A Different Journey to the East
The Art of the Five from the United Arab Emirates

Sept 6th, 2002- Nov 17th, 2002
Ludwig Forum for International Arts

Annette Lagler
A Different Journey to the East The Art of the Five from the United Arab Emirates

The Ludwig Forum of International Art in Aachen has gained a reputation for its exhibitions showing the repertoires of cultural spaces from all over the world and serving as a "window to the world" with outstanding artistic feats - mainly from East Europe, Latin America, Asia and Africa. So far, there have only been a few projects dealing with Islamic countries, such as the presentation of selected works from the Ludwig Collection in Teheran in 1978 or the lectures on art history by Prof. Dr. Becker, director a.d. of the Ludwig Forum, in Teheran, Bagdad and Amman. The collection of the Ludwig Forum only contains a few works from Islamic countries, e.g. by Fahr El Nissa Zaid, Parviz Tanavoli and Mona Hatoum.

When Jos Clevers, director of the Kunstcentrum Sittard, told us about an amazing group of artists from the United Arab Emirates, we were curious to learn more about them. The works of these so-called "Five from the UAE" seemed to contradict the usual clichés of Arab art. Their unconventional positions provoked the question of what the significance of contemporary art in today's Arab societies is and lead to a more differentiated view of Arabia's cultural landscape.

>From that time on, we watched the UAE contributions to major exhibitions with great interest. For example, three of the "five" artists were represented in the 7th Biennial of Havanna in 2000 where they drew attention by the unexpected boldness of their works. In 2000 the Ludwig Forum received an official invitation from the Ministery of Culture and Information to Abu Dhabi, and a short time later H.H. Sheik Dr Sultan bin Mohamed Al Qassimi of Sharjah invited the Ludwig Forum to participate in the Sharjah International Arts Biennial of 2001. The visit of the Sharjah Biennial, where the Ludwig Forum showed works by Tony Cragg and Leiko Ikermura, for the first time offered the opportunity to meet the five artists Hassan Sharif, Hussain Sharif, Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim, Mohamed Kazem and Abdulla Al Saadi. On that occasion, the the first ideas of making a joint exhibition were discussed.

The short history of an individual contemporary art scene in the Emirates is directly connected with the fundamental social and economical changes that occured in the Gulf region during the past 40 years. The most influential fact is certainly the discovery of oil and gas in the 1960s. In a very short time, the desert region of the Emirates became one of the wealthiest areas and the Bedouin state changed into a modern high-tech society. Suburbian skylines more and more replaced the image of dispersed mud huts. The new life standard was oriented towards that of modern consumer societies and highly instrustrialized countries. Consequently, own traditions soon fell into oblivion. At the same time, the percentage of native inhabitants decreased due to the growing number of workers from India, Pakistan, South and East Asia that were hired as a consequence of the oil boom. The immigrants brought their own cultures that amalgamated with the local ones. At a time where globalization and its consequences are heavily discussed it became increasingly and often painfully obvious that the UAE is certainly one of the wealthiest countries but one that still needs to define its own history and and identity.

In the early 1990s some of the remaining historical parts of the cities were restored, the oldest buildings are 200 years old , the most ancient written documents are 150 years old, consisting of historical treaties and contracts with England. Today they are being kept in the centre of documentation in Abu Dhabi that is trying to reconstruct the history of the gulf region by meticulous research work in the archives of Great Britain and Portugal, but also in Italy, the Netherlands, Germany and USA.

In the reconstruction of a lost folklore of the Emirates, its customs and philosophy, contemporary art as understood by the Five from the Emirates plays an important role. In the mid 1980s Hassan Sharif gathered a small group of artists to contribute to an art development that closes the gap between the time of the Bedouins that some of them still know from their own experience and a modern society living in luxury. Art has become a medium to deal with their personal memories, thereby discovering an unknown past that should find its expression in the modern sign language of art. Even the most unspectacular testimonies of the personally experienced or handed-down past were conveyed by means of presentation forms stemming from the modern international art development. The works by the "Five" are thus characterized by the research of their own roots and the longing for a simple grass-root life as well as an intensive analysis of our modern age. As "native" inhabitants they had the opportunity to spend some time abroad to deepen their art studies : Hassan Sharif studied in Jordan and London, Hussain Sharif in Kuwait, Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim in Pakistan, Mohamed Kazem followed workshops in Scotland and Beirut and Abdulla Al Saadi went to Japan and Scotland.

