Hassan Sharif collects a great many things of seemingly little to no value: newspapers, cardboard boxes, spoons, tools, bits of plumbing, plastic buckets, aluminum trays, cheap sandals, chintzy coffee mugs and nylon rope in a riot of eye-popping colors.
“I don’t throw things away,” he says. “So how do I get rid of them? I make art from them.”
He’s joking, of course, but only just.
Sharif’s highly creative approach to recycling is on display at Galerie Sfeir-Semler in Karantina. Strewn throughout the 1,000-square-meter space are heaps and tangles of cheap consumer goods, which the artist has transformed into sculptures of surprising delicacy and material magnetism.
On the floor, one finds a knot the size of a football made of bent spoons and black cabling. In one corner, a mound of twisted iron wire is piled high on an austere white plinth.
In another corner, thin strips of aluminum have been woven into squares and hung from a tiny mast of repurposed copper tubing. Next to it is another makeshift sculpture, fashioned from what appears to be the discarded undercarriage of a leaky kitchen sink.
“Hassan Sharif: Works 1980-2012,” which runs through July, opened last week with an artist’s talk moderated by the French curator Catherine David. It is his first solo exhibition in Beirut, and his second outside of the United Arab Emirates.
Now in his early 60s, Sharif is well known as the quintessential father figure of contemporary art in the UAE. His role as a regionally significant, game-changing pioneer of conceptual art and avant-garde performance, however, is only starting to be recognized in the Gulf and the wider Arab world.
Sharif was born in Dubai 20 years before the so-called Trucial States passed from British protection (aka colonial status) to independence and a federated union.
He began drawing as a child. In high school, he took a job making caricatures for a local newspaper. Just as the UAE became a proper state, he turned his attention to painting.
For a decade, Sharif’s art-making was bound up in Emirati state-building. As an employee of the newly formed of Youth and Sports Ministry, he was sent on scouting missions throughout the Middle East and Africa. His task was to identify other young artists to participate in the generation of pan-Arab festivals that were politically and culturally productive at the time.
Then, in 1979, Sharif won a scholarship to study abroad. He ended up at the Byam Shaw School of Art in London. Over the next four years, he charted the constellation of forms, systems and principles that have guided his art ever since.
On summer vacations, he returned home to carry out actions and experiments in the deserts outside of Dubai. In retrospect, those performances make artists of Sharif’s generation in Beirut, Cairo and Baghdad look fussy and conservative by comparison.
While they were painting landscapes, still lifes and social realist sorrows, Sharif was jumping, swinging, walking, singing next to a suspended tape recorder and digging a hole to stand in – all whimsical responses to rigorous and open-ended questions.
Clearly, Sharif was ahead of his time and searching for ideas and strategies in almost total intellectual and artistic isolation. Even more striking is that fact that while he was on the government’s payroll for more than 20 years, Sharif never allowed his art to be put into the service of national identity or political ideology.
“In Egypt in the 1930s, at the time of Georges Henein and the surrealists, art had a very powerful discourse,” he says. “After the revolution, the people didn’t understand what artists were doing so the new regime asked them to make art that the people would understand.
“The history of art in the Arab world is of regimes demanding Arab painting, but I never knew what that meant. It meant nothing. It was nonsense. It wasn’t enough, and it wasn’t the purpose of art. You don’t need to create a history of painting to prove you are Arab. Avant-garde artists were not searching in that space.”
Sharif, instead, used his work to play and explore, and to question and challenge. For all the perks of his passport, he also had his own exhibitions shut down, and his works have been censored and destroyed in almost every emirate where he helped build an infrastructure for the arts. (Sharif set up the Marijah Art Atelier in Sharjah, co-founded the Emirates Fine Arts Society and helped create the Flying House, a non-profit foundation for artists, which is still up and running in Dubai.)
“Works 1980-2012” sketches the broad outlines of Sharif’s career, but it doesn’t stick to a strict chronology. Crucially, it covers six distinct modes of artistic production – experiments, performances, objects, drawings, sculptures and paintings – which makes it possible to see the common threads of his practice more clearly.
Everything here is obsessive and systematic – drawings on grids, performances captured in orderly notes and photographs. At the same time, each work that appears to have been produced as a kind of game, according to rules or instructions, also seems to have broken down due to some unseen distraction or desire. Those cracks in the system give Sharif’s work emotional depth and conceptual stickiness.
More mysterious is his interest in the erotic as expressed through materials and metaphors. Certainly, the piles of recycled stuff that make up Sharif’s work are a form of criticism aimed at a time and place of consumption and excess. How, then, does the tactility of his materials relate to sexuality and society?
“Cotton is pure, soft, comfortable,” he says. “I mix it with iron wire, which is tough and hard. The iron wire penetrates the soft cotton. It’s not just about touching but seeing and smelling. The erotic is everywhere. It has a smell. Colors are erotic.
“It is important to look at these critical features of the erotic,” he continues. “Society ignores them. You have to stimulate them. You have to use the erotic as a weapon to destroy conventions. It is a tool for artists to use.”
“Hassan Sharif: Works 1980-2012” is on view at Galerie Sfeir-Semler in Karantina through July 21. For more information, please call 01-566-550 or see www.sfeir-semler.com.