Whether it’s his distinctive blue horses or hulking metal sculptures, Emirati artist Mattar Bin Lahej’s work is more than just eye-catching
Mattar Bin Lahej compares his journey as a second generation Emirati artist to one of the UAE’s most enduring – and hard-working – sea creatures. Before him came very few individuals who, wanting to paint, sculpt, or express themselves in other ways, travelled to countries like Egypt, Iraq and Britain to learn, practice, observe and showcase. They did it because there was nothing for them at home.
People like Mattar, who came of age in the 1970s and 1980s, tried their best to find themselves, to discover their own means of expression – and their own path. “Some of us were adopted by older artists, some us sought education abroad, but we all faced great challenges – so great, many of us quit,” he says. “Imagine a turtle that is laying its eggs on the shore. The turtle would lay hundreds, but once those eggs hatch, only five or six babies make it to sea. I was one of those who made to the sea.”
Mattar doesn’t really like to talk about the beginning, even now, with his own gallery and several distinctive and celebrated pieces displayed in high-profile locations around Dubai, where he was born and raised. Maybe it’s because despite all that, for him, things haven’t changed that much. “The fine arts in the UAE are considered an oddity,” he says. “Fine arts is not an art form for the general public, as its consumers are either a select few or non-existent.”
There was no audience at all, however, when Mattar started out. The UAE had just formed and oil revenues had not yet transformed its landscape – and lifestyle. “People worked hard jobs to make ends meet and they had no time for luxuries,” he explains. “And art was considered one.” And so, in this environment, without local galleries to visit, or others to look up to, or anyone to push him toward his inner passion, Mattar had to buckle down, pursue an education, and do a lot of his own research. He realised it would be his responsibility to develop his own talent, his skills and his career, rather than relying on groups, the government, institutions or exhibitions for support. “So, even at a young age, I would go into solitude, practice, and learn how to use all the tools available,” he says. “I experimented with everything, from cement to mud, to wood. I am self-taught. But now, with all the information available out there, no one has an excuse to not learn a skill.”
All that work paid off, with Mattar’s deft hand and incisive eye now front and centre in Dubai. In October 2018, he was on-hand for the unveiling of his breathtaking work Aya – a permanent fixture that towers over the masses who stroll past it at City Walk. At eight metres high and six metres wide, this imposing structure was crafted using four tonnes of undulating stainless steel, carved into Qur’anic verse using his own calligraphy. Sitting atop a pool of water, Aya shimmers, reflects and attracts. It also represents a major milestone in Mattar’s goal of leaving a mark in the world of Arabic art.
Those who have visited Jumeirah Al Naseem hotel (or perused Mattar’s Instagram account) can get more of a sense of the breadth and scope of his work. Outside sits a herd of angular, shiny camels, which are carved from steel. Inside, a calligraphic sculpture representing the poetry of HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, prime minister and ruler of Dubai, as well as his painting of blue horses, a recurring depiction under his brush.
“I feel that all my work is an interpretation of my inner thoughts,” he says. “Let’s say today I paint a stallion or a devil. It is an inner negotiation of certain topics and thoughts I am having. I begin by looking at the tools that are at my disposal and find the perfect form to represent my inner negotiations.” It took six months for Mattar just to plan out his 15-metre sculpture Encyclopedia, which graced The Dubai Mall’s Waterfall Atrium in Ramadan, five
years ago. The 4.5-tonne piece was constructed over six weeks, during which time it was sculpted using water jets on stainless steel. By the time the Holy Month was over, it was estimated that half a million people would have laid eyes on his work. It was a level of exposure that at the time, Mattar told a local newspaper was more than welcome – and a sign of things to come. “I cannot simply do pieces for gallery walls anymore,” he said at the time. “I want to share my ideas and thoughts with the people, and I want to change the way we look at art.”
These days the bulk of Mattar’s work is displayed in the Mattar Bin Lahej Gallery near Boxpark in Jumeirah, a location that is also home to his Sketch Art Cafe. In his workshop Mattar uses earth elements to fashion his pieces: fire, air, stone, wood, and metal. In painting he likes to work in different mediums, including oil, acrylic and watercolour. In recent years, his focus has shifted to sculpture, where he prefers to work in stainless steel and incorporate Arabic calligraphy. When he replicated a Rolls- Royce engine, for example, he used calligraphy to create movement. The wording enters the engine from the air intake, moves inside the sculpture, and exits from the exhaust.
Mattar also reuses much of his material, incorporating scraps into other pieces or using them as decoration – adhering to the concepts of sustainability, continuity and consolidation. With In The Dome, for example, he brought a single piece of stainless steel sheet to life through Arabic calligraphy and then used stainless steel cutouts from the script to decorate a table, destined for a board room. When it comes to his paintings, he wants to touch “the reality close to the individual” with works entitled Glories,Speed, Elevation, Soul and Body. “My work is the interpretation of my innermost discussions,” he says. “I go into a state of solitude when I create.”
One inevitable outcome of any artist showing his or her work to the world is that they become vulnerable to criticism, and Mattar is no different. He learned early on that he needed to be able to handle that criticism, if he was going to continue. “The minute you decide to put your work out there, you need to disappear in the sidelines and let the world see it, and express their thoughts about it,” he says. “Some will say it’s good, some will say it’s bad, some will say it’s pointless, and some won’t even get what you’re trying to express. But you need to practise receiving comments about your work – it won’t happen overnight.”
Despite the lonely path he walked to artistic success, and likely because of it, once he found his footing, Mattar wanted to help those who followed. And he did, founding Marsam Mattar, the first Emirati institute created to teach and spread knowledge of the arts. Although the idea was conceived in 1992, at a time when art was not accepted or embraced by the Emirati culture, it took more than a decade to launch. Operating since 2003 and located in Al Hudaiba, Marsam Mattar is the first Arabic art centre to be fully run by Arabic artists, offering training courses and cultural activities. It also aims to support new talent and to create an annual art agenda that includes periodic shows.
As he has become an established artist, Mattar has become adept at spotting talent in others. “You can easily identify potential,” he tells us. “Just like with any singer or any artist, you can tell if someone can succeed in the future. There are telltale signs.” Mattar sees the proliferation of design weeks in Amman, Beirut, and Dubai, and annual events such as Art Dubai, Dubai Design Days and Abu Dhabi Art, as a positive development for the arts as a whole – and not just for their networking potential.
“They help the general public get exposed to new ideas and new ways of expression, which is good for societies,” he says. “The other reason is that they’re good business opportunities for artists.” Mattargallery.ae