The enthusiasm for "elective affinities" with protagonists of the modern age is unmistakable. Especially Marcel Duchamp's "invention" of the Ready-Made that promoted objects from everyday life to icons seemed to correspond to the artistic research of the Five. They rediscovered in the work of Piero Manzoni their very own purpose to concentrate on the essentials and to reduce the formal language to a minimum; and they felt confirmed by Beuys to whom elements of his personal biography were decisive. Anything that could have a reference to Arab culture was carefully checked and studied - without ever losing the focus on their own purpose to create an artistic archive that serves as an inspirational source - a creative way to collect traces, relics and memories of an almost lost culture. Hassan Sharif draws the attention to repetitive manual activities like knotting ropes, wrapping, folding, bundling and piling. Hussain Sharif is looking for the balance on a tightrope walk between drawing and object, artwork and profane object; Mohamed Ahmid Ibrahim's works appear to be archaical objects from papier-mâché, Mohamed Kazem presents in his photos the congruency of discovery and physical movement, and Abdualla Al Saadi examines the sign language of his mother.

The artists amalgamate the artistic recollection of cultural roots, elements of their personal biographies and artistic means of expression that meet contemporary international standards. They establish a link between the present and the past and thus create a space that enables the "unification of all times" as described by Hermann Hesse in "Journey to the East" - but without ever following any of Hesse's tendencies towards an idyllical transfiguration of the Orient.

Yousif Aydabi
The Nomadic Artists of the UAE bring their mythical expressions to the Rhine

With the onset of the twentieth century, the trucial states entered into a new era of stability both in the town and the countryside… the city and the suburb… in the coast and in the oasis… people enjoyed a better quality of life; better economically, politically and culturally than before, and it ushered them into the modern age. Soon, education in its contemporary sense started in Sharjah in the year 1903, after being confined until then to traditional teachings: the Quran (The Holy Book), the Sunnah Al-Nabawiia (the teachings of the prophet Mohammad PBUH) and some linguistic and mathematical studies. Education was initially restricted to males until 1938, when the first female stepped into the classroom and seized the age's power tool of choice… Soon it spread across the sheikdoms to Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Ras Al-Khaima, and then Ajman but only to enter into a depression in the late twenties-early thirties because of economic reasons and a lack of organization. Its latest renovation came in the fifties with the aid of the Kuwaiti government and schools for boys and girls became commonplace throughout the sheikdoms.

The quantum leap in education, however, only took place after the formation of the United Arab Emirates in 1971. The Geography of the UAE, its mountainous-terrain and desert-environment, all helped in making possible the economic, political and military, as well as the cultural aspects of life. Merchant Ships and desert convoys crossed paths at the cities of UAE, particularly Sharjah, Dubai and Khor-Fakkan… The maritime trade brought what the West and East had to offer, while the desert paths supplied the products of the peninsula and the Fertile Crescent. Both, in turn, made possible the cultural contact and communication with the pioneers of the educational renaissance in Egypt, Mesopotamia, Persia and Hijaz in the twenties and thirties, leading to the birth of a new generation that would blaze that trail in the UAE. Judges, teachers, poets and merchants all pushed forth the procession of education with the sheiks and in their event and news-rich assemblies. Arabian journalism was able to find fertile grounds in such a scene and with the participation of all those took its first baby steps in Sharjah in the 1920s. The ambience of the twenties and thirties was thus orientated to allow for the enhancement of intellectualism and the progress of culture as a whole and was complemented by the pearl trade that reached India and the near East and as far as France and England in Europe. The Sharjah Airport that was operational in the thirties also lend a hand to the cultural assimilation with Europe, the radio marshaled the public, journalism aided the blossoming of creativity, the readily available means of transportation were able to break the isolation trucial states had long locked themselves in; the means of communication were able to build bridges and break barriers, physical and metaphysical…

Education modernized the local culture that was based on the oratory assemblies of Nabati poetry, Folklore and material traditions… The arts were applied and decorative, traditional folk crafts, a musical heritage, and architecture that used plaster, palm leaves, imported wood and mountain rocks, and implemented the Arabic Islamic, Farsi, Indian and Yemeni traditions that converged in the region, from the Persian Badjeer (wind-tower) to the Yemeni domes, and from the structural style of bazaars to Islamic architecture with its arches and empty spaces, which also conserved the local architectural heritage.

We could not find a single singular artist whom we can explore! What has been found, the artifacts and heritage, functioned solely to preserve the values of old and the ideology of the group… it left no space for individualism except in the narrow sense of academics and only as the decree presumed by what went into the labor of crafts and architecture. But with the advent of modern education, from the fifties up until the eighties, appeared an artistic movement labeled by the names of numerous innovators in painting, ceramics, sculpture, engraving, even photography, cinema, theatre and architecture, to initiate the revolution from the realistic traditional art to postmodernism.

