Hassan Sharif (1951–2016) made a vital contribution to conceptual art and experimental practice in the Middle East through 40 years of performances, installations, drawing, painting, and assemblage. Prior to leaving the UAE to study in England in 1979, Sharif gained attention for his cartoons published in the UAE press - ironic, outspoken critiques of the rapid industrialisation of the Emirates and political deadlock of 1970s Arab Nationalism. As an artist, he rejected calligraphic abstraction, which was becoming the dominant discourse in the Middle East at that time, and pursued instead a pointedly contemporary vocabulary, drawing on the non-elitism and intermedia of Fluxus and the potential in British Constructionism's systemic processes of making.
Sharif graduated from The Byam Shaw School of Art, London, in 1984 and returned to the UAE shortly after. He set about staging interventions and the first exhibitions of contemporary art in Sharjah, as well as translating art historical texts and manifestos into Arabic so as to provoke a local audience to engage with - or at least reject- contemporary art discourse. Beginning in 1982, Sharif began to formulate and document private performances of mundane activities (e.g. discussing art in a toilet cubicle with the faculty of The Byam Shaw School, jumping or digging holes in the UAE desert). Simultaneously, he began work on what he calls 'Experiments' - formal exercises, like counting cars on a street in Dubai or tracing every instance of the letter 't' on a page of The Daily Mail newspaper. These absurdist and purposely boring practices were initially performed, in part, as an ironic response to the functionality of economics and globalisation: uselessness as gesture. This critical stance, what he calls 'positive irony', has since been developed on in subsequent works in other mediums.
Sharif started creating his Objects in the 1980s using found industrial materials or mass-produced items purchased in markets and stores around the UAE. Weaving these objects together with rope, coil and twine, the heaps and bundles that Sharif creates become a visualisation of the surplus of mass-production - the commonly unseen by product of the UAE's globalised, consumerist society that developed since independence. Sharif's Objects - which handed cheap, mass-produced or discarded materials back to society as artworks - were a vital instrument in provoking and engaging UAE audiences with contemporary art in the 1980s. Sharif's Semi-Systems were initially informed by British Constructionism and particularly Kenneth Martin's notion of 'Chance and Order'. Sharif invents a set of rules, following this system to create line drawings that transform within a grid and colour studies on paper. Sharif revels in the mistakes and errors that naturally occur in the monotonous creation of the work, believing that "'Art' is a result of errors".
Born in 1951 in Dubai, Sharif continued to work up until his death in late 2016. In addition to his own practice, he also encouraged and supported several generations of artists in the Emirates. He was a founding member of the Emirates Fine Arts Society (founded in 1980) and of the Art Atelier in the Youth Theater and Arts, Dubai. In 2007, he was one of four artists to establish The Flying House, a Dubai institution for promoting contemporary Emirati artists. The first Emirati to have his work shown in the Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha, Qatar, Sharif was also selected to be the debut artist to represent the UAE during its first national pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2009. In 2011, Sharif was the subject of a retrospective exhibition, Hassan Sharif: Experiments & Objects 1979-2011, curated by Catherine David and Mohammed Kazem, presented by the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture & Heritage/Platform for Visual Arts.