Some art practices come neatly tied up, with a thesis that courses through every work. Others shapeshift, as if each piece is made by a different artist. They’re confounding, but a little bit addictive, like a puzzle you can’t solve.
Mohammed Kazem’s work falls into the latter category. His biography is well-known: he was part of the “five,” the Conceptual artists who coalesced around Emirati artist Hassan Sharif in the 1980s and 1990s and helped to bring western Conceptual art to the Emirates.
He dropped out of school at 14 and began attending the Emirates Fine Arts Society, which Sharif presided over, one year later. He is recognised across the art world: he has had numerous exhibitions in the UAE and abroad, and he represented the UAE at the Venice Biennale in 2013.
He also played an important, though under-acknowledged, role in curating and supporting younger artists, something he continues to this day. He curated his first show in the 1990s and since then has curated almost 20, including the Sharjah Biennial in 2007, with two colleagues. He also organised many others for the now-closed Ductac community arts and theatre space in Dubai. Last year, he and the artist Cristiana De Marchi were the first two picked to organise Abu Dhabi Art’s new exhibition for developing UAE artists, which they transformed into a mentorship scheme.
Kazem’s work is well-regarded: deft, pointed explorations of single ideas. In Wooden Box (1996), a shelf-like contraption comprised of six boxes stacked upon one another, Kazem explores the relation of the structure to his own body. He papered the inside with 24 pictures, each showing the contortions – what angle of bent knees, craned neck – necessary for someone to look at each picture, synchronising the image itself to the act of viewing it.
In arguably his most famous work, Directions (1999-ongoing), which he later adapted for the Venice Biennale, he applied GPS co-ordinates to a series of everyday, unremarkable locations. The resulting photographs, which were taken on both land and sea, contrast a human-centred means of orienting oneself with the technological, abstract system developed by cartographers and political entities.
Such a focus on mapping in space and time shows up in other works, too: the series Kisses (2010-ongoing) is a kind of documentation of an observant life. Kazem photographed any instances where he saw two splodges of gum next to each other on the pavement, and drew a line in coloured chalk between them, connecting the otherwise disconnected effluence of random gum-chewers.
In a series of works made in Makkah, Space (2005), he photographed not the renowned elements of the Grand Mosque and its surrounding buildings, but the sky above them, with the corner of a tawny-coloured building visible here and there. With mathematical exactitude, each photograph showed only 5 per cent building. His paintings of his Dubai neighbourhood, on show as part of his current exhibition, A Prime Activity, at Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde in Dubai, similarly transform the cityscape into geometric blocks of building corners and bright blue skies.
It’s varied. I find myself grasping on to one line of critique – the body, mapping, Dubai daily life – only to find it slip away with the next work I see. The exhibition shows Kazem returning to painting, the medium he began in. A number of series are on view, from watercolours of his Dubai neighbourhood, with laundry hanging out to dry and plastic chairs set up in alleyways, to the abstract paintings that refract the geometry of buildings and sky.
At the show’s centre is a suite of dark, affective paintings of labourers, titled Even the Shade Does Not Belong to Them. A group of men stand in a line by a construction site. In another, one sits in a breeze-blocked corner. You can barely glimpse the figures: they are seen as through a glass darkly. Kazem painted the images of the men in acrylic, and washed them over in dark ink. The effect is to re-create the way that the labourers are ever present but largely unnoticed. “You see them in the street but you do not pay attention to them,” he says. “People look right through them.”
The series’ elegiac title likewise frames the labourers in a language of visibility: “they create the shades of the city, but even that shade is not drawn to them,” he says. Though the workers are responsible for the city’s construction, Kazem suggests, they are at times excluded from the privileges these buildings bring. In the darkness of the paintings, moreover, it’s impossible to separate shade from visibility. Like Kazem’s upright sculpture about perspective, these paintings entrap you in the processes of looking: taking a moment to scrutinise the painting makes you realise how much is missed by not looking carefully. Vision is an action.
Kazem’s own inscrutability seems born of his desire not to fit in, whether by design or happenstance. He was a little younger than Sharif’s generation, but he still is marked by some of the constraints of that period. He taught painting for a long time, because, he says, of the dearth of arts education in the Emirates at the time. He curated shows when there were no curators. He worked a second job, serving in the army for almost 25 years, because there was no way to make a living from his art. Arabic is his first language, but he now works in Dubai’s primarily English-language contemporary art world.
His work travels on the international art circuit: he showed at the Havana, Singapore, and Cairo biennials, as well as at the Sharjah Biennial. But one can still feel the traces of the Emirates Fine Arts Society and the playful, attentive manner of work from that time. Kazem’s career, though impossible to summarise, is marked by a special mode of looking: “I do not believe everyone who has an eye can see,” he says. And it also betrays a Sharifian desire to take stock of and transform the given material of daily life. If Sharif transmuted consumer detritus, Kazem re-assembles the vistas of buildings, the sky and people into stories of colour and light. But there is much in his art that exceeds this characterisation. Perhaps Kazem’s work is so hard to understand because life, if one pays close attention, is too.
Mohammed Kazem’s A Prime Activity is at Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde, Alserkal Avenue, Dubai, until November 1
My UAE: How the Emirati artist Mohammed Kazem found himself
In the studio with the Emirati artist Mohammed Kazem
Emirati artist Mohammed Kazem at Venice Biennale