There is undoubtedly something of the PT Barnams about artist and Ghaf co-founder Jalal Luqman. In fairness, it goes with the territory. By nature, gallery owners have to be part-businessman, part-showman – in Abu Dhabi perhaps more so, where the lack of independent galleries proves just how hard it is to get people through the door. So when, after a long silence, I receive an email reading: ‘Curious to see what has kept me busy for so long?’ signed Jalal, it is not entirely unexpected.
My curiosity piqued, we meet at Al Raha Mall, where he shuttles me to his workshop in the nearby industrial area for a preview of his new exhibition centrepiece. The landscape is a mass of corrugated iron and stale puddles leaked from rusted water trucks. No beauty is to be found here. But the reason for such basic surroundings soon becomes apparent. Stepping through the workshop doors, skipping over plenty of discarded steel, I catch my first glimpse of ‘The Invisible Giant’.
In scale, the sculpture more than lives up to the latter part of its name; standing a good 10ft tall, each sinew is etched in galvanised steel. The stance is that of a beggar; back hunched, hand outstretched in front, but the size gives it an incredible menace and power. Anyone familiar with Jalal’s work will recognise the intent. He creates art in the same way a jilted lover might scribble a brokenhearted letter – grabbing angrily at whatever material comes to hand.
For those who don’t know him, Jalal the artist is often the dissenting voice in the room. It has got him into trouble before. For a long while he was blacklisted in government-sponsored art circles after an outspoken interview in a local rag. The wilderness years were the making of him, he says. ‘If you choose a life of art, you have chosen one of suffering,’ he frequently espouses. In creating his giant, he nearly gave up six times, he says, battling dehydration, blistering summer heat and even temporary blindness from the welding. But why?
‘This giant is the representation of all the really good people who get sidelined,’ explains Jalal. ‘He has all the characteristics of somebody who can deliver and work hard. He can give and he can contribute, but someone chooses not to see that.’
This idea of unused talent is clearly a subject close to home. Now in comfortable middle age, like many a man of his years Jalal appears concerned for his place in history. He classes himself as part of the second generation of Emirati artists. ‘We are the forgotten children,’ he says. ‘We are not the older generation, those artists working in the ’70s, and we’re not young and cute like the emerging artists today. Myself and the others built our own portfolio without help from anybody.’
He complains of the ‘uncontrolled support’ offered to the ever brighter, younger things skipping out of the UAE’s art institutions. ‘A lot of people, for a PR ploy, say they’re supporting Emirati art. Then you get artists who come along, do crappy work and people pat them on the back and tell them that they’re doing a great job. Suddenly, if this person had an ounce of talent, you can’t tell them anything anymore because they’ve been in the media.’
It is the common complaint of every generation that the one following it has an easier time. When Jalal says, accusatorily, ‘I am not waiting for people to make things happen for me,’ you could cry sour grapes, but I believe his concern to be real. As he points out, the history of Emirati art is one of ‘hobbiests’. It was founded on the back of part-timers, working full-time jobs and schooled on their own time (Jalal himself only became a full-time artist back in April). With government money and media attention suddenly focused on creating new artists, he believes this history and accumulated knowledge is being lost.
‘We have to be able to produce a curriculum which goes into schools called the history of Emirati art. At the moment there is no recall, there is no history or blueprint for artists. It is in our hands now to create this. You have these Emiratis who are artists [or] art historians, but there is no government body who can harness this knowledge and pool it together.’
Is he angry? No, says Jalal, ‘I’m just talking loudly’. But is anyone listening? If Emirati Expressions, a recent exhibition that showed local artists from across the UAE, demonstrated anything, it’s that there is an artistic community here – it just needs direction. If Jalal is to be believed, that can come from within, from those older artists who came before. ‘I wanted to finish this sculpture to prove that there are no shortcuts for true art,’ he says, brandishing his scars. The message is clear: no more standing on the shoulders of invisible giants. The forgotten artist has spoken.
Under a Thousand Masks shows at Ghaf Art Gallery from Nov 9-30.