As the production of art since the dawn of the century, the last century rather, and till the fifties, had depended on the historical position of the local culture that allowed art, in its decorative and applied manifestations, into the crafts, local industries, and traditional architecture for it to supply an identity to the society, so too the society endorsed, sustained and fortified the traditional and popular arts and integrated them into its financial system, just as it incorporated the oral traditions into the assemblies of tribal leaders and politicians setting off the progress of verse in its colloquial and pure vernaculars. Modern Education took art into a more open scope, an Arabian international latitude that expanded its established local cultural range to national-international grounds, creating a new saga of imitation, creativity and inspiration. New artistic characters emerged, and a new multiplicity and variety came to being, until we reached the dominion of different schools of art that elevated it to what Europe had for long known… this brought back the issues of heritage, modernity and identity, issues that were negotiated within the overall constitution of society and, historically, through religion. The issues of identity, heritage and modernity appeared and brought with them controversy amongst the artists, leading them to a point of escape from their own society, a transmigration from their own to an adoption of the other, the alien, the western… issues of modernism, postmodernism, globalization and internationalism sprouted from the almost ripe tuber of UAE art…

Similarly the state of the audience underwent an evolution from a single traditional perspective to more variegated sets, the hybrid (cosmopolitan) audience… The standards inscribed to art were prescribed by its market, they were applied, decorative, ornamental, architectural and craft-influenced… mass arts… and here they are transforming into individual art; art has moved from its local and regional confines into the international scene. It has change the audience from the type that was protective of art to the type that is capable of producing it, from photocopying machines to flesh and blood creators…. The problem of identity floated to the surface when the audience inquired about the metaphysical essence, the meaning, more than examining the physical body, the form of the artwork. The attitude changed again to the local trend versus the international influence… the issue of globalization quickly surfaces in oil-producing cosmopolitan societies, the likes of those in the Arabian Gulf.

The current arts in the UAE look forward towards being the expressions of (Nomadic Artists) searching for a development of arts that transcend nationalism and geography. A team of UAE artists has emerged- in their forefront is Hassan Sharif, who provoked artists the likes of Hussein Sharif, Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim, Mohamed Kazim, Abdullah Al-Sa'adi… as well as a group of poets- lead by Ahmed Rashid Thani, Khalid Badr Obeid, Nujoum Al-Ghanim, Adil Khuzam, Ibrahim Al-Mulla… and many others in the fields of cinema, theatre, narrative and novel, who emerged with the purpose of redefining the arts of the information age in the UAE; to go beyond tradition and heritage and forge art that respects the third-world individual, art that a first-world individual could also have a taste for; art that globally befits and benefits the allegorically ever-shrinking globe. Such an art could jump with the cosmopolitan society into universality, it could stay away from politics and government, away from the narrow-minded utilitarianism and the MNCs… away from globalization and capitalism… it could aim at having its expression in the present, to be present, ready, open to the people and coming from them, affecting them and effected by them- flowing from the local cultural atmosphere to momentarily free the international human being from the chains of capitalistic globalism. Such was their vision, the likeness of the (Nomadic Artists) to the (Inhabitants of Myth)… in its international sense, myth spreads from its local symbolism (and its more immediate pedagogical function) to a universal statement of individuality.

Hassan Sharif and his Robin-Hood-esque bandits metamorphosize into a universal link with unifying common artistic values, although very different and individual in artistic inclinations. They bring an art that aims at universal human unison, creating a world-wide-web of art that is present and impacting on this new age, partaking in what parallels a globalization for the poor, a globalization of cultural multiplicity, one that revives that ancient dialogue between cultures, yet does not compromise the internal integrity and individuality of arts- Local issues with various universal modes of expression: various trends, numerous multiplicities; a larger space of freedom and democracy for the arts and a movement from the periphery to various places… to variety. In the words of Archibald MacLeish: a poem should not mean/but be…

That is the way Hassan Sharif and his group understood, in the context of modern UAE art, the issue of the visual dimension of the picture (compared to the understanding of dramatists to the phonetic dimension of language). It is not the task of the artist to unfold an explanation of the artwork, it is by nature absolutely inexplicable … Reading the work becomes a personal affair, between the perceiver and the artwork, in their solitude, in their imaginary seclusion and isolation, a space invented by us that is full of our cultural imprints and that allows us to understand, only us… Hence the reading of the UAE is different than the reading of Germany, and both are but a glimpse of the never-ending story that is art: a universal partnership of vision, from the I to the us of all of us and representing a new internationalism that declines an economic globalization of art (which could bring a chauvinistic dimension).

