Sitting in an airy studio annexed to his family villa in Jumeirah, Abdul Qader Al Rais tells me art is in his genes.
His words succinctly encompass his staggering contribution to the UAE art scene.
The soft-spoken artist, now 65, with a career spanning several decades, is hailed as a pioneer in Emirati contemporary art; no retrospective would be complete without one of his masterpieces.
This week, he embarks on his 40th exhibition. But this time, it is a proud collaboration with daughter Sumaya, 38, and son Musab, 36. It is the first time the trio have come together professionally.
Titled Al Rais Art, the show opens in Etihad Modern Art Gallery in Abu Dhabi today. Spread over two floors, it’s actually three separate exhibitions under one roof. While some of Sumaya’s work dates back to 2012, Al Rais and Musab have between them 50 new pieces – the result of more than a year’s worth of labour.
Interestingly, it is the master’s first exhibition in Abu Dhabi since 2000.
“I used to hold shows here once a year in the former Cultural Foundation,” he says. “But it has been 16 years since I have had any exhibition in Abu Dhabi, other than a few pieces shown at Abu Dhabi Art. Of course, I am proud to be returning to the capital. Every exhibition I have, I feel I am doing something for my country and representing my nation.”
Al Rais’s prolific career can be traced back to the 1950s when, as a young child, he was sent to live in Kuwait with his elder sister and her husband after his father died. The move kick-started his education in the arts.
“I was lucky because the Kuwaiti government was supporting art and they gave me materials,” he says. “At that time, I couldn’t read English so I just looked at pictures in art books. I say that my teachers were the masters – Raphael, Da Vinci and Rembrandt, then later Monet and Pissarro – because I learnt to love impressionism.”
By 1968, Al Rais had returned to the UAE and developed a distinct impressionist style. His subjects were usually people going about their daily lives.
In the 1970s, however, he moved away from figures and portraits and began a love affair with the landscapes of the UAE as well as its architecture – a style for which he is internationally renowned.
Al Rais’s art has been praised for its evocative depiction of nature – the innate energy of each piece captures the spirit of the landscapes that inspire him. Local traditional architectural styles are referenced through imagery such as doors and windows; usually denoted as floating squares, they feature in much of his later work.
Perhaps one of the most arresting things about Al Rais’s creations is that they capture the country as it used to look, echoing the shapes and colours of wind towers, palm-frond buildings, seascapes and desertscapes. One of the driving forces behind that artists’s international success is Al Anood Al Warshow, owner of Hunar and Ajyad Gallery in Dubai. Al Warshow has championed Al Rais’s work at global fairs during the past decade and made him accessible to international art collectors.
A reserved man who constantly thanks God for his success, Al Rais humbly brushes off the important place he occupies in the history of art in his country, while being proud of his children’s accomplishments.
“The first people I taught were my children,” he says. “It is thanks to God I have this talent and I thank God that He has allowed me to be a role model for the younger ones.”
Sumaya agrees. “I was about 6 years old when I first drew a picture – of my father,” she says. “I used to follow my father everywhere, from the studio and around the house, wherever he went I was with him. I remember when I made the sketch, he looked at it and he said then that I had a talent.”
Although she grew up surrounded by her father’s artworks and dabbled in art throughout her school years, Sumaya stopped painting after school. She got married and had four children, moving to Australia with her husband, where they lived for five years before returning to the UAE in 2011.
“I was so busy that I didn’t have time to paint,” she says. “But I was very sad. I felt like I was missing something all the time.”
Back in the UAE, however, she found herself with more time, and so she picked up the brush again and began painting what comes naturally to her – still-life that reflects the true nature and heritage of her homeland.
“During the time I was away in Australia, I felt disconnected from my country and was constantly thinking about all the things that were special to the UAE. So when I started painting again that is what I chose to depict: flowers, coffee pots, incense burners and the unique fabrics.”
Sumaya’s paintings are full of intricate detail, all highlighted with the clever use of light and shadow. She readily admits to traces of her father’s influence in her art, and says she constantly asks him for advice when starting any new piece.
But her style is all her own – she prefers heightened realism over her father’s impressionism.
“My love of art comes from my father and so of course you can see this in my work, but when I paint I do it with all my love and I want people to see the beauty of what I see. This is something that comes only from me.”
Musab is also keen to make the distinction between his and his father’s art.
“I used to paint a lot when I was younger, and everyone would compare my work with my father’s,” he says. “I actually stopped painting for a while because of that and other reasons. But then in 2008, a friend pushed me to start again and now I don’t care what other people say, I have my own style and I am proud of my father’s influence as well.”
Although he started off painting images of windows, doors and old Emirati houses, Musab later moved into abstract art, which he says allows him better self-expression.
“I am looking forward to this exhibition very much because I believe that when people see our work together they will be able to see the differences as well as the similarities,” he says.
Musab’s works are a combination of still-life paintings, featuring finely rendered objects such as apples or the khanjar (dagger), as well as abstract works – energetic pieces full of vibrant blues, reds and whites swirling across the canvas.
“I believe a good artist should be able to do classic work as well as abstract,” he says. “So I choose to paint and present both.”
The idea for the collaborative exhibition came about after a conversation Al Rais had with Khalid Seddiq Al Mutawa, owner and co-founder Etihad Modern Art Gallery.
“Abdul Qader Al Rais is one of the most well-known artists in the UAE and it is an honour for our gallery to host an exhibition of his,” says Al Mutawa, who is a fan of Al Rais’s work, especially the artist’s use of bold, primary colours in his abstract pieces, and the soft hues that dominate the skies and deserts depicted in his landscapes.
“Our goal at Etihad Modern Art Gallery is to nurture the next generation of artists, so we decided to have a joint exhibition for the whole family, which is something we consider to be a great privilege.”
Such collaborations between the artists and the gallery also benefit the wider public, says Al Mutawa.
“We are an art organisation with deep roots in the local community and we aim to play a positive role in the emerging art scene of Abu Dhabi. This exhibition is just one example of this.”
For the Al Rais family, and particularly Sumaya, the exhibition is a dream come true.
“It has been a lifelong dream for me to exhibit my paintings alongside my father’s,” she says. “Since I was a little girl I have hoped for this day, so I can hardly believe it is finally happening. I am really so happy, I can’t put it into words.”
• Al Rais Art runs from Monday, May 2,until May 28 at Etihad Modern Art Gallery, Al Bateen, Abu Dhabi. Visit www.etihadmodernart.com
Source: art & life