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
EXCERPT FROM THE CURATOR’S 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.
DOWNLOAD FULL ESSAY HERE
- PDF of Book: But We Cannot See Them [6 MB]
- Exhibition Activity Timeline: But We Cannot See Them [1.3 MB]
- PDF of Brochure: But We Cannot See Them [4.2 MB]
- PDF of Artist Labels: But We Cannot See Them [233 KB]
- PDF of Youth Guide: But We Cannot See Them [7.1 MB]
- Press Release: But We Cannot See Them Closing [284 KB]
- Press Release: But We Cannot See Them Opening [309 KB]
- Media Alert: But We Cannot See Them Public Program Announcement [224 KB]
- PDF of Reading Room Bibliography: But We Cannot See Them [195 KB]
EXHIBITION PROGRAM EVENTS
Artist Discussion: Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim
Saturday April 15, 4:00-6:00pm
Experimental Play: Khafeef Al Rouh by Jamal Mattar Saturday April 22, 7:30-9:00pm
Films by Nujoom Alghanem:
Tuesday April 4, 6:30-8pm
Al Mureed Friday April 21, 6:30-8pm
Thursday May 18, 6:30-8pm
The Flying House
Friday March 24, 4pm-6pm
Lines, Numbers and Geometry
Friday April 21, 4pm-6pm
Objects as Art Friday May 19, 4pm-6pm
Abdullah Al Saadi (b. 1967) lives and works in Khor Fakkan, UAE.Read more
He has exhibited extensively regionally and internationally. Museum exhibitions include the Kunst Museum, Bonn, Germany; and the New Museum, New York, USA. His work has been featured in numerous biennials including São Paulo (2004), Venice: UAE Pavilion (2011, 2015) and multiple Sharjah Biennials. In 2017, Al Saadi participated in the 13th Sharjah Biennial, and the Antarctic Biennial. Al Saadi’s work in the But We Cannot See Them exhibition included that from his sojourn in Japan (1994-1996). His journeys generate both paintings and objects collected, together creating records of his experiences.
As he describes it:
When I go on a trip, I must make an artwork. I do not just go for entertainment. Even the bike trip around the world, I wanted to make artworks during this trip and write the diaries of my trip, I mean, I must make something. I did not want to simply roam the world on my bike. I began making internal trips. After university, for example, I made trips from Al Ain to Sharjah and Sharjah to Al Ain, and from Al Ain to Khor Fakkan. After that, I made a trip on the bike to the tops of the mountains, which was the first time I went into the mountains, and I came to Ras Al Khaimah and Fujairah.
[My time in Japan] had some influence. The first work I made was a long scroll, I painted the area where I lived. I used to go to museums and see long scrolls, and I brought some copies with me. That is the only artwork that I had made there, in addition to writing diaries, making sketches, collecting and examining cans.
Ebtisam Abdulaziz (b. 1975) is a multidisciplinary artist based in Washington DC, USA.Read more
Her exhibitions include DC Arts Center, Washington DC, USA (2017); The Third Line Gallery, Dubai, UAE (2012); Sharjah Art Museum, Sharjah, UAE (2007). Her work has also been included in various group exhibitions including The By the People X Monochrome collective Art Fair, Washington, DC (2020); Manarat Al Saadiyat, Abu Dhabi, UAE (2018); FotoFest Biennial, Houston, Texas (2014); Manarat Al Saadiyat, Abu Dhabi, UAE (2013); and Institute du Monde Arabe, Paris, France (2012). Her work has shown at international museums such as the Mori Art Museum, Tokyo, Japan (2012); the Denmark National Museum, Copenhagen (2010); and the the Sharjah Art Museum, Sharjah, UAE (2013). Abdulaziz participated in the inaugural UAE Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2009 and the Benin Biennial, in West Africa in 2012. Several of the works on view at the But We Cannot See Them exhibition were from the artist’s first major exhibition of conceptual work. In her interview for this project she explains how her studies with Mohamed Kazem and this community affected her own artistic practice:
I discovered that art does not only mean that you know how to make artworks literally… the issue was to discover my way of thinking, to discover myself more… I was subjected to an internal shock, I discovered that I was making paintings which I did not like, this was not me… by the end of 2004, I made a new series that was completely different from the paintings I used to make. The new series was installation that integrated mathematics and geometry. The exhibition marked a change and a shift from the Ebtisam who used to produce paintings, to Ebtisam who produces conceptual installations.
