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As presented by the National Pavilion UAE la Biennale di Venezia at the 56th International Art Exhibition 2015, commissioned by the Salama bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation, curated by Hoor Al Qasimi, 1980-Today: Exhibitions in the United Arab Emirates looks at the history of exhibition making in the United Arab Emirates over the last 40 years. The emergence of art practices in the UAE is presented through a selection of over 100 works by fifteen Emirati artists.
The exhibition is built upon extensive research involving archives of newspaper articles, artists' writings, and catalogues, as well as interviews with artists and cultural practitioners. Reflecting personal and geopolitical trajectories, the research focused on the underexposed historical record and evolving practices of some of the UAE's most important modernist and contemporary artists. The Emirates Fine Arts Society, a non-profit association that was formed in 1980 in Sharjah, has served as a main point of focus and inspiration for research.
Curatorial essay by Hoor Al Qasimi:
The Past Seen from a Possible Future
Relationships between Material Objects and Memories of a Society
It has been said that the twenty-first century is as obsessed with memory as the preceding century was eager to forget the past and look to the future.  This is very much true of the United Arab Emirates. A new country, formed after the discovery of oil, it looked to the future as it modernized rapidly and before our very eyes. Yet a new interest in the past is evident in the ambitious educational and cultural activities now unfolding in venues across the country, from art fairs, commercial galleries, and auction houses to new museums and private collections.
When I was invited to curate the UAE National Pavilion for this year’s Venice Biennale, I didn’t have to think twice about how to represent the UAE art scene. I realized that much of the younger generation in the UAE, especially art practitioners, aren’t aware of their recent history. This was a history that I grew up with, that influenced me to become an artist and curator, and eventually led to my involvement with the Emirates Fine Arts Society, the Sharjah Arts Institute, and ultimately, the Sharjah Biennial. I took this history, and the collective memory it represents, as the theme of the UAE Pavilion.
Many recent exhibitions have looked back to the past in order to reflect on the present. It’s something of a norm these days: archival exhibitions; curators and artists traveling the world to discover overlooked artists and art scenes; institutions investing time and money on research, gathering material, publishing texts, and collecting artworks. We collect documents, retell stories, and describe events in order to capture past moments. But how do we connect all the information?
One set of connections might be made through this exhibition: a space crowded with objects, like the prolific congestion of a mind filled with all kinds of memories, from the personal to the unwanted and the forgotten. Other connections might be made through this book, which brings together personal photographs, newspaper articles, and firsthand accounts by artists who have been part of that scene. Of course, there is only so much we can do in a given time frame. I see this publication and exhibition as only the beginning of a much more detailed and intensive research project.
There have been many efforts to document these histories, as seen in the archives of the Department of Culture and Information in Sharjah, the Ministry of Culture in Abu Dhabi, the Emirates Fine Arts Society, and the artists themselves. One of the most focused and rich archives belongs to Hassan Sharif. The archive was brought together through the efforts of his brother, Abdulraheem Sharif, who was also instrumental in the founding of The Flying House, a nonprofit gallery that was an important stepping-stone for artists who did not yet have commercial gallery representation.
In a recent discussion at the Sharjah Art Foundation between Dr. Yousef Aidabi,  Abdulraheem Sharif, and the artists Hassan Sharif, Mohammed Kazem, and Mohammed Ahmed Ibrahim, Dr. Aidabi stressed that in the early 1980s, all arts in the UAE were connected, from visual arts and theater to poetry, literature, journalism, and art criticism. Artists worked together to produce exhibitions and cultural interventions. Hisham Al Madhloum  emphasized the importance of the cultural section of Al Khaleej newspaper, which made cultural news and debates available to a broad audience and played an important role in cultural and intellectual production.
Artists worked together in studios across the UAE, from Sharjah to Dubai and Ras Al Khaimah. After 1979, artists from other Arab countries also contributed to the scene, moving from Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Lebanon, and elsewhere to live and work in the UAE. Many of them were members of the Emirates Fine Arts Society, which was formed in 1980 in Sharjah as a nonprofit organization to support the work of local artists through exhibitions, lectures, workshops, and the publication of an important periodical, Al Tashkeel.
Artists challenged prevailing views, and were invited to speak about their practice, exhibit, and exchange ideas. The high level of curiosity and acceptance helped produce a more liberal and experimental mindset. Hassan Sharif is an exemplary product of this new outlook. In 1985, Sharif organized the "One-Day Exhibition" in Sharjah. In the essay A New Window for Art, Khalid Badr Obaid spoke of his experience of the show:
"When we arrived at the designated spot, there was no sign of an art exhibition. We did, however, notice the papers scattered on the dirt floor of the passageway leading to Al Mareija Studio, which we tried to avoid stepping on. ... I’d never seen such a thing before, and was greatly puzzled. I asked Hassan Sharif what it all meant. He said it didn’t mean anything in particular, and that it was just a way of presenting his work to the audience. But what if the visitors stepped on them, I asked? 'So what?' he responded. 'So they get stepped on.' . . . The visit destabilized my thinking and challenged fixed ideas I had cherished for years about the role of poetry and art. I was suddenly in desperate need of expressing the way my dreams of art and life were rapidly receding, a way to deal with the vortex spinning inside me. I needed to find new and wider horizons for cultural dialogue. The visit to Al Mareija Studio had opened a new window." 
