He’s widely regarded as one of the best artists in the UAE. Yet Abdulqadar Al Rais is completely self-taught. He tells Al Shindagah why he’s proud of his Emirati heritage...
Abdulqadar Al Rais was the first Emirati artist ever to have an exhibition in this country. The talented painter has to date had more than 35 solo exhibitions across the world, many of which have been held in the UAE, and he’s taken part in more than 100 group art exhibitions.
It’s interesting to note therefore that the 60-year-old Dubai native never formally studied art. Actually he trained to be a lawyer and specialised in Sharia law at Al Ain University. “My art is better than my knowledge of the law,” he tells Al Shindagah from his home-based artist’s studio in Umm Al Sheif, Dubai. “If you’re passionate about a subject you feel you can do anything with it.”
He has long been passionate about art and first showed artistic talent while at boarding school in Kuwait, where he was sent after his father died when he was just seven years old. He was 13 when his first picture was exhibited in a school art show. It was about that time too that he began to study the work of the great masters, artists like – Raphael, Michaelangelo and Rembrandt. From these, he explains he learnt how to paint light and shadow. “Rembrandt really was my teacher”, he says, explaining how in 1967 he discovered the impressionists. Artists like Edgar Degas and Claude Monet also had a huge impact on his work.
The following year was important for him in two in ways. Not only did he begin to develop his own artistic style, he sold his first painting. “It sold for 30 dinars,” he says, smiling at the memory. “At the time it was good – it was one month’s salary for me”. Now a print of this Dh400-painting would be likely to fetch up to Dh700; and the original itself could get 40 to 100 times the price.
Al Rais stayed in Kuwait until he was 18 years old. After he finished school he was lucky enough to receive support from the government which enabled him to work as an artist. Although his nationality is important to him and indeed he has long ago returned to Dubai, he says he could not have become an artist back then if he had lived in the UAE. “If I had stayed in the UAE back then I know I would not have become an artist,” he says explaining that no such grants were available for Dubai citizens at the time, whilst in Kuwait artists were provided with a fulltime salary, even if they only produced two paintings a year. Art supplies were also difficult to procure in the UAE and were expensive. The Kuwaiti government provided a stock of brushes and oil paints for artists however.
In 1974 he returned to Dubai and at first he worked for the Ministry of Labour as a labour inspector. Then in 1982 he graduated with a degree in Sharia Law. However art remained his passion in life and he eventually began to practise it fulltime.
He recalls his first exhibition in Dubai with nostalgia. “It was very special for me and you never get back that exact same feeling. I am lucky because I was one of the first artists to make a name for myself here,” he says with pride. Al Rais began by painting with watercolours and his early work includes detailed realistic watercolours of traditional house doors. He is often asked why he chose to paint doors of all things. “If you feel the texture of the wood, and it appeals to you, something good can come out of it,” he explains, adding that one of these paintings took a year to complete because of the intricate details on a palm tree.
It was with watercolours too that he started painting scenes of Emirati life, including stylised symbols of Islamic architecture for which he was to become famous. The problem with watercolours though, he says whilst standing in front of a huge abstract oil painting he’s currently working on, is that you cannot repair a mistake. The white colour in a watercolour painting is the white of the paper, so an artist can’t simply paint over errors as they can with oils. Later the artist chose to work in an abstract style and painted only in oil, on canvas. Now he switches between the two. “I enjoy painting in abstract form, but equally I like realism, especially when I’m painting landscapes,” he says, adding: “At first, people thought I could only paint dhows, doors and houses. But when I started to work in the abstract form, I really showed them what I could do.”
At this stage in his life, Al Rais is clearly comfortable with his own painting style. He continues to mix abstract with traditional styles and often uses these to depict Emirati homes which have been decorated with intricate calligraphy.
It hasn’t all been easy for him however. In 1982 he suffered a three-year period of artists’ block and gave up painting, due to lack of inspiration. It was a 1986 road-trip across the US that eventually gave him back his creative spark. But he points out it took two years for him to get back to the level he’d been at before he stopped. “If you stop making art, your hands become weak. Your knowledge might grow, but your ability doesn’t,” he says.
Born in the Umm Sequeim area of Dubai, the artist still lives there, in a house near to the famous Burj Al Arab. He’s a committed family man with seven children – four daughters and three sons. When he’s not painting he spend time on facebook and enjoys gardening. Indeed his house is not visible from the road – because of the many mango trees in the front garden. “I love to garden,” he smiles, adding that he also has an organic farm in Dibba and he grows many types of mangos.
He points out that these days the UAE does much to encourage artists. “The future for art in the Emirates is very promising, particularly with all the government support now available in Dubai, Sharjah and Abu Dhabi.
His Highness Sheikh Dr Sultan Bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, the Ruler of Sharjah, he says, has done much to support the arts– opening an art museum in Sharjah and before that, an arts society. “Sharjah has been supporting the Arts for many years. It was the first [of the Emirates] to do so, at a time when nobody had thought of it.”
Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi in particular is a project that he’s looking forward to seeing completed. When finished, the island will house both a Louvre and a Guggenheim museum. Already the Abu Dhabi Gallery has opened at the Manarat Al Saadiyat. The recently launched Abu Dhabi Art Fair has also helped to put the region on the map when it comes to art.
He points out that Dubai too is a great place for artists these days. Art Dubai, which has been running since 2007, is widely regarded as the leading contemporary arts fair in the region. “We [the city] started [to support the arts] late... but because artists are now being funded by the government here, the number [in the region] is growing very fast,” he says.
Obviously proud of his culture, Abdulqadar Al Rais says he tries to educate the rest of the world about it, by highlighting it in his paintings. His many depictions of dhows and intricately-carved traditional doors are testament to his pride. “This is my homeland,” he says of the UAE. “And I’m proud of being Emirati. I thank God that I was born here; in this spot and that I have been part of the Arab world.”