For many, the loss of Sharif – arguably the best-known Emirati artist globally – in September of this year at the age of 65 marked not just the passing of a giant, but the passing of a mentor and a personal inspiration. Though he only found international fame in the last 10 years of his life, his avant-garde, constructivist artistic practice pushed the envelope for decades, from his early political cartoons in the 1970s through to his galvanizing force amongst Emirati artists in the years to come, marking him as one of the key figures in the development of the UAE arts scene.
His love of performance and his absurdist approach harked back to his days at the Byam School of Art in London (now part of Central St Martins) in the early 1980s. Juggling a job with the ministry back home, his introduction to artists such as Tam Giles (whom he studied under), Kenneth Martin and the writings of Roselee Goldberg led to experimental performances inspired by Dadaism and Fluxus that moved between the streets of London and the deserts of the UAE. The act of driving out into the dunes with his artist brother Hussain and friends in the sweltering heat of a Gulf August to do performative acts perfectly captured the spirit of an artist obsessed with experimentation.
While Sharif was an innovator, he was neither a romantic nor a sentimentalist. “I never look back, when a problem comes up behind me, I jump my whole self to face it,” Sharif said in a 2015 interview with Ocula. “I don’t turn my head and look backwards. My whole body moves so that I am always facing the future, whatever it may hold.” Indeed, referring to himself as “more of a realist than a symbolist”, it was his concern with the effects of an exponentially evolving industrial UAE that led to his ‘weaving’ works, or rather, the often large-scale assemblages made of everyday materials that so came to define his oeuvre.
From coils of rope to flip flops, copper piping, cutlery, even shreds of cardboard, he would weave these pieces together to create large piles or hanging masses of material. These dense sculptural objects became a comment on a society flooded by a glut of cheap products, and the ever-growing socio-political changes that came hand in hand with ever-increasing consumerism. By buying these materials himself and then stripping them of their original function, Sharif himself fed back into the system with irony, and the process of making fed into his interest in repetitive gesture.
“Despite the fact that my works are based on a sequential, industrial mode of creativity,” he wrote in an essay entitled ‘Weaving’, “they also demolish the sequential autonomy of an industrial product. I inject my works with a realism that exposes this socio-political economic monster, allowing people a chance to recognise the danger of over indulgence in this form of negative consumption.” In repurposing, restacking and then reassembling these items, he was gathering bits and pieces of contemporary history and weaving them together. This echoed his belief in what he often referred to as the ‘horizontal approach’, the belief that organic entities, such as forests and, in this case cities, grow upwards yes in a vertical fashion, but they also swell and expand outwards, on a horizontal plane. The notion of proliferation, of multiplication and of systems was also evident in the repeated gestures of his performances, and in his drawings (grid patterns, repeated symbols).
Beyond the studio, Sharif’s influence could be felt throughout the Emirates, as one of the founders of the Emirates Fine Arts Society, and for fostering entire new generations of artists, among them including Mohammed Kazem and Ebtisam Abdulaziz. His work was shown at the New Museum in New York, the Whitechapel Gallery in London, the Centre Pompidou in Paris and at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha, among others, as well as twice at the Venice Biennale. Yet perhaps truest to his memory is The Flying House, which he co-founded in 2007.
It is here, in this hidden treasure trove that Sharif’s “extraordinary visual world” can be found. I remember visiting in its early days in 2008, and marvelling at this labour of love of Sharif and his brother Abdulrahim. Home to works by Kazem, Mohammad Ahmad, and Hassan and Husain Sharif, this living, breathing archive has been a haven for Emirati art. Back in those early days, before Al-Quoz was hurtling towards reinventing itself as the next arts district, before the slick white cube galleries and heaving art nights, it evoked a sort of magical-reality sensation. It had a Gabriel Garcia Marquez-like glamour, tucked away in those slow residential streets behind the Emirates Macaroni factory. In its dusty yard stood a tree, bound by Sharif in bands of colourful cloth, bright against the dusty stand-coloured walls. Like Sharif, it was not slick, or fast-moving, or flashy. But it was quiet and contemplative and true.