Al Mareija Studio, in Sharjah, was an important venue for the development of art and the exchange of ideas.  It was also an important gathering place, where artists and poets like Hassan and Hussein Sharif, Abdulraheem Salim, Nujoom Al Ghanem, Hamda Khamis, and Ahmed Rashid Thani would discuss not just the visual arts, but how to move away from the visual. They wanted art to respond to poetry, psychology, and philosophy. In 1984 and 1985 they had two exhibitions in the central souq, where they exhibited in the alleyways and on public walls. They also made it their mission to write and translate important texts on art and performance from writers including Khalid Badr Obaid, Nujoom Al Ghanem, and Hassan Sharif, whose texts were published in Al Tashkeel.
Hassan Sharif’s work was interactive: the audience was free to interpret the work in their own way—what’s art is art and what’s a story is a story.  His work questions and breaks away from what is traditional in order to create something new; something that his audience can understand and relate to. His students were influenced by his ideas, thoughts, and philosophies, but worked in their own ways and kept their own identities.
Mohammed Kazem, a student of Hassan Sharif’s, has stressed the important educational role played by international artists—Egyptian, American, British, Palestinian, Syrian, Iraqi, and Sudanese, and many others—now living in the UAE. Yasser Duwaik, Farook Khider, Hassan Badawi, and Abdul Latif Al Smoudi supervised workshops and shared their knowledge and ideas with younger artists. Kazem, in turn, took it upon himself to guide the subsequent generation. In the absence of strong infrastructure for arts education, artists and thinkers were highly influential in shaping a new generation of artists in the UAE.
In How Societies Remember, Paul Connerton talks about collective memory, and how our experience of the present largely depends on our knowledge of the past. We experience our present in a way that is connected to and references past events and objects. We have difficulty extracting our past from our present: not simply because present factors tend to influence—some might say distort—our recollections of the past, but also because past factors tend to influence, or distort, our experience of the present. 
If this book is a compilation of memories and stories, then this exhibition is also a narrative in the form of artworks from the last thirty-plus years. Too many memories and narratives, of course, can just as likely confuse communication across generations. But if our experience of the present depends on our knowledge of the past, then the more information projects like this one are able to produce, the deeper our understanding of our present time will be, and the better understanding future generations will have of theirs.
This exhibition is a collective memory of sorts, a compilation of the memories of individuals and those of society. I have selected objects that invoke certain memories. There is no chronological path through the exhibition; I have, rather, aimed for a purely aesthetic experience, what Denis Diderot might have called an example of "rapport theory." Diderot’s rapport concerns unspoken rather than obvious connections: a rapport with beauty, for example, requires both objective and subjective elements, and creates a different meaning for each observer.  The selection of artworks for this exhibition involved purely aesthetic judgments about the objects, since I selected the works before selecting the artists. I must therefore stress that what is important in this exhibition is the objects themselves, and the narrative they play or suggest to the viewer. This exhibition offers a chance for considering how each object engages with and relates to the surrounding objects.
Another important aspect of this exhibition, and a key theme of the research process, is the relationship between material objects and forgetting. I have selected works by some artists who decided to move away from a certain way of working: one might say that by moving away from it they "forgot" the medium or style. Dr. Najat Meky and Abdulraheem Salim, for example, have worked on paper or canvas since the 1990s, but their earlier work involved sculpture and reliefs. Mohamed Yousif has, in recent years, been working with found objects and elements from his natural surroundings, so audiences may be unfamiliar with his earlier, more traditional wooden sculptures. The same might be true of Abdul Qader Al Rais’s figurative paintings, some dating back to 1968, although he is better known today for his landscapes and abstract paintings.
This exhibition has given me a chance to reflect on the art that has inspired and educated me. It brings together artists who worked together thirty years ago, and as many of them have recently told me, it has brought them together again. I hope that viewers will reflect on the variety of the work on view, and take this chance to explore the labyrinth of memories they offer. It is also my hope that the research will continue, and that more information will be published and archived. As John Berger wrote in his essay "Past Seen from a Possible Future" (quoting Friedrich Nietzsche): "We can have no idea what sort of things are going to become history one day. Perhaps the past is still largely undiscovered; it still needs so many retroactive forces for its discovery." 
Hoor Al Qasimi
Curator of the National Pavilion of the United Arab Emirates at the 56th International Art Exhibition - la Biennale di Venezia. President and Director of the Sharjah Art Foundation.
1980 - Today: Exhibitions in
the United Arab Emirates
13 February - 14 May 2016
The Flying Saucer
Curator: Hoor Al Qasimi
15 Emirati artists
Commissioner: The Salama bint
Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation
National Pavilion of the
United Arab Emirates
Venice Biennale 2015
56th International Art Exhibition
9 May - 22 November 2015
Venue: Arsenale, Sale d'Armi
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