Hassan Sharif (1951-2016) was a founding member of the Emirates Fine Arts Society, and influential figure in the UAE avant-garde.Read more
In those early years after Sharif returned from studying art in London, he also co-founded an avant-garde group together with Nujoom Alghanem and Khalid Albudoor. Those early exhibitions generated both excitement and heated public debates. By 1988, the year this survey starts, Hassan Sharif had found his footing, turning inward to focus on arts education, writing about art, and his own artwork. The intensive creative community that formed thereafter, traced in this project, shares certain traits with famous art historical communities, which have produced webs of creative influence alongside distinct individual artistic innovation.
A philosophical passion for art motivated his practice:
… there are spaces between words: art is these spaces, it is not the words. Art should be nonsense in order not to use it. If there is meaning it is not art. It is a cup, which you put in a kitchen and fill with water. If you have money you can buy it, if you have taste you can appreciate it, but you must not use it. Art must be without purpose, so you cannot use it. It must be useless in order to be unique. Otherwise if you make art for using it, then it is not art.
Hassan Sharif, from an interview with Cristiana de Marchi, 2009
In 2012, after the period this exhibition covers, the curator Catherine David, together with Mohammed Kazem, curated a substantial retrospective of his work at Qasr Al Hosn Cultural Quarter, along with the first monograph on his work. A second retrospective was presented by the Sharjah Art Foundation in 2017.
His work is now represented in major public collections, such as the Guggenheim New York, Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, Centre Pompidou, Mathaf Arab Museum of Modern Art, Tate Modern, and Sharjah Art Foundation.
Hussein Sharif (b. 1961) is a multidisciplinary artist who lives and works in Dubai.Read more
He participated in major exhibitions both regionally and internationally in his native UAE, Russia, Holland, France, Egypt and Germany such as: Cultural Diversity and The 6, Sharjah Art Museum (2005); 5 UAE, Ludwig Forum, Germany (2002); UAE Contemporary Art, the Institute du Monde Arab, France (1998); and Emirates Arts: 4 UAE, Sittard Art Center, Netherlands (1995). He partook in several Sharjah Biennials in addition to the Dhaka Biennial (2002); and the Cairo Biennial (1998). His work has appeared in solo presentations at the Salwa Zeidan gallery in Abu Dhabi. Hussein is one of the founding members of the Emirates Fine Arts Society.
As he told Alaa Edris and Bana Kattan in an interview in 2016:
In repetition, as much as we try to uphold the rules and steps that we first make, it is inevitable that a change occurs in the work. Change occurs by coincidence; vanity, time, and mood also play a role. Things featured in that work are remnants of the environment and daily life, including metals, wood, and plastic. I try to bestow a new meaning on a meaningless item through changing its shape, incorporating it with something else, putting it in another place, or combining it with another substance.
Jos Clevers (1951–2009) founded the Sittard Art Center in the Netherlands.Read more
He lived in the UAE from 1994 to 1996, and returned periodically, until his death. While in the UAE, he participated in many exhibitions and projects, and notably The 6 exhibition at the Sharjah Art Museum, in 1996, with many of the artists in this exhibition.
Clevers curated the Emirates 4 at the Sittard Art Center, Netherlands (1995), the first presentation of this UAE group of artists internationally. He went on to play a crucial role in founding and curating The Flying House, together with Cristiana de Marchi, Mohammed Kazem, and Abdulraheem Sharif. As he told Hassan Sharif in an interview in 1999:
I would like to assure you that I am neither a professor nor an orientalist nor an anthropologist. I am just among you, not to discover you, but in order to reveal my unconscious side as an artist, to foster it more. Briefly, I don’t want to commit the same errors that were committed by the Europeans in the past decades and centuries. As an artist, I look forward to seeing artists who hear and respect each other… and all I have said so far is intimately related to a universal concept for art and culture affecting beyond doubt all human society. The content doesn’t unveil the form.
Jos Clevers (1951–2009) founded the Sittard Art Center in the Netherlands.
