Creating a capital of colour

No White Walls

No White Walls, a collective of Abu Dhabi artists, hope to contribute to the growing art scene in the capital. From left, the artists Sean Blake, Kathryn Ryan, Janine Ibbini, Jennifer Simon, Julia Ibbini, Emily Gordon and Andrew Field are photographed at the No White Walls art exhibition at the Fairmont in Bab Al Bahr in Abu Dhabi. Sarah Dea / The National.

The light-bathed corridor that runs alongside The Chocolate Gallery at the Fairmont Bab Al Bahr hotel in Abu Dhabi has some new residents this week. With spectacular views across the water to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, majestic in the day and glowing at night, the floor-to-ceiling windows along this corridor already offered something of a picture. But now, in a floating frame system that took months to install, the work of seven Abu Dhabi-based artists is hanging and bringing beauty, warmth and texture to the entire surroundings.

The exhibition is called No White Walls, the name also given to the artist collective formed earlier this year to unite their purpose. While the group will make sure there are no white walls left in the Fairmont during the four months of their exhibition, their mission extends wider, with the group hoping to extend their artistic practice across the city.

“Abu Dhabi doesn’t have galleries and we don’t have the neat warehouse space of Dubai because our rents are too high. But we do have places that can work as exhibition space,” says Emily Gordon, an American mixed-media artist who has been living in Abu Dhabi for 24 years.

Julia Ibbini, who is British but who has lived in the UAE capital all her life, describes the space in the Fairmont hotel as “exquisite”.

“There aren’t many options in Abu Dhabi, but you can’t beat this kind of location. And the traffic that comes through here, in terms of people coming to see the work, is amazing,” she says.

Ibbini and Gordon are no strangers to collaboration. They have been working together for years and first officially joined forces in 2009 when Ibbini formed the Fanaan art group.

The other five artists in No White Walls are also familiar. Jennifer Simon, another British artist, has worked with the others on several exhibitions. Janine Ibbini, Julia’s mother, was also in the Fanaan collective. The other artists are Sean Blake, an American who uses photography to chart the journey of a red chair around the UAE as a way of promoting the need for bone marrow donors; Andrew Field, an abstract landscape painter who spends a lot of time on the beaches of Saadiyat and Yas islands; and Kathryn Ryan, who uses charcoal to produce photorealistic drawings.

“This is the third year we have done a group exhibition at the Fairmont,” explains Julia Ibbini. “But this year, we decided to have a more formal name and give it a banner under which we can look at other projects, so we formed No White Walls.”

The other projects she is referring to are proposed artist residencies with the Fairmont, workshops, programmes for young artists and school visits — all in an effort to contribute to the art scene in Abu Dhabi.

“People say there is not an art scene here in Abu Dhabi, but there absolutely is and they are very supportive of us,” says Simon. “We are lucky in that way because we have amazing opportunities to be sponsored by really important businesses such as Royal Jet.”

Royal Jet is the world’s biggest operator of the Boeing business jet. After agreeing to sponsor the show, it put No White Walls invites on its flights for a month. Having that backing was a significant step for the fledgling collective.

As is, indeed, the chance to have a four-month exhibition in a large hotel in the capital of the UAE, at a time when the country is hosting two international film festivals, a Formula One race and many high-profile music concerts.

“Basically, this is a win-win situation,” says Gordon. “The way we work with the hotel is very symbiotic.”

The art itself is as varied as the characters of the seven artists, but it is all influenced by the life or the landscapes of the UAE. Field’s abstract landscapes are in stark contrast to Simon’s animated skylines, which are made from both acrylic and spray paint. Gordon’s layered collage works covered in resin, also a form of landscape, are completely different again.

Janine Ibbini uses only textiles to create stitched pieces that are inspired by palm trees, while her daughter Julia captures seascapes in a technique that combines digital photography, painting and mixed media.

“We are a collective of professional artists with unique and different talents, but it works because we are a really cohesive group,” says Gordon.

Far from feeling disappointed at the lack of gallery spaces in Abu Dhabi, the artists say that it has given them new avenues for exploration.

“It forces you to manage your own career and your own exhibitions and it provides opportunities that you might not otherwise have if you were tied up with a gallery,” says Julia Ibbini.

“We are not that fussed about galleries per se because we make our own,” continues Gordon. “We make our own fun.”

• No White Walls continues at the Fairmont Bab Al Bahr until January 1. Ten per cent of total sales will be donated to the Special Care Centre Abu Dhabi

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