Hassan Sharif (1951 – 2016) was arguably the best known Emirati artist. He lived and worked in Dubai, United Arab Emirates after studying in London at Byam Shaw School of Art (today part of Central Saint Martins) . His work is internationally respected and represented in major public collections, such as Sharjah Art Foundation in UAE, Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Qatar, Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris.
After a foundation year studying in Leamington Spa Sharif came under the influence of artist Tam Giles, head of the Abstract and Experimental Department. This led to an interest in British Constructionism and particularly Kenneth Martin’s notion of ‘chance and order’, which Sharif developed into his own ‘Semi-system’ way of working – based around arbitrary or over-elaborate systems that are then followed to create works, often on a grid, from ‘Body and Squares’ (1983) to meticulously recording sentences read in a newspaper at points along a journey to Sharjah, to long sequences of black lines showing transformations of a line within a square. “I think of these markings as more of an engagement than an arrangement The important thing is the process.”
Art as absurdist, the process-based activity also fed Sharif’s early performances enacted in London and on return trips to the UAE during summer holidays – jumping in the desert, tying the rope between rocks, and discussing art in the toilets of Byam Shaw School of Art with a member of the faculty. “For instance, I speak while my mouth is full of bread. I take a sip of water. I eat more bread, speak, drink some more water, and so on, recording all the sounds. All the while I’m talking about serious things like politics and art, but it’s an ironic delivery, imitating politicians and lecturers.”
Sharif graduated in 1984 and set about staging the first exhibitions of contemporary art in the Emirates. He founded Al Marijah Art Atelier in Sharjah in 1984, a meeting place for a generation of young artists in the country, and assembled several interventions around the city including ‘One Day Exhibition’ (1985) and an impromptu exhibition in the city’s central market. In this period, Sharif also penned numerous articles in the UAE’s nascent press about the history of art and translated into Arabic excerpts of 20th Century art manifestos and texts (notably about Post-Impressionism, Cubism, Abstract Expressionism, Orphism, Futurism, Dada and Surrealism, Constructivism, Fluxus, Arte Povera, Minimalism and Conceptual Art) so as to provoke a local engagement and show that his work is grounded in a discourse. “I didn’t only make art but I made my audience too. I had to contextualise what I was doing.”
The founder of the Sharjah Art Foundation, Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, who featured Sharif’s work in her curated exhibition for the UAE Pavilion in Venice last year, was devastated by the news. “Truly heartbroken today,” she wrote on social media. “May he rest in peace.” Sultan Sooud Al Qassimi, the founder of Barjeel Art Foundation and a keen collector of Sharif’s work also took to social media to pay his respects. “[He was] a giant of UAE and Middle Eastern art: Rest in peace,” he wrote.
During an interview last year in his Al Barhsa studio, he told me that most people ignored the art work. It was only children and eventually the police that enquired about what the duo was doing. It was a seminal moment in art history — Sharif had brought conceptual performance art to the country. “I didn’t only make art but I made my audience too,” he said. “I had to contextualise what I was doing.” At this time, Sharif also began what was to become a career-long obsession with infusing everyday objects into his art works as “illustrations of meaninglessness”.
In 2009, his works were shown in the UAE’s inaugural pavilion at the Venice Biennale and one of his installations which were made of used slippers and wire was shown at the Sydney Biennale that same year. Sharif was the first Emirati to show at Doha’s Mathaf Arab Museum of Modern Art in 2010 and the following year at Abu Dhabi’s Qasr Al Hosn festival, as part of a retrospective of his career curated by Kazem and Catherine David, the deputy director of the National Museum of Modern Art the Georges Pompidou Centre in Paris.
He was represented by Gallery Isabelle Van Den Eynde in Dubai as well as Alexander Gray in New York and had shown his work several times in Whitechapel Gallery in London.
Photo: : Sharif in his studio Photo by Maaziar Sadr/Sirclz Creative Commons