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The Artists That Helped Shape the UAE Contemporary Art Scene

Installation view of works by Hassan Sharif and Jos Clevers_But We Cannot See Them (1)

Installation view of works by Hassan Sharif and Jos Clevers. Courtesy of NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery.

Highlighting a 20-year period, the NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery’s latest show examines the founding members of a tight knit, Emirati conceptual art community. Titled “But We Cannot See Them: Tracing a UAE Art Community, 1988-2008,” the exhibition focuses on a group of contemporary artists that played a pivotal role in shaping the social fabric, infrastructure, and the UAE art scene as it is today.

Curated by Maya Allison and exhibitions curator Bana Kattan, with research and program development curator Alaa Edris, six Emirati artists––Hassan Sharif, Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim, Abdullah Al Saadi, Mohammed Kazem, Hussain Sharif, and Ebtisam Abdulaziz––are given the spotlight alongside Dutch artist Jos Clevers and Indian artist Vivek Vilasini. Speaking to Vogue Arabia, Kattan shares: “The artists in this show were actually active long before 1988, but the exhibition focuses one when they came together and how their practice developed during those years.” Viewers are confronted with paintings, sculptures, and films that connect the members, who would often meet, critique, and discuss each other’s work during the two decades.

Hassan Sharif, Carboard and Coir (1)

Hassan Sharif, Cardboard and Coir, 1999, cardboard and coir, variable dimensions. Courtesy Estate of Hassan Sharif and Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde.

At the epicenter of the show is a book that features recollections of stories and memories from the artists. “We want it to be a resource for art historians and coming generations,” says Edris. “A lot of the history lives through oral stories. Sometimes two different artists would tell the same story, but each person’s description would fill in details to the narrative.”

Indeed, one of the accounts reveals that Hassan Sharif would open his home––which was also his studio––to his circle of artist friends, serving as a meeting point. “The primary nourishment was coming from within these gatherings,” says Edris. “Discussions about their work, literary readings, and topics that went beyond art were exchanged at these meetings.”

Among the artists there is Ebtisam Abdulaziz who joined the group in 2000. A mathematician by education, Abdulaziz was always inclined towards the arts. As soon as she graduated, she decided to take classes at the Emirates Fine Arts Society in Sharjah. There, she met Mohammed Kazem, who was one of her instructors. Interesting enough, Mohammed Kazem was taught at the hands of Hassan Sharif. The inclusion of Ebtisam highlights how these figures were committed to their practice by giving back. Eventually, Ebtisam took over and taught there, too.

Ebtisam-Untitled-2008-1 (2)

Ebtisam Abdulaziz, Untitled 1, 2008. Photo on aluminum. Courtesy of NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery.

Another woman worth noting is filmmaker, poet, and performing artist, Nujoom Alghanem. She was part of the core group that formed before the period that the exhibition highlights. “We included her because she is a precursor and a key member that built the foundation of the community,” says Kattan. “Our exhibition title comes from one of her poems.”

The exhibition is divided into eight sections dedicated to each artist. Right off the bat, viewers will realize the connection. Perusing through Hassan Sharif’s work, you’ll come across a painting of a sculpture. Said sculpture was dreamed up by Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim, which is also on show. Elsewhere, Ebtisam Abdulaziz’s untitled photographs on aluminum are on display from her first major show – a joint exhibition with Mohammed Kazem that took place at the Sharjah Art Museum. “That, again, is showing the internal support of the community,” says Kattan.

“But We Cannot See Them: Tracing a UAE Art Community, 1988-2008” runs until May 25, 2017 at the NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery, Abu Dhabi, UAE.

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