspapers. It was a way of describing his practice as he saw it: a continuous flow of creativity, where all influences and outputs were of equal importance.

Now, more than a year after the Emirati artist’s death at the age of 65 following a short battle with lung cancer, these words have been given a new lease of life as the title of a landmark retrospective at Sharjah Art Foundation spanning Sharif’s entire career.

Presented across several different venues and with no specific focus on chronology, the exhibition begins with Sharif’s newspaper caricature and comic strip drawings from the early 1970s. Even then, as an aspiring artist, he had a sharp sense of wit and an uncanny ability to observe his rapidly changing society with a critical eye. The cartoons that he drew attacked most aspects of the community around him and ridiculed some of the grand ideas that were being bandied around at the time, such as building an island in the sea — something that would have seemed unachievable back then.

In the 1980s, Sharif moved to England to study at London’s Byam Shaw School of Art (today part of Central Saint Martins) and was heavily influenced by the work of Kenneth Martin, the late English painter and sculptor. Martin’s interest in rigid systems led to the beginnings of Sharif’s own semi-system series, which was more concerned with error than structure.

When he returned to Dubai in 1984, Sharif had radical ideas about how he wanted to produce, with his work at this time largely focused on performance. He measured his own steps during desert walks and placed rocks with strings tied around them in busy marketplaces to bring about disruption. Since nobody around him understood these processes as art, Sharif found himself having to work hard at both producing and winning over audiences.

One of the key components of his work was continuing this critical analysis. More recently, Sharif’s most recognisable pieces are the assemblages of everyday items bound together in piles — a comment on the voracious consumerism that he witnessed taking over his homeland. He was prolific, acting as a pioneer and, crucially, a mentor and guide for an entire generation of artists. This status as a bringer of knowledge continued until his final days.

“He was a teacher for his whole life and people are still learning from him today,” said Abdul Raheem Sharif, Hassan’s brother. “When he started, he fought for what he believed in and what he was doing and had to educate both the viewer and other artists, but that is still true today. This exhibition is vital for the young generation of today to understand Hassan’s impact on this country’s artistic history.”

Seeing Sharif’s oeuvre and life summarised in such a way will be emotional for UAE audiences, who used to call Sharif the grandfather of Emirati art. But sentimentality aside, it is essential to categorise and document all of Sharif’s work, to understand the extent to which he changed the face of art in his country forever.

Featured Image: Hassan Sharif, Cotton Rope, 2012, cotton rope and note book, 10 × 60 × 42 cm, courtesy of Hassan Sharif Estate.

A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, Letters from the past#43, pages 26-27.