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Abdul Qader Al Rais: Fifty Years of Art

SNA (Abu Dhabi) — Emirati artist Abdul Qader Al Rais, moved to Kuwait as a child in the late 1950s. Kuwait was at the time a far advanced country when compared with its neighbors from today’s Gulf Cooperation Council. Additionally, in Kuwait, culture and the arts flourished. He attended school at Marsan Al-Hurr. “One day I discovered that I could draw a proper human face with realistic features instead of a circle with points as eyes.” This was his true eureka moment. From there on he began to paint himself, other children, and still-lifes. He now has fifty years of art under his belt.

Al Rais prides himself in being a self-taught artist. Ever since he was a young child he felt attracted to art: “I fell in love with art from the moment I was born.”

A retrospective that celebrates his achievements recently took place at Manarat Al-Saadiyat cultural center in Abu Dhabi. In the hall dedicated to his early achievements we find a portrait of a teenage boy wearing a pink shirt. In fact, it is a self-portrait. The painting also holds a special meaning. It’s a cherished memory. His self-portrait with the pink shirt was the first work he sold. Moreover, it was bought by a prominent Kuwaiti man well known in the literary circles of the 1960s.

As a child Al Rais moved to Kuwait where he lived with his elder sister. While growing up in Kuwait he was influenced by the style of the Palestinian artist Ismail Shammout. Later on, throughout his artistic career, Al Rais painted Palestinian refugees whose feelings of displacement he empathized with. In the retrospective exhibition we see a painting that relates to the first Intifada. A Palestinian man throws a stone at the occupiers of his land.

Al Rais fondly remembers the summer school he used to attend in Kuwait where he won the first prize in various drawing competitions. He was in awe of Rembrandt, whom he copied over and over until he was told by a fellow older artist to learn from Impressionism. And to move forwards through the different stages of art is what he did. Thus he developed the highly personal style by which he is known today.

Much as he loved the arts there came a period that lasted twelve full years when he completely stopped drawing and painting. As it happened, he went to the United States. Shortly before returning to the United Arab Emirates he took an extended cross-country road trip starting from Ohio. While driving a whole new panorama open up in front of his eyes. He likes to say that “he went crazy” with the scenery. Then, the urge to paint returned with greater force.

Al Rais was so impressed by the landscapes that he immediately bought a set of pencils, brushes, and colors. It was right on the eve of his return to Dubai. He painted on the aircraft as he was flying back home. From there on a series of awe-inspiring Emirati landscapes, sea, mountains, and deserts surfaced on large canvases. In the beginning the artist painted outdoors, until he eventually mastered the atmosphere and natural features that he wanted to capture.

The old neighborhoods of Dubai with their traditional Gulf architecture were often depicted in his paintings produced during the early 1980s. It’s in these works that we see the artist preserving history. His large-scale depictions of nature are focused on areas intimately linked to the essential energy unique to his country of birth.

From the late 1980s, we observe a transition that emphasizes geometric patterns. Amongst them the square, which references to mud and coral stone used to build homes while at the same time it alludes to the Arabic letter nuqta which means “dot” in English. These squares enhance the play between light and shadow, they are whimsical and free. They became a sort of trademark.

By the end of the decade Al Rais has moved firmly into the world of abstraction. His Arabic identity is revised on his abstract compositions which now incorporate the letter wa in the so called Hurufiyyat series of works. “This letter has the flexibility to extend across the page not unlike a horizon,” says the artist. To this he adds the letter ha which resembles the eyes of women wearing burka. During this period he expands his palette and range of shapes.

The exhibition Abdul Qader Al Rais: 50 Years of Art brings together the evolution of the career of this pioneering figure in the Emirati art scene which somehow mirrors the progress experienced by the United Arab Emirates. Abdul Qader Al Rais beautiful, sensitive works are a testament of the cultural traditions of his country.

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