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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 October 2018

My UAE: Mattar Bin Lahej one with the arts

Emirati Mattar Bin Lahej is a man of many artistic talents – mostly self-taught.
Mattar Bin Lahej with a metal artwork he created at his gallery in Dubai. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National
Mattar Bin Lahej with a metal artwork he created at his gallery in Dubai. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National

Whether he’s sculpting, speaking or mentoring young talent in his gallery in Dubai, Mattar Bin Lahej, 46, embodies the spirit of art. And although his work is now displayed from London to Texas, he says it’s not been an easy journey.

As a child, Bin Lahej did not join in when the boys gathered to play football. Instead, he drew in the sand. “I have been with the sand for a long time, so my practice starts with sand,” he says, describing how, even to this day, he paints using a surface of sand, employing water to harden it.

“I faced many challenges when I was young, because in the 1980s and 1990s, nobody breathed art here. I knew that I needed to be professional, though it is difficult – it means that in your pocket, you will never find money.”

Fortunately, he found support in the form of his father who, despite not having a deep appreciation of the arts, had a deep appreciation of his son’s talent.

Although Bin Lahej worked in different roles, some closer to arts than others, he says he always positioned himself in different orbits revolving around art.

He opened his gallery, Marsam Mattar, just over a decade ago and although he was worried at times that he might have to close it because of budgetary constraints, he says it is now stable. “I needed to do something special, so I jumped to do my gallery so I could keep in touch with the public.”

The father of six says whether a painter, sculptor, designer or any other artist, people must progress step by step and believe that they “can be something big”.

“In my art centre, we have a small staff but we are building a giant mind and I believe that artists should help each other. Before we felt small – when people said ‘Picasso’ or ‘Dali’, we covered our ears. But, I believe that as Emirati artists, we can now put our stamp on the history of art.”

Do you have any favourite artists?

I don’t differentiate. I enjoy all art and I enjoy seeing everything. At the same time I know what is the top art, the middle art and what is the garbage art.

What is your biggest artistic inspiration?

I always use the orbit of art – there are different things around you and you can touch them and bring them to life.

What kinds of images inspire you?

Do you know flamenco? When you see the way the woman holds the castanets, her face, the way she covers her body, the way she moves is like a painting.

How do these images feed into your art?

The way the mother supports her family and how the father does his job, when you see our sheikhs like Sheikh Zayed do many things to build our country for the future – these are all paintings and this is our gallery for me. Not the painting, not Picasso, not Dali. The world is my gallery.

How important has your gallery been for your art?

How can you wait for a train without a station? I needed the train to come here, but first I had to build the rail for the train – so it could come to my station.

What were some of the biggest hurdles you faced as a young Emirati artist in the 1980s and 1990s?

The government was not ready to support us; life did not support the arts. Where would you find the information? Who would guide you? Who would mentor you? There were no spaces for exhibitions, there were no dealings with artists directly and there were no maps of the arts, like there are now.

How did you overcome the odds?

When we face big walls, we need to break the walls – or jump over them. Maybe everyone takes shortcuts, but I took the long way.

How much have things changed?

We guide the arts everywhere in the world now – the new generation has a big chance to do something.

Does it become hard to challenge yourself as you grow older?

I always try to raise my level upwards and not go down. I am always hiking, for example – this is my challenge. And in my work, I put down some names of old artists I need to reach and surpass.

What sort of competition is good competition?

It is between me and myself. Others are my friends and we learn from each other but there is good competition, not bad competition. White competition – you move safely near him and you go past. Not, when you reach them you fight them because you don’t believe in them and they don’t believe in you. We are friends, we are brothers and we cannot kick each other.

HAlbustani@thenational.ae