x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Hassan Sharif brings his strange, prodigious talent home

The pioneering work of the Emirati contemporary artist Hassan Sharif, one of the UAE's most energetic and rigorous creative talents, is now the subject of a major coffee-table retrospective.

Sketch, 1976, pencil on paper, 42 x 30 cm 
Study model 10, 1979, pencil on paper, 51 x 41 cm 

Sketch, 1976, pencil on paper, 42 x 30 cm 
Study model 11, 1979, pencil on paper, 51 x 41 cm

Portrait 6, 1981, pencil on paper, 25 x 18 cm 
Portrait 4, 1981, pencil on paper, 25 x 18 cm

Self Portrait, 1981, pencil on paper, 25 x 18 cm 
Portrait 5, 1981, pencil on paper, 25 x 18 cm
Sketch, 1976, pencil on paper, 42 x 30 cm Study model 10, 1979, pencil on paper, 51 x 41 cm Sketch, 1976, pencil on paper, 42 x 30 cm Study model 11, 1979, pencil on paper, 51 x 41 cm Portrait 6, 1981, pencil on paper, 25 x 18 cm Portrait 4, 1981, pencil on paper, 25 x 18 cm Self Portrait, 1981, pencil on paper, 25 x 18 cm Portrait 5, 1981, pencil on paper, 25 x 18 cm

The distinction of being the first Emirati contemporary artist is a contested one. The discreetly abstract painter Abdul Qader al Rais, for example, is often named for this honour, and it is true that his career got under way a little earlier than that of Hassan Sharif.

Nevertheless, in Sharif, it seems fair to say that the UAE had its first deep encounter with the more exotic currents of late 20th-century western art.

Sharif's work formed the bulk of Adach's platform at the 2009 Venice Biennale and it is now the subject of a coffee-table retrospective. Meanwhile, the large exhibition of his work at Abu Dhabi's Qasr al Hosn ends today.

He began his artistic career as a teenager drawing satirical cartoons for the magazine Akhbar Dubai. One of these, from 1978, depicted a flying saucer hovering over the city. A speech bubble read: "Hello Dubai, we can't land because of all the speed bumps." Despite the artist's late eminence and celebrity, it's tempting to read this as a proleptic image for Sharif's own place in the Emirates: the hurtling outsider, bearing strange news from another world.

As a young man he studied in the UK, where he steeped himself in the ideas of the constructionists and Fluxus, programme and performance art. Sharif was particularly influenced by Tam Giles, head of experimental art at the Byam Shaw school in London. He brought these preoccupations back to Dubai with him in the mid-Eighties, and staged a series of apparently quite poorly received exhibitions. Visitors were bemused to find abstract chequerboard paintings, constructed according to arcane formulae, were displayed lying on the ground. Art in the UAE at the time was about "horses and camels", he once joked. It seems unlikely that some of his more outre London work from this early period - for instance, the performance piece Hair and Milk Bottle, in which the artist attempted to throw a pubic hair into an empty milk bottle - would have found an enthusiastic audience in the Dubai of 1985.

And yet, for all the rebarbative strangeness and baffling variety of his work, Sharif's UFO did in fact find a place to land in Dubai - in the aptly named Flying House gallery. His most distinctive works, the large sculptures made of astonishing quantities of cheap dry goods - flip-flops, office stationery, bits of rope and so forth, mostly purchased at Pakistani supermarkets near his home - represent a thoughtful synthesis of his western theoretical precursors, particularly Fluxus, and the lived texture of existence in the Emirates. Whether or not he was the first artist to create a home for contemporary art in the UAE, he certainly warrants celebration as one of its most energetic and rigorous creative talents.