With works by the likes of Picasso, Pollock and Warhol rolling into the capital every few months, as well as Abu Dhabi Art, an annual art fair that attracts some of the world's most prolific galleries, the pace of artistic life in the city is evidently shifting from simmer to boil. Saadiyat Island and its much-feted Cultural District will soon start rising from the sand, and an expansive education programme of art lectures and workshops, aimed at preparing the city's audience for the arrival of three world-class museums, is underway. The big bases are, for all intents and purposes, covered.
But what about the lesser-known art scene? The grass-roots community who are busy toiling away at their easels; not well enough known to bag the principal gallery spaces, but providing, nonetheless, a crucial underlay to the city's cultural plans? This is where Fanaan comes in; an Abu Dhabi-based art collective started by Julia Ibbini in May 2008, which, more than two years on, is now gearing up for its second major exhibition. Up Close, which opens today at the National Theatre, provides a glimpse of its nine members' - who range from sculptors and painters to textile and multi-media artists - highly individual styles. Significantly, they have also managed to attract the support and sponsorship of the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (Adach). "We're very lucky they've been able to help us secure such a beautiful space," says Julia Ibbini, a Jordanian-British digital artist who has lived in Abu Dhabi for most of her life. "The light in there is fantastic and it's huge."
It is finding the space to exhibit that is the problem, you see. "In Abu Dhabi," says South African Elwin Buchel, gastro-enterologist by day, painter by night, "as much as you read that art is everywhere, try being an artist and getting your art everywhere. There are very few commercial galleries. It's really difficult." In the few exhibition spaces that do exist, says Emily Gordon, one of the group's more established artists, their prohibitive costs prevent artists like those in Fanaan from using them. "They charge outrageous fees," she says, "and people don't want to pay the huge gallery commissions."
Gordon, a mixed media artist from the US, whose works layer paint with resin and paraffin, found a solution earlier this year when, together with Julia, she decided to throw open the doors of Gordon's villa and host an open-studio. "We seemed to get a really good response, so there is obviously a hunger for it." Fanaan, which means 'artist' in Arabic, was started by Ibbini as a way of unifying the city's like minds and talents. "I felt it was important because Abu Dhabi is at the very beginning of having an artistic community. It's developing, but I felt the need for artists living locally to have the opportunity to get together, to share ideas, to talk about projects and to exhibit together. It can be quite lonely as an artist, so it was nice to be able to do that."
Membership was and still is by invitation only and the group are careful to ensure that their standard is maintained. "We make group decisions as to who joins," says Ibbini, "and we're quite careful about making sure that the person is serious about being an artist. There's obviously the quality of their work, but also we try and encourage diversity, so artists of different mediums." You get the feeling that a clutch of members, including Ibbini, the Iranian sculptor Linda Stephanian, and Chritch, an Egyptian-Armenian mixed-media artist, are the group's driving forces. In fact it was Chritch who established the relationship with Adach. She also came up with the idea of adding an educational aspect to 'Up Close'. "Personally," she says, "I didn't just want to do a group exhibition. I felt it was time for us to exchange with the public rather than just have them stare at the works."
Alongside the exhibition will run a series of talks, workshops, and slide shows, each one hosted by a Fanaan member. Visitors can, over the course of the next two weeks, take part in a painting workshop (Jennifer Simon, Thurs 23 and Mon 4), learn about mould-making and the casting of hands (Linda Stephanian, Sat 25 and Wed 29) and watch a sewing demonstration (Janine Ibbini, Sun 26 and Sun 3). It was Chritch's background as a teacher (she used to teach art in secondary school and now runs twice-weekly adult art classes) that inspired the idea. "I like the communication and I wanted to give something back to the community," she says.
Chritch, whose works mix charcoal, oil and acrylic to express people's inner feelings, admits she always had high hopes for the group. "I do believe in artists working together and I don't like to be individualistic. When I came to the group I had this vision in my head, but I didn't know if anyone was going to agree." Unlike art collectives of the past, the members of Fanaan are only loosely connected, meeting four times a year to discuss projects and holding an annual exhibition. Their artistic styles are wildly different and they are of varying ages and nationality. Nonetheless, says Ibbini, there is strength in numbers.
"Putting a few heads together means we come up with more original ideas; like maybe not using a gallery but a different space. Each of us has certain contacts, which has also helped, especially somewhere like Abu Dhabi where it's difficult." There are advantages, too, from a logistical point of view, says Buchel, the lone male among the nine, who manages to squeeze in around 25 hours a week painting in his studio on top of his day job, and refers to it as a "second profession."
"The nice part about art is the painting," he says. "The hard part is the administrative side: the marketing, the framing. Being a group helps with that." Equally, he says, having eight other people relying on you, and vice versa, does help to spur you on. "It motivates you and puts some pressure on" - not that the group work on a competitive basis. "You don't want a group of people who are competing against each other," he adds. "You want one that says we are doing something together and we all have equal responsibility to deliver."
Their diversity, says Chritch, is also an advantage when it comes to the dynamic. "To be able to talk about certain things and be with people who don't necessarily think the same way - we are all totally different - I think that's what makes the connection." As you would imagine of any group of hot-headed creative types, there have, they say, been ups and downs, and the original line-up is not exactly as it was. From ten they are now nine, with two recent new arrivals: Daksha Bulsara from the UK who paints contemporary watercolours, and Jennifer Simon, an Australian painter with a bold, colourful style. The vast majority of the founding members, though, are still on board, including Janine Ibbini, a textile artist (and also Julia's mother); and Neena Rai, a painter from India.
"We've learnt a lot, all of us," says Ibbini. "Having new people join means new ideas, new perspectives and new working practices. It's reflective of the place - people come and go." There are plans to expand, she says, but slowly, and at a pace that the whole group are happy with. "I've tried to keep it at a level we can cope with. We don't want to take too many artists on and then we've got to try and do a show and we've got 50 artists and not enough space. We're taking baby steps."
'Up Close', by all accounts, is anything but that. Several of the artists have broken new ground for the exhibition: Ibbini has expanded her work beyond just the digital by adding inks directly to the surface; Buchel is showing his biggest and most ambitious work so far, a 1.5m sq painting that he has been working on for six months; and Stephanian is showing a much larger version of the stainless steel and papier mâché sculptures she usually produces.
"This exhibition is a big step," says Buchel. "There was never a question of one artist being excluded. It was all of us or nothing. Everybody is striving not to disappoint each other." Up Close opens today at the National Theatre and runs until October 6. For information on the schedule of workshops and talks, go to www.fanaanabudhabi.weebly.com.