Hassan Sharif, Shaikha Al Mazrou, Taqwa Al Naqbi, Hussain Sharif, Alaa Edriss, Alia Lootah, Mohammed Ahmed Ibrahim, Maitha Abdalla, Amal Al Khaja, Abdullah Al Saadi, Fatima Albudoor, Hind Mezaina, Mohammed Kazem, Jumairy, Moza Almatrooshi
Is Old Gold?
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by Cristiana de Marchi
One of the first significant exhibition displaying the works of Emirati artists within a museum setting, if not the most significant one to date, was “5 UAE”, curated by Annette Lagler at the Ludwig Forum für Internationale Kunst (Ludwig Forum for International Art) in Aachen in 2002.
This exhibition, which actually coined the expression “5 UAE” to internationally refer to and indicate the avant-garde group composed by Hassan Sharif, Hussein Sharif, Mohammed Ahmed Ibrahim, Abdullah Al Saadi, and Mohammed Kazem, has been a landmark in defining the origin of a movement whose consequences have been enormous for the creation of an artistic platform in the United Arab Emirates.
There is a diffused misconception about the beginning of the contemporary artistic scene in the UAE, which de facto coincided with the conceptual and experimental direction marked by the influential intervention of Hassan Sharif. In fact, in 1980 Sharif co-founded the Emirates Fine Arts Society and in 1984-1985 actively operated within the Al Marjiah Art Atelier, a workshop also based in Sharjah, attended by artists, poets and intellectuals whose role will be essential to the creation and development of a precocious interest and conscience for cultural themes and movements of international resonance.
The formation of a local contemporary art scene and the solicitation for an awareness about subjects of cultural relevance has been one of the most significant goals pursued by Hassan Sharif and later by his protégé Mohammed Kazem, who took over the teaching mission in 1999.
Regardless of its significance, the history of the beginnings of the UAE contemporary art scene, with all its highly intellectual declinations, has not been properly told nor has been sufficiently echoed by the growing interest recently demonstrated by both the local and the international professionals visiting, exploring and often exploiting the artistic resources available in the Emirates.
The increasing attention dedicated to the still new phenomenon of the art from the UAE and by extension from the Gulf demands a retrospective look at the early days, those characterized by the efforts of a small group of strong-minded, motivated and passionately optimistic artists and intellectuals who have firmly believed in their own capacity and talent as well as in the potential of education as a tool for sustaining and nurturing the cultural development of their society.
As a matter of fact, the younger generations of Emirati art practitioners show a diffused detachment from the pioneering generations of their predecessors. The responsibilities for this disconnect are multiple and can be attributed to institutional policies privileging narratives that better comply with political agendas, as well as to a radical change in the educational models, where the academia has replaced the atelier-like experience and knowledge transmission that has characterized a generation of self-taught artists.
Spaces in between are by definition metaphors of a passage, a fracture, an interruption that needs to be explored if not necessarily filled.
Moving beyond a celebratory approach, that can more than often seal the disconnect and relegate a movement or phenomenon to the realm of the past, a genuinely open exploration of this gap is here activated by exposing 10 young Emirati artists to the task of investigating, on an informed basis, their relation to the teaching and experience of the “5 UAE”. If providing information has been perceived as a preliminary, indispensable condition from which a conversation could originate, conversations not necessarily lead to understanding, sharing, or iterated frequentations.
History (of art) is filled with episodes of continuity and breakings, where moving on from certain premises could look more consequential than cocooning in the comfortable continuity of the past. Societies, just like art movements, can reflect certain implicit needs, and even make them explicit by means of representation.
But is this past so comfortable? Or does it imply a questioning that is better removed than addressed?
The collaborative nature that characterized the context where a small group of artists did support and sustain each other’s practice besides actively contributing to the birth and development of a diffused social interest and attention for the contemporary art and cultural disciplines, is here re-actualized and reinterpreted in an ideal, although somehow impossible, “mentorship” and transmission of knowledge and experience between the first and the last – up to now – generation of professional, committed Emirati artists.
Yet, is a conversation between these two generations of UAE visual artists undeniably separated by a gap still possible? If no, why? And if yes, how?