In conversation with the artists behind the No White Walls exhibit

From left, the Greek artist Yiannis Roussakis with Kathryn Ryan, Emily Gordon, and Julia Ibbini – members of the No White Walls art collective. Christopher Pike / The National

A year ago, when No White Walls was launched, it was little more than a group of artists united by a common cause. Now they have evolved into a fully fledged art collective, brand and pseudo-gallery. Its annual exhibition, sponsored by Royal Jet, opened last week in the Fairmont Bab Al Bahr in Abu Dhabi and features mature and informed work from six artists who, if it wasn’t for the formation of the group, would possibly not be showing their work at all. “Last year was our introduction,” says Julia Ibbini, one of the founding members. “We are moving it forward now and it is developing rapidly. We have a more cohesive team and, actually, we are starting to function like a gallery.” Looking at the variety of the pieces hanging in the light-bathed corridor in the high-end hotel, it is easy to see their progression. Ibbini’s large canvases have been created from countless images she took of fabric suspended on water which she then painted. She has given them an added dimension by inserting pins decorated with beads, a painstaking but rewarding process. Andrew Field, a landscape watercolour artist who exhibited in last year’s show with muted and subtle canvases, has become bolder and brighter, with colourful views from Saadiyat Island across the water. Kathryn Ryan, an Australian artist who showed charcoal drawings last year, has emerged with a set of beautiful oil paintings of roses on archival linen. Each one takes up to three months to complete, she says. “Living in the UAE has enabled me to freshen up my work,” she says. “I am still searching for my style here, but this show has given me focus and a reason to hone my skills.” The No White Walls exhibition will be on exhibit for four months at the Fairmont, throughout the busiest part of the art season, and during that time thousands of visitors to the hotel will also get the chance to see the work. This is an added bonus for the artists, who with the limited gallery space in the capital were forced to take control of their own careers. “We are growing like crazy now because the art scene is also growing,” says Emily Gordon, who along with Ibbini was instrumental in forming the collective. Gordon’s brightly coloured, resin- covered canvases depicting doors or skylines of the Emirates, peppered with collage items such as signs, number plates or other pieces of pop culture that draw the viewer in, are proving hugely popular with her admirers. Having lived in the UAE and practising art for many years, Gordon has a privileged position that allows her to function, as her colleague Ibbini says, like a gallery. “We are in the position of discovering new talent that is coming to town and it is exciting for us as well as the art scene as a whole,” says Gordon. One such talent is Yiannis Roussakis, a Greek artist who moved to the UAE fewer than two years ago. Although he is represented by Etihad Modern Art Gallery, he says that initiatives such as No White Walls are key to a healthy art scene. “Anyone who is involved in art in Abu Dhabi should take an extra step to contribute to the growth of the scene,” he says. “It is important for all artists to move in different directions, to show in galleries and to the general public.” Roussakis, who works with digital photography and digital art, says he visited the first No White Walls show last year and was impressed by the level of professionalism and determination. That was why he jumped at the invitation to join this year. “It is for the benefit of everyone,” he says. “Any artist will benefit from an initiative such as No White Walls.” And it is not only the artists who reap the rewards. This year, a part of the sales from the show will be donated to a helpline for the Louis Smith Foundation, which assists young adults with depression. “It is important for us to give back as well,” says Ibbini, “so we remain part of the community.”

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