In the face of common challenges, artists are known to come together and create a space of encouragement – that is the basis of what this exciting exhibition highlights. Community has played a key role in every modern art historical breakthrough, with artists banding together around manifestos, or turning to one another for support when art institutions rejected their innovations. Art communities grow out of critical and creative exchange among peers and mentors.

But We Cannot See Them: Tracing a UAE Underground, 1988 – 2008 focuses on one community of artists, sometimes called “the five”, at an intersection of visual artists, writers, and filmmakers based in the UAE. Its members identified with a new culture of encouraging radical, formal and conceptual experimentation. Eventually, some of these artists founded the celebrated Flying House.

Founding Director and Chief Curator of the NYUAD Art Gallery, Maya Allison

In tandem with this exhibition, The NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery is publishing a book of interviews with the artists. Together, the exhibition and book begin the process of tracing this pivotal artistic community in the key years of its formation. Maya Allison, Founding Director and Chief Curator of the NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery, says: “When I first met these artists and learned about the history of their community, it struck me that theirs shares a structural similarity with “underground” or “independent” art scenes that I’ve studied.


“Operating as an artistic community outside of formal art institutions allows artists a combination of freedom and support that can enable powerful creative innovation,” she adds. The exhibition was curated by Maya along with Exhibitions Curator Bana Kattan and research and programme development by Programmes Curator Alaa Edris. It includes archival material and videotaped interviews with members of the community, alongside artworks from 1988 through to 2008 as well as a reading room of work from other important members of the community, including Cristiana De Marchi, Adel Khozam, and Nujoom Al Ghanem.

Hussein Sharif detail

“I am told that in the early 1990s, when curators came to the UAE looking for contemporary art, they concluded none was being made, because they could not see it,” Maya explains. “Yet contemporary art was actually flourishing. The particular artists in this exhibition developed what we might call an “underground,” in spite of – or because of – the scarcity of public venues able to support conceptual and formal experimentation in the UAE at the time.

Mohammed Ahmed Ibrahim, Untitled, 2016

“When The Flying House opened in 2007, that space gave them a new found visibility, leading to further audience and institutional support,” she says. Artists include: Hassan Sharif, Mohammed Ahmed Ibrahim, Abdullah Al Saadi, Mohammed Kazem, Hussein Sharif, Vivek Vilasini, Jos Clevers, and Ebtisam Abdulaziz. ✤

GO: But We Cannot See Them: Tracing a UAE Underground, 1988 – 2008 will run at The Art Gallery at NYU Abu Dhabi, from March 2 to May 25. Visit www.nyuad-06 for more information.