Artistic innovation might have come late to the United Arab Emirates, but when it came it revolutionised how artists conceived of new practices. This notion took shape in the UAE when Hassan Sharif, now known as the father of conceptual art in the Middle East, began making art from ready-mades, found materials, and detritus. Sharif’s inspiration began in the 1980s while studying at the Byam School of Art in London. He became particularly interested in the 1960s Fluxus and Dada movements, which emphasised blurring the distinction between art and life. On his return to the UAE, Sharif, with a core group of cohorts who came to be known as ‘the five’, spearheaded the birth of artistic experimentation in his country.
Two solo exhibitions in New York feature how Sharif and Mohammed Kazem, a member of ‘the five’, devised their own methodologies that transformed art from making objects of aesthetic contemplation to conceiving articles of conceptual orientation. At Alexander Gray Associates, Sharif’s exhibition Semi-Systems focuses on his use of the grid, geometry, and repetitive gestures in works from 1982 until his death in 2016. Here, Sharif’s random combinations of materials yield unexpected results. In Iron (2014), coils of wire are wrapped around the existing grid of a found metal frame, such that from afar it resembles a series of crisscrossing lines. For Sharif this process of ‘weaving’ became a kind of mark making in his work. Without using traditional tools associated with art, Sharif created abstract configurations that represented a completely new art making practice.
This unconventional idea of mark making appears in a far more subtle form in Mohammed Kazem’s exhibition at Aicon Gallery. Titled Ways of Marking, Kazem’s works on paper are marked by a series of lines or scratches made with a pair of scissors. Visible only on close inspection, the genesis of Kazem’s process can be traced back to his early exposure to music. For Kazem, the rhythmic sound of the execution of each mark corresponded to a personal musical score. Gradually, the scratches came to represent a series of intangible experiences. For example, Scratches on Paper (2010), recalls one’s perception of light. Numerous tiny ridges surround blank white triangular forms that resemble the sun’s rays. As the curator Murtaza Vali points out in a press release, when viewed in the ambient light, tiny shadows cast by the accumulation of innumerable punctures and dents around the triangles, heighten their shapes. What we see is an exquisite abstract illumination of a beam of light. For Kazem, as it was for Sharif, these conceptual representations drove his practice.
For both artists the grid became an important component of their work. Sharif’s compositions, such as Copper No. 35 (2016), made with the coiled copper wires utilised for the rapid development of Dubai where he lived, evoked his immediate surroundings and commingled art with life. Long reddish brown twirls of wire are hung next to each other to resemble an informal grid. Unlike the more formal use of the grid by the Russian constructivists and later by artists like Piet Mondrian, Sharif’s spontaneous grids, that also appear in his line drawings like Diagonal Line No. 19 (2008), and Lines (2012), were polemical forms of expression that completely broke from the realistic portrayals of the desert and Bedouin life prevalent in the UAE at the time. Yet there is something deeply alluring about these unstructured shiny metallic forms. When viewed together, the repurposed lengths of industrial copper coils lose their rugged quality in such a way that the twisted tactile wires begin to gleam with uncanny delicacy.
Kazem’s grids are also marvelous objects to behold. Although his method of creating grid-like patterns is far more meticulous than Sharif’s carefree permutations, Kazem’s Soundless series (2015), that combines hundreds of marks resembling sheets of rain with acrylic and pastel, exhibit a kind of ethereal beauty. Even in his recent Receiving Light series (2017), Kazem’s geometric shapes filled with networks of scores and notches, elicit a sensation of the warmth of light.
Never straying from their purpose to experiment, both artists paved the way with their bold and prolific art. What emerged often conjures the spare beauty of Minimalism and the work of color field Abstractionists. While Kazem’s drip paintings such as Soundless I, II, III (2015), derived from rolling sheets of paper in barrels of ink, bear an affinity to the works of Morris Louis, Sharif’s Wood installations (2016) suggest the stark simplicity of a Donald Judd installation. But, be that as it may, each artist’s work was deeply imbued by a central purpose to conceive art outside the existing conventions of the UAE. While Sharif was inspired by the way chance and randomness came together to create completely new objects, Kazam’s initial training in music determined the rhythmic quality of his scratches, a quality that pervades his work. Even if creating aesthetic objects was far from their purpose, a timeless sense of beauty remains central to the way we perceive and respond to their unique visions.
Mohammed Kazem, Receiving Light I, 2016. Scratches on inkjet print on Hahnemule paper, 16 x 24 inches. Courtesy the artist and Aicon Gallery, New York.
Hassan Sharif, Drawing Squares on the Floor Using a Cube, 1982. Photographs on paperboard in 8 parts. Mounted on board, overall dimensions: 38.58 x 28.94 inches (98 x 73.5cm). Courtesy Alexander Gray Associates, New York. © 2018 Estate of Hassan Sharif.