Unlike previous monuments, the latest tribute will combine elements of landscape, sculpture and architecture, similar to the Wahat Al Karama
New Sheikh Zayed commission continues a rich tradition in Abu Dhabi
With another season of commemoration comes another monument.
At the beginning of the week, before the news of the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s opening began to dominate the headlines, the Ministry of Presidential Affairs announced that a new monument honouring Sheikh Zayed, the founding President of the UAE, would be unveiled to coincide with the Year of Zayed in 2018.
Details of the new commission are scarce, but what is clear is that unlike previous monuments, which have taken the form of large public portraits, the latest tribute will combine elements of landscape, sculpture and architecture, in a manner similar to the Wahat Al Karama, or Oasis of Dignity, that stands opposite the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.
If the details of the new monument are uncertain, its location is not. The memorial has been under construction for some time on Abu Dhabi’s Corniche, opposite the capital’s oldest international hotel, the 1973 Hilton Abu Dhabi, and its second tallest high-rise building, the 342-metre Adnoc HQ.
The location has served as the site of a tribute since at least the turn of the millennium, which is when Liaquat Ali Khan, a painter originally from Kohat in Pakistan, erected a 35-metre-tall portrait of Sheikh Zayed on the spot during that year’s accession day celebrations.
Formed of 284 painted plywood panels and a neon-lit, 8,000-piece, plastic mosaic frame, the portrait was one of more than 1,060 portraits of Sheikh Zayed painted by Khan, who worked as a horticultural designer for the Abu Dhabi Municipality each morning and as a painter each afternoon and evening.
Khan first arrived in Abu Dhabi in 1980, having graduated as a commercial artist from the department of fine arts at the University of Peshawar, after which he had turned his hand to painting cinema hoardings.
He painted his first portrait of Sheikh Zayed a year later, in 1981, and it was displayed in one of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International buildings in the capital, but one of Khan’s biggest regrets was that during the 28 years he worked for the Municipality, his work was only ever exhibited in buildings that belonged to his employer.
Khan left Abu Dhabi in 2008 to return to Pakistan, where he then taught in the fine art department of the Kohat University of Science and Technology.
The artist’s giant portrait on the Corniche, which he always claimed to be his favourite, was one of Abu Dhabi’s most memorable landmarks when I arrived in the capital, just a few months after Khan had left, but was eventually replaced by the current black-and-white billboard as part of the Our Father Zayed programme launched in 2009.
According to state news agency Wam, the new Sheikh Zayed monument will take visitors on “a journey that captures the life of Sheikh Zayed, his compassion and humanitarianism, his wisdom and vision for the future”, but whenever I think about Sheikh Zayed’s long list of achievements, I always think of the words dedicated to St Paul’s Cathedral designer Sir Christopher Wren: “Reader, if you seek a monument, look around you.”