The Materials Man of the Emirates

He fashioned the earliest examples from street trash, elaborately knotting lengths of ordinary rope, bundling broken-down cardboard boxes and braiding strips of recycled cloth. He soaked newspaper in water and glue, mashed it to a pulp, then kneaded the pulp the way his father had kneaded dough. He molded the pulp into loaf-like cakes — some resembled phalluses or turds — and displayed them in stacks and piles, the way he remembered baked goods in markets when he was a child.

Even as he was doing all this, markets and appetites were expanding. In souks and shops, machine-made overwhelmed handmade; imported wiped out local. At some point, Sharif slowed down on scavenging and started buying, picking up cheap, disposable objects, the equivalent of Duchampian ready-mades, in bulk: plastic toys, made-in-China buckets, slippers, brooms, rugs, flip flops. He attached such items to supports woven from wire. The resulting assemblages — free-standing or suspended, cascading down walls, spilling across floors — colonized gallery space the way consumerism swamped the globe.

Photo

In Mr. Sharif’s atelier, his desk with pens, book, cigarettes and everyday objects he used in his assemblages.

Credit
Katarina Premfors for The New York Times

But this art didn’t come across as polemical. It was, first and foremost, visually delightful, with its sleek surfaces, bright colors and hectic, aggressive abundance. It had a tickling psychological edge, a blend of zaniness and violence. And it was accessible in an I-could-do-that-too way. This was art that didn’t rely on genius skills or elite training or expensive materials. Almost anyone with a little cash, a knack for wire-twisting and a magpie eye, could make their own versions at home, just as Sharif did in the modest Dubai apartment where he lived and worked.

His studio — including a beat-up desk scattered with pencils,…

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