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Impressions of a self-taught artist

Abdul Qader Al Rais's emergence as the foremost artist of the country is a fascinating story of a will to express one's creative desires for a historical impact

  • The works of Al Rais have always been safeguarded as national treasures, but he has also been credited with taImage Credit:
  • Abdul Qader Al Rais was the first recipient of the top Shaikh Khalifa Prize for Science, Arts and Literature. Image Credit:
  • Abdul Qader Al Rais's paintings with the ubiquitous doors and windows of traditional Emirati houses displaImage Credit:
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Weekend Review

In a critically and commercially acclaimed artistic career, Abdul Qader Al Rais has received numerous accolades. There are, however, only two, he says, that he cherishes. "One is the first award I ever received as a student, when I was quite young," he says with a smile. And the second is the latest recognition he received from President His Highness Shaikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

Al Rais, honoured for his contribution to the creative arts, was one of the five recipients of the Emirates Appreciation Award for Science, Arts and Literature.

"With that award, I feel a greater sense of responsibility towards the country and people of the UAE," he says.

"I have never pursued awards or honours. Of course, when they are given, I accept them humbly. They definitely bring more attention and pride. But there is also the pressure to live up to the award once it has been given. But it has never been the intention of me as an artist to paint so I can win an award," he says.

The works of Al Rais have always been safeguarded as national treasures, but he has also been credited with taking the contemporary art movement of the UAE to international audiences. Art whisperers have been known to say that an Al Rais painting is as prudent an investment - if not more - from a UAE perspective, as say, a house.

His latest exhibition at Dubai's Majlis Gallery features more than 20 watercolours with a range of some of his signature styles and a number of abstract pieces.

Recess of art Al Rais's arrival as an artist is a classic story of when-one-wills-one-does. Working at the Ministry of Labour on Riqqa Street, Al Rais would paint using watercolours whenever he was free.

"In a sense my working with the medium began out of a restriction. It is easier to store watercolours in your office drawer than oils," he laughs.

And so the tea-breaks were spent painting, until the mid-90s when he decided to focus all his time on painting. Self-taught in every sense, he decided to continue working with watercolours as he consciously wanted to stand out as a different artist. "Most artists from here prefer the oils and acrylic medium, but though I started with oils, I enjoy watercolours more," he says.

Al Rais is fairly candid when it comes to contemporary works and artists, while not outrightly saying that in the past few centuries there have been only a few true greats, of which, the majority are his teachers. "Michelangelo, Raphael [and] Rembrandt," he says. "I learnt from them."
While talent is non-negotiable, Al Rais also stresses the need to have a pioneering streak for historical impact.

The ubiquitous doors and windows of traditional Emirati houses in paintings are widely acknowledged as a result of Al Rais's perfecting of their intricacies, details and the play of light and shadow. "They [doors and windows] are an important element of my past. Our past," he says pointing around at the historical Majlis Gallery structure. "They fill my heart. And I paint from my heart," he says. The Al Rais abstract works feature calligraphic letters that stand out or hide under different shades and palettes, which he says, are a reflection of his moods.

As with painting, Al Rais has had no formal instruction in calligraphy and prefers to say that he "draws letters" as opposed to "writing them". "I started with ‘WOW' but then gradually progressed to other words, but I am not," he clarifies, "a calligrapher".

A widely travelled man, Al Rais does not feel the need to seek inspiration from other lands and experiences - he confesses to suffering from withdrawal symptoms if he stays away from the UAE for too long.

"I must return after a week. There is enough inspiration around me here and within me to work on for a lifetime. I have worked on the past inspirations. The future and the development are equally exciting and it is something that I have already used in some of my works," he says.

Though the artist has a disciplined approach to his painting in terms of timing, the works themselves are a true mirroring of the frame of his mind and heart. "I offer myself to the viewer in my works and it could range from happiness to sadness," he says with his hand on his heart.

Abdul Qader Al Rais's works are on show at The Majlis Gallery in Bur Dubai until January 22. Gallery timings are 9.30am-8.00pm, Saturday-Thursday.