x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

UAE artists want a piece of the action

They have reached international levels but lament that they get little exposure in galleries and are ignored by local corporations.

The Emirati artist Hassan Sharif with some of his work at The Flying House in Dubai.
The Emirati artist Hassan Sharif with some of his work at The Flying House in Dubai.

DUBAI // Emirati artists are feeling neglected. Despite achieving international recognition, they are concerned that little or no attention is paid to home-grown contemporary art and are appealing to fellow countrymen and collectors to take a more active interest. "The biggest problem is that the people in the UAE are uneducated in art," said Abdul-Raheem Sharif, founder and chief executive of The Flying House, a non-profit institution promoting local artists.

"While Emirati artists have reached international levels, there is little appreciation at home because there is a complete lack of awareness and understanding." "For example, there is not one local corporate collector," Mr Sharif said, sitting in his office in Al Quoz with two artists, Hassan Sharif and Mohammed Kazem, where the three discussed their concerns about the lack of outlets for local art.

None of the local banks, multinational companies or telecommunication companies has a corporate collection, whereas many abroad have huge collections from all over the world. Deutsche Bank is reported to have one of the largest, holding 50,000 pieces, while the Bank of America has one of the oldest. Local businesses, said Mr Sharif, "don't think a collection has value, and they are not aware that art does not depreciate in value.Yes we are a small nation, but there are many other small nations who have corporate collectors. And it's not like we don't have the money. Why can't the companies spend just one million on local art from the billions they are making a year? Because they are poor in knowledge."

Mohammed Kazem, whose work has been shown in Europe and across Asia, said that while the UAE was willing to have the Guggenheim and Louvre museums, there were no galleries that exhibited only local work. According to Mr Sharif, people are unaware that there are contemporary artists here because the outlets are so limited. "Galleries don't give them a chance because they focus on the commercial aspect, and are afraid Emirati art will not guarantee them a sale."

While they feel the Government is on their side in its promotion of art, the public is letting them down. "There needs to be public participation and there is none whatsoever," said Mr Sharif. Art needs to be brought into the school curriculum, activities need to be introduced that revolve around art, and media channels should also dedicate time to make the public more aware, he added. Auction houses are showing an increasing interest in UAE art.

Elizabeth Johnston, client manager for Bonhams, remains optimistic about its future. "There is a very limited history of collecting in this country, so there is only so much that can be said about it, but we have seen an increased interest in art from this region in the past couple of years," she said. Bonhams is holding an auction on Monday that will showcase modern work from Arab, Iranian, Indian, and Pakistani artists. While Ms Johnston admitted it was still too soon for an Emirati-art-only auction, there would be potential later because of the increasing interest in Arab culture.

"As more people do more work in the Middle East, they become more interested in the art, as a way of understanding the history and culture, so there has been a lot of international interest shown." While Emiratis do collect art, she added, it tends to be from elsewhere in the region. "They collect early pieces from Egypt, Lebanon, and Iraq." The Bonhams auction has 150 lots, including paintings, sculptures and photography. Work by 120 artists, of whom five are Emirati, will be on sale. The artists Mr Sharif and Mr Kazem have pieces in the sale.

Mr Sharif said his work was about the "making" of art, rather than the "doing". "Through my work I am cultivating the archetype of society, and I bring history to the present through objects," he said. "I am not expressing, I do not use emotion. Rather, I have a discourse which I decide." He started painting in 1970, and began creating objects in 1982. Pieces of Mr Sharif's work are scattered around the Flying House building. Having worked as a cartoonist for what is now the Al Bayan newspaper for nine years in the 1970s, his cartoon collection alone contains more than 1,200 pieces.

"Whether you are Emirati or not, you have to fight for your right to be seen," he said. nsamaha@thenational.ae