x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

I've suffered for my art … you won't

An Emirati artist whose work is on display around the world has opened a summer camp in Dubai for budding young artists.

The artist Mattar bin Lahej in his studio, where he hosts budding artists for summer camps.
The artist Mattar bin Lahej in his studio, where he hosts budding artists for summer camps.

DUBAI // The struggle to have his talent recognised at a young age left the Emirati artist Mattar bin Lahej with the only option of training himself.

It also planted within him a strong determination to assist budding artists to develop their talents.

"I was great at pencil sketching and caricatures," says bin Lahej, now 43 and a respected artist whose work has been exhibited in Berlin, Kazakhstan, Istanbul, Washington, Denmark and Madrid, and who expects to soon show his work in New York and Moscow.

"I would even draw a full illustration of a story.

"At that time, there were a few people who had an awareness about the meaning of art, the value of art to a person, to a community and to its development as a whole."

One of the first people to notice his creative streak was his nursery teacher, but the community's lack of regard for art as a meaningful career hobbled his early development.

Bin Lahej does not want today's children to hit the same roadblocks. He opened Marsam Mattar art gallery, at which he has held summer art camps for the past six years.

More than 600 students have learnt to paint with acrylic and oil, to draw, to sculpt and to make handicrafts there, among other creative projects.

This summer about 100 children, many of them Emirati, enrolled in the camp, which ended in July.

The pupils, aged between 7 and 19, have produced more than 1,000 pieces of artwork. Some of these have been displayed on the walls of the gallery for parents and friends to enjoy.

"I told myself that anyone who would ask for my help in art, I would extend it to them," says bin Lahej, whose sculpture Folding Proverbs is on display at the UAE Embassy in Washington.

And he has much to pass on to the young artists.

One of the defining characteristics of bin Lahej's art is the speed of his brushstroke and the element of movement in his paintings. Horses feature prominently in his works as he says he admires their strength and ability to push forward.

His imposing acrylic-on-canvas paintings, some measuring up to two metres by two metres, are in rich hues of red, purple and blue.

"Mattar is an artist who has truly excelled in the field," says the Emirati artist Dr Najat Maki. "Over the last period he has focused on a few areas like sculptures.

"The piece he exhibited in Washington is a fine example of his craft. It was a unique piece and it showed the extent of his diligence and talent.

"Mattar is a constant feature in art exhibitions but he entered the art scene at a gradual pace, which has given him an added strength to excel as an artist and to study the intricacies of his art."

Parents who have enrolled their children in the summer art camp also appreciate his efforts as an educator.

"I could see that my daughter is creative and Marsam Mattar is a place where they discover talents," says Fereshteh Bastaki, an Emirati mother. "It is also beneficial because they try different forms of art, not just drawing."

Shamsa Quraiban, the owner of Art Connection, an organisation that holds exhibitions and brings UAE artists together, says: "Everyone is born with creativity but Mattar gives the chance for children who have a hidden talent to showcase it. He is a creative man and I think having a summer camp is a great initiative."

Bin Lahej says he still believes an artist should constantly evolve by presenting new works of art, and should not hesitate to learn from others, including the younger generation.

"I have reached the point where my mind works on a painting, sculpture and photograph all at the same time," he says. "Even as an artist gets older, they should always look to the younger generation who may have a technique that can be learnt from."

And while acknowledging plans for big museums in Abu Dhabi such as the Guggenheim and Louvre will ignite a greater interest in art, bin Lahej says he also wants to create a generation of artists.

"Why should we wait until a person gets older to recognise their talent?" he asks.

"We should support and foster their creativity from a young age, so they can reach their true potential."

balqabbani@thenational.ae