Establishing an Arts Scene: The Beginnings of Something Beautiful

Learn about how pioneers helped push the boundaries of artistic expression and diversify cultural production in Dubai

Dubai Culture & Arts Authority

Contemporary Waddington Custot (2017)Dubai Culture & Arts Authority

As the UAE celebrates its 50th anniversary, it is important to consider when the tradition of producing and understanding contemporary art actually began. Today there are many formal and informal platforms provided by universities, cultural organisations, galleries and annual events that allow artists to gather, to connect, to show their work, to debate and to learn. 

Jamal Tayyara Baroudy in her Tashkeel studio (2019)Dubai Culture & Arts Authority

There are venues which provide artists with studio spaces, open calls for residences and grants for new productions. Mentorship schemes give emerging voices the opportunity to collaborate and be inspired by more established artists.

Hassan Sharif's Slippers and Wire (2018) by Hassan SharifDubai Culture & Arts Authority

An important exhibition But We Cannot See Them: Tracing a UAE Arts Community (the title taken from a poem by Nujoom Alghanem) at NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery in 2017 took 1988 as its starting point.

By then the late Hassan Sharif had returned to Dubai after studying fine art in London, had co-founded the Emirates Fine Arts Society in Sharjah, given first experimental performances and was establishing a creative community around him, focusing on art education and dialogue.

Untitled (1988) by Mohamed Ahmed IbrahimDubai Culture & Arts Authority

History calls them ‘The Group of Five’ – identified in exhibitions in the early 2000s as Hassan and his brother Hussain, Mohammed Kazem, Abdullah Al Saadi and Mohammed Ahmed Ibrahim. 

But there were more than five artists with a connected identity at this time, including internationally born artists such as Vivek Vilasini from India and Jos Clevers from the Netherlands and Hassan’s students like Ebtisam Abdul Aziz who is now based in the US.

Hassan Sharif art performance, Gareth Harris, 1980, From the collection of: Dubai Culture & Arts Authority
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Hassan Sharif art preformance, From the collection of: Dubai Culture & Arts Authority
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By late 2007, the year the international art world had discovered Dubai, Hassan Sharif’s brother Abdul-Raheem Sharif had established The Flying House in Al Quoz. Named after a painting by Joss Clevers, it was a showcase for all the experimental creations that had been made in Sharif’s house in Satwa since the 1980s.    

Shaikha Al Maszou and Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim at Lawrie Shabibi, Art Dubai (2019)Dubai Culture & Arts Authority

For two years it was the unmissable segment of the VIP tour during Art Dubai as the artists finally became household names. From 2009 they began to be represented by galleries, bought by institutions and shown in the Venice Biennale.

The UAE Pavilion in 2022 will be a solo presentation by Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim curated by Maya Allison. 

Christine Muller using the Screenprinting Vacuum Table.Dubai Culture & Arts Authority

The next generation growing up in the UAE has had the opportunity of studying at least an undergraduate degree in fine art in the UAE and gaining hands on experience interning for Art Dubai and its galleries. 

Emirati artist Shaikha Al Mazrou by 2017Dubai Culture & Arts Authority

One such artist, Shaikha Al Mazrou, represented by Lawrie Shabibi, chose to earn an MFA abroad (at Chelsea College of Fine Arts and Design, London) but returned in Dubai. As Hassan Sharif had done decades before, she divides her time between her own practice and teaching. 

Many other artists supplemented their undergraduate degrees by being selected for the annual Salama Bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Emerging Artist Fellowship. Launched in 2013 in partnership with the Rhode Island School of Design in the USA, it gave artists such as Alaa Edris, Ammar Al Attar and Farah Al Qasimi the training and international exposure to further their careers. 

Hexalite x Swarovski, by Zeinab Alhashemi (2016)Dubai Culture & Arts Authority

Zeinab Al Hashemi will use the experience of being an Artist in Residence at SETI-Institute in San Francisco to develop the ideas on the merging of art and science.   

She began during her undergraduate degree at Zayed University and has explored in her decade-long career. The results will be shown in the Sustainable Pavilion at Dubai Expo 2021. 

Mountain Rock Wrapped with Copper Wire, by Mohammed Ahmed Ibrahim (2007) by Photo by Mohamed SomjiDubai Culture & Arts Authority

These artists and their peers have continued on a trajectory established by Hassan Sharif and his contemporaries to push the boundaries of artistic expression and diversify cultural production in Dubai.   

Exhibitions by organisations such as UAE Unlimited have given equal billing to Emirati and expat artists who all call Dubai home and have a collective experience of the city. 

The cosmopolitan nature of Dubai could not be better reflected than in the universal ways its artists express themselves, and the world is watching.  

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