• Summary

    This exhibition and book publication together surveyed the founding decades of a profoundly influential artistic community, working at the vanguard of contemporary art in the UAE since the 1980s. Eventually, some of these artists founded the celebrated Flying House.

    The book tells this story through interviews with the expanded group of artists, filmmakers, poets, and writers that make up this community (including Nujoom Alghanem and Khalid Albudoor), and those who joined it or supported it along the way (Cristiana De Marchi, Abdulraheem Sharif), as well as essays by peer and writer Adel Khozam, and art historian Aisha Stoby.

    The title of the exhibition and book is drawn from a poem written by a key member of the community, poet and filmmaker Nujoom Alghanem.

    But We Cannot See Them was curated by Maya Allison, with Bana Kattan, and Alaa Edris. It included archival material and video interviews with members of the community, alongside artworks from the 1988 through 2008, as well as a reading room of work from other important members of the community.

  • Read the essay



    There was a house in the Satwa neighborhood of Dubai where artists, writers, and intellectuals took refuge in one another’s company. Many of them identified with a “new culture” of radical, formal, and conceptual experimentation, in both art and writing. It is said that if you had a key to the house you were welcome any time, day or night. The artist who lived there made art from the refuse of daily life around him. This was Hassan Sharif. Some of the most frequent visitors were his art student Mohammed Kazem, the poet Adel Khozam, his brother Hussain, also an artist, and the artists and writers mentioned below.

    On the east coast of the Emirate of Sharjah, there was a library in the town of Khor Fakkan run by an eminent poet, a friend and like-minded colleague to the Satwa house artists. This was Ahmed Rashid Thani. Around 1990, two young artists came to live at the library, and made it their studio: Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim of Khor Fakkan, and Abdullah Al Saadi from the mountains of the nearby Emirate of Fujairah. Each developed a distinct aesthetic and practice, drawing directly on the rocky, mountainous landscape around them. Ibrahim’s colorful, geometric paintings morphed into sculpture, which joined his land-art installations. Al Saadi produced volumes of nature studies, and environmental installations, derived from his travels by bicycle. Both came to know the Satwa house artists, and soon they were exhibiting their work alongside Mohammed Kazem and Hassan and Hussain Sharif.

    For the first half of the 1990s, there was a sand dune on the border between Ajman and Sharjah, dubbed the “Sand Palace.” If you saw a bonfire burning there, it meant the Sand Palace was active. A poet might be reading aloud, a television actor who was also a newspaper writer might be discussing a play, or one of the visual artists might be playing music for the company gathered there.

    Sharjah offered yet another kind of haven for these artists and intellectuals. The Sharjah Art Museum and the Emirates Fine Arts Society were among the few public places in the UAE where experimental artworks were exhibited at the time. Some of the UAE’s most heated aesthetic debates, public and private, grew out of the exhibitions in Sharjah, particularly the more experimental, conceptual projects by artists in this group. Controversy followed a number of their exhibitions. Every now and then a piece of artwork would just disappear, mistaken for refuse.

    Most of the year, and in most of the UAE, however, there was nowhere to see the art of this community, despite their prolific output. Jos Clevers was a Dutch artist and curator who came to Abu Dhabi in the early 1990s. He sought original, contemporary, Emirati art. He had been told there was no contemporary art in the UAE. He met Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim, who ushered Clevers into the Satwa house community, beginning artistic friendships that lasted until Clevers’ death in 2009.

    The artist Vivek Vilasini migrated from a lively art community in Bombay to Dubai, where he made his sculptures in solitude for the first year. Right on the verge of giving up, after repeated efforts to find peers and exhibition opportunities, he finally tracked down Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim, whose art he’d once seen in the Sharjah Biennial. Ibrahim introduced him to the group at the Satwa house, and, by the next day, Hassan had decided Vilasini must be in the upcoming exhibition at the Sharjah Art Museum. Two months later it opened, re-titled The Six (in 1996, with Jos Clevers, Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim, Mohamed Kazem, Hassan Sharif, Hussain Sharif, and Vivek Vilasini).

    If it had not been for the Emirates Fine Arts Society, the Sharjah Biennial, and the Sharjah Art Museum, most of these artists might never have found one another. And if it hadn’t been for the continuity of their relationships, they might not have grown as they did. The counterpoint to the periodic exhibitions in Sharjah was the daily making of art, teaching art, reading about art, writing about art, and reading and discussing theory, philosophy, poetry, and so on in the homes and ateliers of these artists.

    While Hassan’s home in Satwa looms large in the formative years of this community, those interviewed describe the house itself as quite modest: just a few rooms under an asbestos roof, piles and piles of books, and a small courtyard. Photos from that time show Hassan and his visitors sitting in the garden on generic white plastic patio chairs. The garden was part of a courtyard that was originally pavement. Inspired by Vivek’s plantings, and with his help, Hassan ripped up areas of cement to cultivate a garden of his own. Vivek recalls the courtyard when it was mostly empty and white. By the time Hassan moved out of that house, the plants had grown taller than him, and lined the courtyard.

    The 1990s saw this community form and settle into a richly productive period. Ibrahim had an Atelier in Khor Fakkan, where he taught art, while Kazem taught at Hassan Sharif’s Atelier in Dubai. Abdullah Al Saadi traveled extensively from his base in Khor Fakkan, where he taught English in a local school while he developed a series of journey-based exhibition projects.

    A young mathematician and painter, Ebtisam Abdulaziz, was an early student of Kazem’s. Kazem and Hassan both taught the techniques of drawing, painting, and sculpture, but encouraged students also to pursue the underlying conceptual truth of each artistic gesture. Eventually Abdulaziz had a profound breakthrough that connected her mathematical practice to her artistic one. Soon she was teaching alongside her mentors and peers at the Dubai Atelier. She became the Atelier’s manager, a role that Kazem before her had taken on from Hassan. She began exhibiting with the group, first with Lines (2004), a two-person exhibition at the Sharjah Art Museum with Mohammed Kazem. She became part of this group.