It looks like the NYUAD Art Gallery has become as important an artistic voice for the country as the NYUAD Arts Center has for performance. Programming at both has been very impressive during the past year, delivering both quality and imagination – which is exactly what you’d hope for from a university facility able to act without commercial pressure.
The Gallery’s two major shows of 2016 were a major solo exhibition for Diana Al-Hadid and the current thought-provoking group show Invisible Threads: Technology and its Discontents. Both were among the year’s very best exhibitions to be seen in the UAE (and Invisible Threads has been extended for another week, now closing on 7 January, so get along to it if you can).
Now the Gallery’s next show – it does only three a year – looks a nailed-on certainty to be a highlight of 2017. Under the title But We Cannot See Them: Tracing a UAE Underground, 1988-2008, it’s an ambitious attempt to document the development of a genuine local arts community in the Emirates.
The key word there is community. In recent years the possibilities have opened up for artists looking to share experiences and show work, but it’s not so long ago that display spaces were virtually non-existent.
Maya Allison, Founding Director and Chief Curator of the NYUAD Art Gallery (and curator of this exhibition), says she’s been told that when curators came to the UAE looking for contemporary art in the early 1990s, they concluded none was being made because there wasn’t anywhere to see it.
“Yet contemporary art was actually flourishing. The particular artists in this exhibition developed what we might call an ‘underground,’ in spite of – or because of – the scarcity of public venues able to support conceptual and formal experimentation in the UAE at the time. When The Flying House opened in 2007, that space gave them a new found visibility, leading to further audience and institutional support.”
The Flying House was basically the Al Quoz private home of businessman Abdul Raheem Sharif, opened as a gallery in part to provide storage and display for the work of his two artist brothers, Hassan and Hussain (who had already founded the Emirates Fine Arts Society).
Quickly a genuine community of artists grew up around the place, exhibiting work, discussing projects, dropping in for social calls. The result was a unique opportunity to see work by some of the UAE’s leading contemporary artists and a range of practices – 2D and 3D, photography, performance, installations …
The Flying House effectively became the nearest thing the UAE had/has to a national museum of contemporary art (despite the fact that visiting was by appointment only).
Community has played a key role in nearly every modern art breakthrough movement, with artists banding together around manifestos, or turning to one another for support when art institutions rejected their innovations. Art communities grow out of critical and creative exchange among peers and mentors.
Maya Allison says she was struck by the similarity with ‘underground’ or ‘independent’ art scenes elsewhere. “Operating as an artistic community outside of formal art institutions allows artists a combination of freedom and support that can enable powerful creative innovation.”
We’ll all get a chance to see how such a community emerged in the UAE. But We Cannot See Them, which opens on 2 March, aims to document the community of visual artists, writers, and filmmakers whose members identified with a “new culture” of radical, formal and conceptual experimentation. This is the group that coalesced around the Flying House.
Artists in the exhibition include Hassan Sharif, Mohammed Ahmed Ibrahim, Abdullah Al Saadi, Mohammed Kazem, Hussain Sharif, Vivek Vilasini, Jos Clevers, and Ebtisam Abdulaziz. Also included are archival material and videotaped interviews, as well as a reading room of work from other important members of the community, including Cristiana De Marchi, Adel Khozam, and Nujoom Al Ghanem.
But We Cannot See Them is curated by Allison along with her exhibition curator Bana Kattan, who did a great job co-curating the Invisible Threads show. Research and programme development for by But We Cannot See Them has been contributed by Programs Curator Alaa Edris.
Alongside the exhibition the NYUAD Art Gallery is publishing a book of interviews with the artists. Together, the exhibition and book will begin the process of tracing this pivotal artistic community in the key years of its formation – and that should really break down the last of the preconceptions about a lack of inspiration and experimentation in the UAE that some in the international art world have so lazily assumed.
We’re all for this. It’s a shame that NYUAD’s location in the sands of Saadiyat means the exhibition might not get the footfall it deserves; Saadiyat is a bit of a schlep even from downtown Abu Dhabi. But this is one show that will almost certainly be vaut le detour, as M Michelin puts it.
The exhibition runs at the NYUAD Art Gallery from 2 March to 25 May.
Above: Hassan Sharif,
Cardboard and Coir, 1999
. Cardboard and coir
, variable dimensions (as shown 100 × 220 × 180 cm).
Courtesy estate of Hassan Sharif and Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde. Below: Hussein Sharif, Cement with Mixed Media, 2000. Mixed media, dimensions variable