Hassan Sharif consistently engaged with creative thought from the local and international art worlds simultaneously, and brought these ideas into the local community through his art, according to Shaikha Hoor Al Qasimi, President and Director of Sharjah Art Foundation and curator of the retrospective. She hopes vistors to the exhibition will enjoy the diverse range of Sharif’s output. Excerpts from an interview with the Weekend Review:
Can you share with us how this landmark show was planned, the time scale involved and the key individuals and institutions involved?
Sharif’s work has been known to me since the Nineties, and I worked with him in various capacities, both for the Sharjah Biennial and the UAE Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. All of that collaboration was a jumping off point for working on the retrospective with him, and he provided enormous insight about works that were important to him. Once he passed away, I worked closely with his brother Abdulrahim Sharif and his estate to make final selections for the exhibition. Works in the retrospective are largely directly from the estate, but there are also works from the SAF collection and the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi.
What are your personal favourite works in this show?
It is hard to choose a favourite because I think that every period of Sharif’s practice is important to understanding his influence and significance in our region and internationally. I think that his experimental and conceptual works are particularly interesting, including his ‘semi-systems’.
Sharif’s semi-systems of the 1980s, currently on view, reveal his fascination with constructing intricate systems and methodologies. Often taking the form of drawings, they illustrate playful procedures and rules of repetition which he developed, and they are later carried out on paper, resulting in geometric shapes and forms.
One of the highlights of this show is that Hassan Sharif’s entire studio is on view — recently donated to SAF by the artist’s estate. How did this come about?
Sharif’s practice was so multi-faceted and tactile, so a visit to his studio provides a world of insight into the way he thought about art and materials. I wanted to show the full breadth of Sharif’s work and offer another way for viewers and scholars to understand him, so the studio seemed like an ideal component for the retrospective. Additionally, Sharif was an artist who was very open and willing to share his creativity and thinking with others, so his brother Abdulrahim Sharif who manages his estate, was supportive in helping us bring the studio to Sharjah.
What are Sharjah Art Foundation’s future plans around the Hassan Sharif studio?
Since the studio has been generously donated to the Foundation’s collection, we will be looking into additional options for its display in Sharjah and ways for art scholars and historians to access it for in-depth research. Since Sharif began his artistic career in the Al Mureijah area, we thought it was especially fitting to house his studio there.
Is SAF planning to acquire more of his works?
I can’t speak of any specific plans, but we regularly acquire works that we consider important contributions to art history.
Can you briefly mention the role of Sharif’s family and estate in shaping this show after the artist’s passing away?
We worked closely with Sharif’s brother, Abdulrahim, to finalise the selection of works on view. The artist’s estate donated Hassan Sharif’s latest studio, as well as invaluable archival material. In addition, there is a catalogue raisonné currently in development, which requires close collaboration with his family and estate.
What has been the thinking behind the thematic organisation of the retrospective? How many artworks, roughly, are on show?
The retrospective is organised according to major themes found in Sharif’s writings. We wanted to provide insight on the ways he thought about art, rather than the chronological trajectory of his career. There are over 300 works on view.
I understand that there are many artworks here that have not been seen before? Which are they?
There are a number of never-before-seen works, including Broom and Jelly Fish.
Amid all this incessant experimentation and play with materials, what were the main themes that Hassan Sharif dealt with?
The rapid industrialisation and globalisation of the UAE was something Sharif witnessed over several decades of his life, so it is a theme he consistently referenced in his work. Another theme found in various ways throughout his work is an interest in repetition and the everyday. For example, in his “performances” of the late 1980s, he explores common movements of the human body — walking, digging, jumping, dragging — over and over again, through recordings of his own movements; and in many of his sculptural works, he uses everyday materials, but transforms them into universally appealing objects.
Being a pioneer in the UAE, what has been his contribution in moulding and influencing his peers as well as the younger generation of UAE’s artists?
Sharif showed that an artist is not just a creator of art, but can play a role within his local community to teach and introduce new ideas. He consistently engaged with creative thought from the local and international art worlds simultaneously, and brought these ideas into the local community through his art, teachings, and the community activities he initiated, such as exhibitions and gatherings. They stimulated new ideas, inspired others, and helped bring the community together.
You have mentioned that ‘repetition’ is the main impression one takes away from the Hassan Sharif oeuvre? As a viewer, one cannot get away from the messages the emanate from his works — as a commentary on commodification, globalisation in trade and commerce, idiosyncracies of communication networks, and above all the transcendent quality of his art to rise above the mundane and provide us with some abiding sentiments as human beings? What are your thoughts on this?
Sharif was certainly interested in understanding and exploring the materials and activities that one might consider trivial parts of everyday life. Over the course of Sharif’s life, the UAE was transforming before his eyes — impacted enormously by globalisation and industrialisation — so it is not surprising that these themes appear frequently in his work. It is true that Sharif explored these ideas so deeply and thoroughly that he was able to transform them from the everyday or trivial, to transcendent universal objects. It is no wonder that his work not only resonates locally, but with the international art world as well.
Finally, what has been the reactions you have been getting from viewers and art aficionados for this landmark show?
It has felt like the right time for this retrospective, and I’ve been excited to hear from so many — inside and outside the art community — that they agree. This retrospective exhibition is the largest comprehensive survey of Sharif’s work to date, and I think that all visitors will enjoy the diverse range of his output.