Mohammed Kazem (b. 1969) lives and works in Dubai, UAE.Read more
He has participated in numerous editions of the Sharjah Biennial, receiving first prize for installations in 1999 and 2003, and in 2007, co-curated the Sharjah Biennial. Kazem’s work has appeared in many regional and international exhibitions at institutions such as Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde, Alserkal Avenue (2017, 2018, 2020), Cadoro-Zetrum ur Kunst und Wissenschaft, Maine (2019); Aicon Gallery, New York (2018); Taymour Grahne, New York (2014); Gwangju Museum of Art (2014); The New Museum (2014); Maraya Art Centre, Sharjah (2013); Boghossian Foundation (2013); the Mori Art Museum (2012); and University of the Arts, Philadelphia (2012). He has exhibited at the Venice Biennale multiple times, including a solo presentation for the UAE in 2013.
Kazem’s multi-disciplinary practice centers on documenting his physical relationship to his environment, often using non-traditional methods such as GPS codes and his own body as material. He was a teacher to Ebtisam Abdulaziz at the Atelier in Dubai, and before that he was a longtime student of Hassan Sharif. Rather than influencing each other’s work, one can trace the philosophical connections among them on the topic of art education itself:
First, I believe that every person has a particular way of thinking and living, even before they join any course to learn the basics of art in general. I noticed that teaching is a critical issue, because we must aim to teach students and provide them with all the information they need on visual arts, without affecting their individuality. We ought to try to guide them, for example, without influencing their special style. The final goal should not be to witness the graduation of 10 artists, who are the same version of one another. We must focus on their special style because everyone has one.
Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim (b. 1962) lives and works in Khor Fakkan, UAE.Read more
Ibrahim’s work is represented in significant collections, including Sharjah Art Foundation, Sharjah, UAE; Sharjah Art Museum, Sharjah, UAE; Art Jameel, Dubai, UAE; Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah, UAE; Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha, Qatar; Kunstcentrum Sittard, The Netherlands; the British Museum, London; and The Centre George Pompidou, Paris.
He has exhibited broadly, including most recently the 2020 Desert X Al Ula biennial in Saudi Arabia, and in 2018 Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim: Elements, a survey of works spanning three decades of his practice was presented at the Sharjah Art Foundation, curated by Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi. Other biennials include the inaugural UAE Pavilion at Venice in 2009; Dhaka (2002, 1993); Havana (2000); Cairo (1998); and in connection with the Kochi Biennale (2016).
I began to participate with Hassan in exhibitions in the 1990s; however, I was not only working on paintings, I also produced land art at home. I had some kind of a ritual where I would spend a week to 10 days on the mountain, in nature, moving rocks. Hassan and I were going by chance to Khor Fakkan, and I told him that I wanted to show him some of my works. When he saw it he said, “This is land art! What are you doing?!” I started to comprehend land art further; I found myself driven into this type of art, and that it was the right tool for me. But this did not mean that I abandoned painting altogether; the painting was always present no matter what. I started working and experimenting with natural materials, I mean all the materials available at home, cardboard or paper, tree branches etc., so I started focusing on such works. In the 1990s, I began to participate in exhibitions; my art- related information began to expand and deepen, and I gained a solid foundation.
Vivek Vilasini (b. 1964) is an artist living and working between Kochi and Bangalore, India.Read more
After a period in Bombay, he spent much of the 1990s in Dubai, where he became part of this community of artists working on the vanguard of experimentation. Hassan Sharif invited him to join an exhibition at the Sharjah Art Museum, titled The 6, which included Hassan and Hussein Sharif, Mohammed Kazem, Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim, and Jos Clevers. Since then, his group exhibitions include Sakshi Gallery, Mumbai (2020); 1×1 Art Gallery, Dubai (2018); Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2012, Kochi Biennale Foundation, India (2012-2013); Centre De Cultura Contemporània De Barcelona, Spain (2020); Newark Museum, USA (2008); The Art Resource, India; Phyllis Weston-Annie Bolling Gallery and the Krohn Conservatory, USA; Who Knew Mr. Gandhi?, Aicon Gallery, United Kingdom.
Most of Hassan’s friends who knew where his house was had a way of knocking on his door, it was a kind of rhythmic number knock, so when he heard that he knew who it was; if he didn’t know who it was he wouldn’t bother to open the door. Friends could come any time of the day or not and some would also bring other young poets or writers or generally creative people who wanted to meet him. Even if he was sleeping he could wake up and find time to listen and offer his critique or appreciation of the person’s work.