Art Here 2021
Richard Mille Art Prize
18 November 2021 – 27 March 2022
Mohammed Kazem (b. 1969, Dubai) is an Emirati artist whose work responds directly to the material conditions of his immediate geographical location. He often positions himself within his work as a means of asserting his subjectivity in a landscape marked by rapid modernization. In the photographic series entitled Photographs with Flags (Dubai, 1997/2003), he stands with his back to the viewer in an open expanse next to colored flags. Rather than representing countries, the flags are pieces of cloth indicating the future construction of roads and pavements in the area. Their incongruous presence takes the viewer’s mind back in time by provoking memories of the original site. By highlighting the paved roads which have, by now, been constructed, the flags also ground the viewer in the present moment. In turn, they point us towards the future, by creating anticipation of what new construction is to come.
As structural elements, the flags reduce the local landscape to an essential contrast between desert terrain and urban engineering. But the effect of opposition is entirely in the viewer’s mind, an alternative reality which disrupts our linear, absolute understanding of time. Unstitching the relation between memory and territory, the flags cause past, present and future to coincide as an open field of the “probable or possible.” As time becomes elastic, space is reduced to an essential act of construction – the material marking of a physical territory. The gesture gives rise to a new sense of place, as the artist takes up a position in the scene which mirrors – and disrupts – the perspective of the viewer standing in front of the photograph.
“I started making art as a child, not too seriously but I was collecting things in the street on my way home or making small drawings at school. In 1984 the director of my school took me to the Emirates Fine Arts Society in Sharjah, where I met Hassan Sharif. He taught me how to draw, he told me about Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, and contemporary Western art and he provided me with books where I discovered Cezanne, Monet, Picasso, Matisse, etc. I was not reading in English at the time, so I was just looking at the images of the artworks. Back then these books did not exist here, he brought them back from the UK. We had very few materials in Arabic at the time, and Hassan Sharif was translating many of the books and articles he brought back from his travels, which I was reading. Later in 1987, he organized my first solo show and he photographed and documented most of my artworks. He was the one to tell me to archive my work. We were in constant conversation while making art, a 30 year conversation that lasted until he passed away in 2016.
Contemporary art in the UAE is very recent, it started in the late 1970s. Artists of my generation all had a job aside from our art practice. We could not live through our art. Many of the artworks we produced stayed with us under our beds for decades, and many works have been lost or destroyed. We were a small group of artists at the time, and we were all working in a different way. At the beginning, our practice was influenced by European tradition, but then we related more to Minimal and Conceptual art. Critics started to call us “The Five” when we had a group exhibition called 5 UAE at the Ludwig Museum in Aachen, Germany in 2002. But we actually often included other artists, such as Vivek Vilasini or Jos Clevers, and we did not see each other as a group. We intentionally did not write a manifesto. We did not have a dogma or a classical way to practice art. The beauty of it is that we had a great freedom. We could choose any material and transform it into visual art.
When I was young, there was no art history in our local education, and we had no access to art. In the 1980s and 1990s, there was only a few events here and one annual exhibition in Sharjah, before the first Sharjah Biennial in 1993. But the ministry of culture in the UAE was very supportive of Emirati artists. They helped us travel and that is how I could participate in many shows in the Arab world, such as the Cairo Biennials, or in exhibitions in India and Bangladesh. With the Sharjah Biennial we were receiving a lot of Arab artists but very few Europeans. When the new cultural projects were announced, like the Louvre Abu Dhabi, we met a lot of international curators, who came to visit our studios and invited us to international exhibitions. It was very helpful for all of us because we received a lot of attention. Now there are many galleries and institutions, there is an art market in the UAE. I feel that the opportunities in the UAE are now more than the number of artists.
In the 1990s I decided to teach to help create a new generation of artists here because I felt that there was a lack of practitioners in the country. I was mentoring them, and I curated a few exhibitions, especially one called Window: 16 UAE artists at the Total Art Gallery in Dubai in 2006, where I showed 16 artists from three generations. I am still following the young generation and their practice; my studio is always open for them if they want to visit and talk.
My practice was shaped by European tradition but I am using elements from the UAE. I am always trying to interact and capture the elements of the city. I focus on the environment, using a large variety of materials. When I travel or participate in residency programs abroad, I interact with other cities and I capture the elements from that region. Everywhere I work, I am looking carefully at the light, the nature, the people, the colors, the sounds, the smells. With all these elements I make an artwork which is related to that specific environment. I made a series of works using natural light, and how we receive the light every day. In this series, I am using different techniques: scratching paper, painting or photography. I am questioning the movement of the light and how to keep the time ongoing by scratching the light. I made this project in different countries, interacting differently with the light of the city I am in at that moment. I also study the sound in this series, the sound of the sun when it hits the work, which is different in every window and in every city.
I used to go fishing on the coast, in the area between Sharjah and Al Mamzar in Dubai, and I suddenly started seeing flags around there, to mark the construction sites. I started documenting these flags, going from one place to another spontaneously every time I saw one. In the mid-nineties, I was often using photography to document my art projects. In the 1997 series, Hassan Sharif was taking the photographs, using a small camera. In 2003, the curator of the Sharjah Biennial, Peter Lewis, commissioned me to do the same works with the help of a professional photographer. They were then exhibited in the streets, printed as posters or put in light boxes in the streets, as public art. I am from Dubai and I used to know the place by heart, but now I am often lost and confused in my own city. The changes and developments in the UAE have happened so fast since the UAE was founded in 1971. If you compare the Photographs with Flags taken in 1997 and the ones from 2003, you can see this rapid change. These areas were empty, and now there are streets and shops, the cities are developing vertically and horizontally into the desert. One of the flags is even where the Sharjah Biennial is taking place. With this series I wanted to remind people to look back to the past, then to look at the present time to see forward to the future.”
Interview with Mohammed Kazem, 19 October 2021, Dubai