Artistic Unity: Art in the UAE: Hussein Sharif

This article appeared in The Artistic Unity Issue #67 that was dedicated to the art scene in the UAE in which we unravel the threads of unity by exploring the perspectives of various stakeholders within the UAE’s art community. Through insightful interviews with galleries, art institutions, and auction houses, a vivid mosaic emerged, depicting how unity has been woven into the fabric of the art scene.

What personal experiences or artistic influences drew you into the vibrant UAE artist community, and how have these connections contributed to your growth as an artist in the region?

The activity of the Ministry of Youth and Sports was the first spark in my artistic project. With them, I participated in displaying my first work in an exhibition for young artists in 1975, followed by another participation in the following year. We were a group of young artists at that time, including my brother, the late Hassan Sharif, Najat Makki, Abdul Qader Al Rais, Muhammad Yusuf and others. My brother had the greatest influence on experimentation and training. He was a cartoonist in a number of local newspapers for several years. I was influenced by this path, so I began drawing cartoons for several local publications at intermittent intervals. We also participated together in local and international exhibitions, learning about various experiences. His keenness and activity to participate and develop enhanced my reading and research in art.

In 1980, the idea came to create an entity that would bring us fine artists together, through which we could hold training workshops and mainly exhibitions. From here, the Emirates Fine Arts Society was born, of which we became members. Later in 1983, I graduated from high school, and founded a bulletin dealing with fine arts topics and publishing. Artistic culture in our society later became Al Tashkeel magazine, whose implementation and editing I supervised.

Reflecting on the evolution of the UAE’s art history since the 1990s, can you describe the ways in which your artistic journey has intersected with this transformation, and in what manner have you actively participated in shaping the evolving art landscape?

Hussain Sharif, 2020, pen on paper, 60 x 42 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Salwa Zeidan Gallery.

To answer this question, we must return to the founding of the state and the establishment of the union in 1971. Looking at history, it becomes clear that we are a modern state that, in the last quarter of the 20th century, entered the post-modern stage. We began to rapidly transform from a society based on simple businesses and crafts to a state. It is organised nationally, with tall buildings and service and entertainment facilities. The roads are paved and filled with various vehicles. Most of the citizens are government employees or businessmen. This was reflected in our imaginations, which were full of astonishment and enthusiasm. There is no doubt that I and most artists began to pay attention to heritage and documenting the scenes that had begun to disappear. The works were dominated by expression, and the subjects were nature and its components of architecture, fashion, and crafts. Then, in the 1990s, I and four artists, Hassan Sharif, Mohammad Kazem, Abdullah Al Saadi and Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim, formed a group of five. Our work was dominated by post-modernism. We approached the field of synthetic and conceptual art, which had flourished in the West since the 1970s, and the five of us were influenced by and admired that.

We in the Emirates kept pace with the global artistic movement. We had participations and exhibitions in cooperation with cultural institutions and centres in the country, such as the Cultural Foundation in Abu Dhabi, the Sharjah Art Museum, the British Council, and the French League.

 

Art often serves as a reflection of the cultural and societal shifts within a region. How does your artwork capture and convey the historical and cultural nuances of the UAE, and what specific themes or narratives are central to your artistic expression?

Since its inception, the state has been keen on programmes to empower and develop citizens in various fields, and scholarships to study were one of the most important methods of empowerment. I obtained a scholarship to study theatrical decoration design in Kuwait, which led to my training in a different artistic field, which clashes strongly with composition. From here, I added to my initial comprehensive skills and knowledge related to space and three dimensions. Theatre simply means the audience. The connection to pieces, complex materials and combinations with ambiguous relationships was strengthened within me. In addition to designing theatrical decoration, I began to insist on testing the reactions of certain societies, in works that interrogate pure matter, such as cement, metal, paper, rope, plastics and the like. In addition to the reduction of shapes and colours in the two-dimensional space represented by the paintings, the composition became more reduced and may have been limited to one colour and one rhythm represented by lines or brush strokes, otherwise known as colour abstraction.

Collaboration and engagement with fellow artists often foster creativity and community growth. Could you share instances where you’ve collaborated with other artists in the UAE, and how have these collaborative efforts contributed to the diversity and advancement of the local art scene? As I mentioned, since the first exhibition in 1975, I have been in one continuous group workshop: shared exhibitions, which are one of the most important and simplest ways of cooperation and cross-fertilisation of ideas, then working within a team in the Fine Arts Society, issuing Al Tashkeel magazine, passing through the Group of Five, our meetings, our dialogues, and our shared exhibitions.

Looking ahead to the future of the UAE’s art scene, what prospects or challenges do you find most exciting, and how do you envision your role in driving continued development and innovation within the UAE’s art landscape?

I believe in the principle of the cog in the machine. If it were not for the machine, the function of the cog would not have emerged, and without the cog the machine would not have worked. I am one element in the whole national artistic movement, and I occupy a good space in the founding stage. I am also one of those continuing in their artistic work. The art scene in the country is persistent, and it is one of the richest in the region. We have four colleges of art set across more than one city, and in every batch of graduates we are surprised by creative people who add a valuable contribution to the scene. The major artistic demonstrations in the country enhance the presence of the veteran artist alongside the young man. Equality in a unique combination that we all cherish.

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