ABU DHABI //He is the only Emirati to have his work shown in the Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha and was chosen as the debut artist to represent the UAE during its first national pavilion the Venice Biennale in 2009, but until last night Hassan Sharif had never had a solo show in the capital.
The Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (Adach) is calling Hassan Sharif: Experiments and Objects 1979-2011, a collection of more than 150 sculptures and installations spanning the artist's career, a seminal exhibition.
The Sharif show, housed in a temporary space next to the Cultural Foundation and part of Art Dubai, is "critical" for the UAE's art scene, said Mohammed Khalaf Al Mazrouei, adviser for culture and heritage in the Court of the Crown Prince and the director general of Adach.
"We want to have a local and resident population that widely participates in and contributes to the arts, and creating an exhibition in the heart of Abu Dhabi enables us to ensure that such exhibitions are accessible and relevant," he said.
Although none of Sharif's paintings are displayed, the works on show have been chosen to give the viewer an overall picture of his work.
In one of the centrepieces, Slippers and Wire, a huge mound of plastic sandals are bound together with wire.
"It is supposed to represent the handcuffs of the labourers," said Sharif. "But [it] is open to everyone's reaction."
The pieces in the show represent Sharif's complexity, said Catherine David, one of the curators.
"When you look carefully at his work, even if you don't know much about modern art, you can see the conditions of his practice and the experiments he has made with everyday objects to reflect an anthropological study.
"Hassan is one of the most consistently important artists of this country and his work has never been shown like this before."
The 60-year-old artist is originally from Abu Dhabi but has lived and worked in Dubai for most of his life. After graduating from the Byam Shaw School of Art in London, he started out as a caricaturist for the newspaper Akhbar Dubai (Dubai News) in the 1970s. In 1984 he established the first public space to display modern art in Sharjah as well as a series of educational workshops, which later expanded to Dubai. In 2007 he was one of four men to set up The Flying House - an institution to promote contemporary Emirati artists.
"Education has been and will continue to be the most important aspect of my career as an artist," he said. "We started in 1984 by teaching people the basics of how to paint and draw and took it step by step until we found an audience. Now those steps have become wider and bigger and the audiences are getting bigger. But I don't just want people to come and look anymore; I want people to try to understand, to go behind the work and see the structure and ask how and why it was put together. We are still expanding and still educating and that's why this show is important to all of us."
Mohammed Kazem, a co-founder of Flying House, co-curator of Sharif's exhibit and an artist in his own right, said Sharif had spent his whole life trying to educate others about art.
Experiments and Objects is open seven days a week and runs until June 17. That same month, Adach will launch a coffee-table book of Sharif's complete back catalogue at the opening of the Venice Biennale.