Hassan Sharif, the Emirati artist who best captured the UAE’s innovative, constantly changing spirit, died on September 18 at age of 65.
Sharif lived and worked in Dubai, experimenting and creating art in a variety of media, including drawing, painting, installation, assemblage and performance. A pioneer of Middle Eastern conceptual art, Sharif used ordinary materials – textile, cotton, metal, plastic – to create extraordinary artworks that spoke volumes about his native country’s dizzyingly rapid modernization and industrialization.
The UAE became an independent nation in 1971, and a mere two years later, Sharif started publishing his satirical caricatures in the country’s newly created press outlets. His caricatures first reflected the Middle East’s turbulent 1970s political climate, but by the time he moved to London in 1979 to pursue an art education, Sharif had decided to leave themes like Arab Nationalism and local techniques like calligraphy behind, preferring instead to focus on edgy new ideas.
In London, Sharif attended the Byam Shaw School of Art, which later became part of Central St. Martins. He returned to the UAE in 1984, and immediately started organizing the country’s first contemporary art exhibitions. In parallel, he created his own memorable constructivist drawings and staged various performance art pieces across the UAE: in the desert, in markets and in various urban areas. He also wrote a number of articles about art history for the local press.
The artworks Sharif started producing in the 1980s were conceptual pieces – his “Objects” – made from cheap materials or items sourced from the UAE’s markets. The artist referred to his artistic method as “weaving,” explaining in an essay written in 2006 that his now classic Objects reflected the “vulgar market mentality that flooded shops with consumer goods.”
A prolific artist who worked up until his death, Sharif participated in numerous group exhibits throughout his life, including “Here and Elsewhere” at Manhattan’s New Museum in 2014, and “Interventions” at the Mathaf Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha, Qatar, in 2010. He also exhibited his work in the UAE’s National Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, both in 2009 and 2015.
Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde, which represents Sharif, said in a statement: “He believed that art was not only a practice to be expanded and shared, but also a catalyst for community.” Certainly, with his bold, experimental touch, Sharif forever changed Middle Eastern art – and the way Arab art is perceived across the globe.