Hassan Sharif and his group come to the German audience from a modern nomadism in the UAE, bringing with them universal myths dripping with the sand and salt of their homeland… they offer their artwork as hecatombs for a universal partnership of Arts with the desire for heralding today's rendition of the muses' new ode to earth's unfortunate children: Can their art mix, as Dionysus did to make sweet wine, with the waters of the Rhine in this new millennium?!

*Art historian, Critic, Poet, Dramatist, Journalist, Academic and Art Editor; working as a cultural planner in the government of Sharjah in the UAE.

Hassan Sharif, Annette Lagler
About the history of cultural support programmes in the UAE

One of the most important periods in the history of art education in the UAE are the early 1950s. During that time the first public schools were founded to guarantee a unified education. Arts and crafts as well as calligraphy were part of the education. Before that time it were mainly religious schools such as the "Katabeeb" and "Motwa" that tought the Koran and arithmetics.

After the proclamation of the UAE on December 2nd 1971, a master plan was started that included the development of fine arts in the UAE. In 1972 the first public art exhibition took place in the central library of Dubai. During the 1970s, an institutional network for an art life was established: Under the patronage of government institutions many national art exhibitions were organized and supported, all of which were generally applauded by newspapers and magazines.

In the mid 1970s, the ministery of education developed an international support and exchange programme that offered artists from the opportunity to study in a foreign country, e.g. in Kuwait, Egypt, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iraq, but also in the United Kingdom, the USA and Japan. Only a short time later, the first meetings were held to prepare the foundation of an independent artists society which, in 1980, lead to the foundation of the Emirates Fine Art Society (EFAS) with its central in Sharjah. Among the founding members were Hussain Sharif and Hassan Sharif who gave crucial impulses to the art development in the Emirates.

The EFAS is a member of the Arab Art Association and the International Art Association in Paris. Together with the ministery of culture and information it supported and organized numerous local and international exhibitions of UAE artists. Moreover, the EFAS established a support programme with workshops, seminars and lectures as well as n informational network of publications and magazines on fine arts. With the foundation of the EFAS in Sharjah, the first youth atelier was established to make contemporary art more popular among younger people, especially since art had not been part of the school curricula at that time.

Following the example of the EFAS in Sharjah, branches were founded in the other emirates: In 1981 the art workshop in Ra Al Khauma was founded, in 1993 the art workshop in Korfakkan and in 1997 the art center in Korfakkan. In 1982, the artist workshop Al Ain in Abu Dhabi was affiliated to the University, another one followed in 1986. Further iniatives such as the Youth Theater and Arts that extended its activities to the field of performing arts were founded in 1987 in Dubai.

For the support and development of fine arts in the UAE, Sharjah remained of special importance: In the beginning 1990s a historical building complex stemming from the 18th century (Al Shuwaihiyeen) and located in the centre of Sharjah was being restored under the patronage of HH Dr Sheik Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qassimi, Member of the Supreme Council and Ruler of Sharjah. In 1995 this place became the home of the Sharjah Museum under direction of the Ministery of Culture and Information. It houses a part of the collection of HH Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qassimi and organizes numerous exhibitions. In 1997 the museum was enlarged by an extension. Further exhibition space for contemporary art in the same area is provided by the EFAS, the "Sharjah Art Centre" (Bait al Serkal), the "Sharjah Art Galleries" (Obaid Al Shamsi), a building complex for workshops, lectures and seminars that offers space to work and exibit for eleven artists, and the "House of Abdullah Al Sari", an institute offering art education for handicapped children.

Its numerous art institutions made Sharjah the cultural centre of the Emirates. In 2000, the "Sharjah Art Centre for Arabic Calligraphy and Ornament" was opened and in 2001, also in Sharjah, the "Arabic Art Centre" was founded. Encouraged by the wealth of activitaties in the local art scene, the government of Sharjah fulfilled its promise and founded the Sharjah College of Fine Arts in 2001.

With the increasing number of exhibitions in the Emirates the international interest in contemporary art from the United Arab Emirates became stronger. Artists from the UAE were invited to renowned international exhibitions such as the Dhaka Biennial in Bangladesh, the Cairo International Biennial and the Havanna Biennial. Today, artists from the Emirates are not only regular contributions in major exhibitions in India, Egypt and Cuba but are also sold in auctions at Christie's in London that seismographically evaluate the resonance of exhibitions organized by e.g. the Shoman Foundation in Amman/Jordan or the Institut du Monde Arab in Paris.


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