Hassan Sharif (1951-2016) made a vital contribution to conceptual art and experimental practice in the Middle East through 40 years of performance, installation, drawing, painting and assemblage. Prior to leaving the UAE to study in London in 1979, Sharif gained attention for his cartoons published in the UAE press - ironic, outspoken critiques of the rapid industrialisation of the Emirates and political deadlock of 1970s Arab Nationalism. As an artist, he rejected calligraphic abstraction, which was becoming the dominant discourse in the Middle East at that time, and pursued instead a pointedly contemporary vocabulary, drawing on the non-elitism and intermedia of Fluxus and the potential in British Constructionism's systemic processes of making.
Sharif graduated from The Byam Shaw School of Art (now part of Central Saint Martins) in 1984 and returned to the UAE shortly after. He set about staging interventions and the first exhibitions of contemporary art in Sharjah, as well as translating art historical texts and manifestos into Arabic so as to provoke a local audience to engage with - or at least reject - contemporary art discourse. Beginning in 1982, Sharif began to formulate and document private performances of mundane activities (e.g. discussing art in a toilet cubicle with the faculty of The Byam Shaw School, jumping or digging holes in the UAE desert). Simultaneously, he began work on what he referred to as Experiments – formal exercises, like counting cars on a street in Dubai or tracing every instance of the letter ’t’ on a page of The Daily Mail newspaper. These absurdist and purposely boring practices were initially performed, in part, as an ironic response to the functionality of economics and globalisation: uselessness as gesture. This critical stance, what he termed ‘positive irony’, has since been developed on in subsequent works in other mediums.
Sharif started creating his Objects in the 1980s using found industrial materials or mass-produced items purchased in markets and stores around the UAE. Weaving these objects together with rope, coil and twine, the heaps and bundles that Sharif created became a visualisation of the surplus of mass-production – the commonly unseen by-product of the UAE’s globalised, consumerist society that developed since the formation of the UAE. His Objects – which handed cheap, mass-produced or discarded materials back to society as artworks – were a vital instrument in provoking and engaging UAE audiences with contemporary art in the 1980s. Sharif’s Semi-Systems were initially informed by British Constructionism and particularly Kenneth Martin’s notion of ‘Chance and Order’. He invented a set of rules, following this system to create line drawings that transform within a grid and colour studies on paper. Sharif revealed in the mistakes and errors that naturally occurs in the monotonous creation of the work, believing that “‘Art’ is a result of errors.”
In addition to his own practice, he also encouraged and supported several generations of artists in the Emirates. Sharif was a founding member of the Emirates Fine Arts Society (founded in 1980) and the Art Atelier in the Youth Theatre and Arts in Dubai. In 2007, he was one of the four artists to establish The Flying House, a Dubai institution for promoting contemporary Emirati artists. His works are held in the collections of the Sharjah Art Foundation; MAMCO, Geneva; Centre Pompidou, Paris; Tate, London; Guggenheim New York and Abu Dhabi; Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris; Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha; Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah; M+ Museum, Hong Kong and Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), Yinchuan, among others. In 2017, a major retrospective of his works, entitled Hassan Sharif: I Am The Single Work Artist, curated by Hoor Al Qasimi was held at Sharjah Art Foundation. This retrospective will travel to the KW Institute for Contemporary Art in February 2020.