Artistic Unity: Art in the UAE: Interview Hazem Harb

This article appeared in The Artistic Unity Issue #67 which 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.

Rima Nasser: 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?

Hazem Harb, 1# Temporary Monuments, 2017, collage of C-P archival photography of the Nakba 1948, on old wooden suitcase box, and refugee camp canvas tent, 50 x 70 x 28 cm.

Hazem Harb: During a challenging period when my mother fell ill, and I was navigating between Dubai and Italy, Gaza was experiencing its own tumult. The convergence of these personal and global upheavals immersed me in a heavy, surreal state of mind, which found expression in my artistic practice. As 2012 unfolded,

I found myself in a profound self-interrogation, both as an individual and as an artist. This internal exploration spurred extensive experimentation on my part. Crossing disciplinary boundaries, I delved into various mediums, seeking the one that would most effectively convey my concepts and introduce themes that persistently occupy my artistic focus: identity, memory, exile and the dynamics of power.

As an artist I was aware that I was in exile from Gaza. In 2013 I embarked on a significant chapter of my artistic journey by making Dubai my permanent residence – a city I now call my adopted home. In Dubai, I cultivated meaningful connections with fellow members of the Palestinian diaspora and engaged with the city’s diverse international creative community.

A pivotal moment unfolded through an encounter with curator and artist Rami Farook. This meeting led to a game-changing opportunity – a six-month residency at Farook’s warehouse gallery, Satellite Space, known for its innovative programming. Under Farook’s mentorship, I found the intellectual and creative freedom necessary to refine my artistic direction. It was during this immersive residency that I began incorporating raw materials into my compositions, marking the inception of the Beyond Memory series. In this collection of collages, I applied stark geometric shapes to archival images of Palestinian social scenes, separating the subjects from the stark reality of their daily lives.

In Beyond Memory, which I created in 2012, I introduced a theme that resonates deeply throughout my artistic practice – the concept of architecture as the tangible imprint of the values ingrained in the society that gave rise to it. I contend that architecture plays a pivotal role in shaping the identity of cities, influencing the inhabitants and contributing to the collective memory of a community. In my exploration, concrete emerged as my metaphor, symbolising both the tangible and intangible elements that have left an indelible mark on the community in Gaza. This overarching idea has become a recurring motif in my work, revisited at regular intervals across various bodies of art. It’s palpable in collections like Archaeology of Occupation in 2015, Reformulated Archaeology in 2018, and Bauhaus as Imperialism in 2019. Through these artistic expressions, I delve into the intricate relationship between architecture, societal values and the layers of history that shape the character of a place.

RN: 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?

HH: During my time in the UAE, I’ve been involved with various individuals and institutions that have come to shape my pathway and career. In 2015, I presented a solo exhibition at Salsali Private Museum, in Alserkal: The Invisible Landscape and Concrete Futures. This collection, comprised of collages merging remediated photographs from pre-1948 Palestine with concrete slabs, architectural models, installations and a short video projection, aimed to provide a comprehensive exploration of questions that had long occupied my artistic contemplations.

The exhibition served as a deliberate effort to materialise these lingering questions, offering insights into my artistic concerns. Central to my inquiry were questions like: When does architecture transition from being an oppressive apparatus? How do specific architectural styles transform a people into museum artefacts while others provide shelter? Can sculpture serve as a counterpoint to architecture, and if so, how can it achieve a non-monumental quality? The endeavour not only marked a significant moment in my artistic journey but also contributed to a deeper understanding of the intersections between architecture, identity and the transformative potential of sculpture.

Later, in 2017, I transitioned to representation by the Dubai-based Tabari Artspace Gallery, a platform founded by the Palestinian figure, Maliha Tabari. Beyond the shared national bond that unites Maliha and me, a compelling synergy defines our connection – we engage in a continuous dialogue. Our partnership is characterised by a mutual appreciation for conceptually-driven art and a shared desire to present diverse narratives. This collaborative spirit not only underscores the artistic vision we both uphold, but also fuels our commitment to foregrounding suppressed narratives and meaningful expressions within the art world.

My work has been acquired by several institutions in the UAE, including the Barjeel Art Foundation and Sharjah Art Foundation, in addition to private collectors.

RN: 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?

Hazem Harb, Survey for a Colonial Map 2#, 2021, UV Fine art print of acrylic sheets mounted on linen canvas on polywood, unique, 121 x 151 cm.

HH: Art, by its very essence, thrives on community, connection and collaboration – manifesting itself in diverse ways, organically through friendships and more formally through avenues like exhibitions. The spectrum of collaboration within this realm is broad and dynamic. Specifically, in the UAE as a member of the Palestinian diaspora, I consistently find myself connecting with artists who share a common background or experience. While not always manifesting as a direct artistic collaboration, these connections often evolve into a supportive community, fostering the exchange of shared stories, reflections on loss and the nuances of an exilic existence. Here, I have curated exhibitions including that of friend and fellow Palestinian artist Mohammed Joha, Fabric of Memory at Tabari Artspace in 2019. Such an opportunity allows art to be reflected upon and framed anew when cast through an artistic gaze rather than that of the gallery, for example.

My collaborative synergy with my gallerist, Maliha Tabari, is also a testament to the power of shared experiences and backgrounds as Palestinians. Our collaboration unfolds effortlessly, allowing for the exchange of ideas in a way that feels inherently natural and deeply understood, which allows my work to be presented in the best possible context, where meaning, communication and intent are prioritised beyond commercial aspects. Furthermore, I actively mentor several emerging artists from the region – talented individuals from the new generation eager to exchange experiences and ideas. Through these mentorship relationships, we collectively evolve and grow.

At present, I am engaged in a collaborative endeavour with Emirati curator Munira Al Sayegh for my upcoming exhibition, Gauze. This solo presentation delves into the multifaceted significance of the material ‘gauze’ within Palestinian collective histories, particularly in the context of the corporeal. Launching in January 2024, the exhibition invites viewers to explore the profound connections between materiality, the body, the broader context and my journey as a Gazan native living in exile.

RN: 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?

HH: As an artist and a human being, the journey of evolution is inherent and inexorably shaped by our surroundings. Consequently, I anticipate a continued evolution within the dynamically changing Emirates. It’s heartening to witness the dedication of galleries, institutions and leadership to the advancement of an organic and holistic art community. This commitment manifests itself through various means, including robust support for artists, the arrival of international museums and institutions, engaging public programming and the vibrant presence of art fairs and biennials.

While I don’t view it as my responsibility to single-handedly propel innovation in the regional art landscape, my commitment lies in an art practice that probes structures and systems of control in the Palestinian context. I aim to uncover lesser-known aspects of reality and delve into the nuances of Palestinian existence – themes that have consistently informed my work. I firmly believe that if artists in the UAE collectively remain devoted to producing work grounded in genuine interests and a commitment to authenticity, the local art landscape will naturally and positively continue to develop. It’s a shared responsibility, and by staying true to our artistic motivations, we contribute to the evolving cultural scene in a way that carries meaning.

About Hazem Harb

Hailing from Gaza, Palestinian artist Hazem Harb intricately weaves his identity into the vibrant fabric of the UAE’s art scene, contributing profound reflections on exile, memory and architecture.

Hazem Harb. Photo by Bernard Jouaret.



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