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The artist Abdullatif Al Smoudi’s works make constant reference to Islamic tradition and his use of colour is truly distinctive. Courtesy Sharjah Art Museum
The artist Abdullatif Al Smoudi’s works make constant reference to Islamic tradition and his use of colour is truly distinctive. Courtesy Sharjah Art Museum

Looking back at the lasting impressions of late Syrian artist Abdullatif Al Smoudi

Abdullatif Al Smoudi is one of the most revered artists of his generation. The late Syrian played a vital role in paving the way for the future contemporary artists and he is being honoured with a large retrospective show in Sharjah Art Museum.

Abdullatif Al Smoudi was one of the first Arab artists to fuse traditional Islamic symbols with the modernity of abstraction.

Throughout his artistic career, the Syrian dedicated himself to beauty and depicted it in myriad forms and styles, which have all been collated in a full retrospective in the annual Lasting Impressions exhibition at Sharjah Art Museum.

Alya Al Mulla, the curator of the museum, explains: “Lasting Impressions is an homage to artists who have contributed significantly to the art scene in the UAE. We don’t necessarily choose Emiratis or even people who are based here; it just has to be someone who has left a lasting impression.”

Born in 1948 in Syria’s west- central city of Hama, Al Smoudi was a long-term resident of Sharjah and one of the earliest members of the Emirates Fine Art Society, providing art guidance to the Ministry of Interior before working with the Department of Culture and Information for the government of Sharjah for 25 years.

Described by his fellow artists and professionals as a leader and a master, Al Smoudi, who died in 2005, left a legacy that is now starting to take its rightful place in the artistic history of the region.

In an essay covering Al Smoudi’s artistic journey, the painter and poet Ismail Al Rifai, who is also considered one of the most important figures of his generation, describes the paintings of his friend and colleague as lyrical.

“His abstract paintings allow free rein to the viewer’s imagination,” he writes. “They bear a plurality of symbols and indications that can only be decoded by letting thoughts drift away.”

Good advice then for visitors to the Sharjah Art Museum this month as they allow themselves to be immersed in Al Smoudi’s world of spirituality and colour.

“His work is rich in history,” says Noura Al Mualla, the exhibition coordinator. “He used layers and patterns and he had a knowledge of ancient languages that shows itself repeatedly through his work.”

From the Arab folkloric characters of Khalila and Dimna to the fusing of Arabesque patterns within a seemingly abstract use of colours, Al Smoudi has a distinctive style.

Although the subjects of his work vary, each one is based on a grid system and many are framed within themselves, displaying Al Smoudi’s constant reference to Islamic traditions. The central theme of unity into multiplicity, found throughout all Islamic art, be it architectural forms such as archways and domes or mosaic inlays and traditional carpet weaves, are all present in Al Smoudi’s work.

This retrospective began with the four Al Smoudi works that were already present in the collection of the art museum and the team has spent the last year working with the late artist’s family, who still live in the UAE, to collect the rest.

Lasting Impressions therefore contains a series of watercolour still life paintings, which Al Smoudi completed at Damascus University in the early 1970s, and many of his collages from the latter part of his life and career that have never been shown to the public before.

One piece, which, like all the works in the show, is untitled and only identified by symbols and colours, contains an envelope addressed to him and is inlaid with Sufi scripts and stamps, cave- like inscriptions, photographs and pieces of leather.

“The last phase of his work combined everything he had been working on before,” says Al Mualla. “In that way they symbolise the pinnacle of his career and they also show his own life and thoughts like an open book.”

Also in the exhibition are two video clips containing interviews with the artist and demonstrations of his rather unusual techniques.

The clips offer a small window into the life of this “soulful, spiritual man who glowed with life just as much as the colours in his paintings”.

“He was an unparalleled artist in every sense of the word,” says Yousef Aidabi, a consultant at the Department of Culture and Information. “That makes his loss even greater.”

• Lasting Impressions runs until November 30. The Sharjah Art Museum is open from 8am to 8pm, Saturdays to Thursdays, and from 4pm to 8pm on Fridays. Admission is free. For more information, call 06 568 8222

aseaman@thenational.ae

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