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Contemporary Trailblazer
Artist, curator, teacher and soldier, Mohammed Kazem has been at the forefront of contemporary art in the UAE since the 1980s. Here, he talks to T Emirates about his burgeoning international profile and his ambition for the country’s still-fledgling art scene.
By Orna Ballout

‘I was always collecting things and drawing, although I wasn’t sure why.’
Born in Dubai in 1969, Kazem led “a simple life” in his early years. “I was always collecting things and drawing, although I wasn’t sure why,” he says. When he was 14 he met his mentor, Hassan Sharif, who is considered by many the country’s first contemporary artist. At this time Kazem decided to leave school and join the Fine Arts Society to develop his talent. Although Kazem’s parents were supportive when their son needed to travel to Sharjah three times a week for art activities, they never really understood his passion. “They felt like I was doing something, but they didn’t really know what – and until this day they don’t know what I’m doing,” he laughs, admitting that his family members have neither visited his studio, Empty 10, located in Al Quoz, nor attended any of his exhibitions. This doesn’t seem to bother Kazem. “They are proud that I’m traveling and they like to see me in the news,” he shrugs. Would he like to see them more involved? “I have kept this like it is for thirty years. If they ask what I’m doing, I don’t have an answer for them. It’s easier than explaining everything from A to Z.” In 1986, Kazem joined the military, spending the next 23 years as a soldier while simultaneously pursuing his passion for art. Kazem is among a small group of artists who have worked hard to champion the contemporary art scene in the UAE. Throughout his career, he has juggled the roles of artist, curator and teacher. His work has been selected for notable exhibitions and biennales in Germany, Switzerland and India, to name a few. And appreciation for his work is evident from his loyal clientele, which spans institutions and museums in Sharjah and Doha to private investors based across the region and worldwide. With established events such as the Sharjah Biennale and Art Dubai, and major international projects like the Louvre Abu Dhabi and the Guggenheim Museum in the works, it’s clear that the UAE has grand ambitions to establish itself as a centre for art and culture. While Kazem is optimistic for the future, he feels the country still has a long way to go. “We are facing an issue with the Sharjah Biennale, that after the opening very few people are coming to it,” he remarks by way of illustration. Kazem describes the UAE as “very different from other countries in the region”, in that each emirate has “its own institute that organizes activities, and that’s why there’s a variety of events happening across the UAE.” Over the past decade, he has noticed many changes, with more artists and curators becoming active thanks to governmentsponsored education initiatives. However, he believes it is still not enough. “There is no art academy, which is what we really need,” says Kazem. If we want “to bridge the gap between art and the audience,” he stresses, education is the key.

Emirati artist Mohammed Kazem’s name is rapidly gaining global recognition.

Artist Mohammed Kazem.

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T Emirates: The New York Times Style Magazine

images courtesy of Mohammed Kazem.

image courtesy of The UAE Pavilion.

This year he is showcasing his work in his first solo exhibition at the Venice Biennale, the 55th edition of the prestigious art event. Showcasing the theme, “Walking on Water”, and on display until November, it is, Kazem explains, “a very simple but deeply concentrated piece of work” which explores political and social issues. In 2002, Kazem threw wooden panels into the sea “to reflect the wars and everything happening in our lives”. In order to raise the issue, “I used nature’s elements to carry those pieces out of the border, freely, with each piece going in different directions.” This work was documented in a series of photographs and film, and, along with a maquette he created in 2005, has been revisited to create his work in Venice: a chamber that visitors can enter to experience sights and sounds of the sea, and the marrying of art and nature with deeper political meaning. Despite being the only artist selected to represent the UAE at what is recognised as one of the art world’s most important events, Kazem is modest about his success and instead sings the praises of curator Reem Fadda and the UAE Pavilion, who selected him, for their efforts “in developing this collaboration.”

Images from top to bottom: Art works by Mohammed Kazem, the UAE’s sole entrant at this year’s Venice Biennale.

Women’s Fashion September - October, 2013

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