x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

10 brushes strong

Feature Though Fanaan's 10 members have varied styles, personalities and palettes, the art collective's goal of artistic expression unites the troupe.

Detail from <i>Bugatti Parade</i>, an acrylic work by the self-taught South African painter Elwin Buchel, part of Fanaan's exhibit at Ghaf Gallery.
Detail from Bugatti Parade, an acrylic work by the self-taught South African painter Elwin Buchel, part of Fanaan's exhibit at Ghaf Gallery.

If it takes a village to build an art scene, then Fanaan Collective is already halfway there. The group of Abu Dhabi-based artists organised themselves last year, scouting out like minds and new talents for their 10-person group. Less than a year after their first meeting, Fanaan is having their first group exhibition called First Appearances at Abu Dhabi's Ghaf Gallery.

Fanaan, which means "artist" in Arabic, was dreamt up by Julia Ibbini, who is the de facto leader and organiser of the group. Ibbini had it in mind for at least a year before gathering her gumption to go out and approach other artists she had met in the area. Some of the artists met last year on Jalal Luqman's Art Trip, a selective mentoring programme for unknown artists in Abu Dhabi that is run by the Ghaf gallery co-owner. Ibbini found other members through the city's art community from gallery shows she had seen and recommendations from other people in the scene.

"I wanted to get a group together who were really passionate about art to share ideas and share information and move forward, each of us in our own art career, by helping each other out," says Ibbini. "For me, being an artist is not only about creating work and about selling myself, it's also about sharing with others. I've always felt quite strongly about that. It has been really nice to find other artists in the city that I can share that journey with."

There is another member who has been on the journey from the beginning: Ibbini's mother, Janine Ibbini, who is a textile artist and another founding member of Fanaan. The Ibbini family has lived in Abu Dhabi for 25 years, and though Janine Ibbini regularly kept in touch with peers in her native England, she says she longed for a tight-knit artistic community in the UAE. "There are some other textile artists based in the UAE that she's aware of, but I think a lot of that [is because] she's been doing it a lot longer than I have and she's had a lot of time to build this up," says Ibbini of her mother's attempts to find more contemporaries. "It's been a lot of trial and error on her own part."

Conscious of her mother's struggle to find artistic peers, Ibbini, 28, refused to allow that situation to repeat itself. It was her motivation that began Fanaan and her professional mindset that helps to keep it together. "Julia Ibbini is a remarkable young woman," says Elwin Buchel, a physician and self-taught painter from South Africa. "She and a few of her friends got together and started asking around for serious artists." These inquiries led to Buchel, Judy Roberts, who uses calligraphy and etchings in her Arabian-themed works and Tania Beaumont, a painter and printmaker who has her own printing press. The group also includes Courtney Radl-Perrocco, who does portraiture, Neena Rai, a model-slash-painter who makes grandiose, oversized canvases, the sculptor Linda Stephanian and a mixed media artist who goes simply by the name of Critch.

Though some of them have been producing work for decades, few of the Fanaan members are widely exhibited, so their artistic union helps to get them more attention. "I think the benefit [of working with Fanaan] is just exposure in a group," says Emily Gordon, a mixed media artist who layers paint and resin with jewellery-inspired materials like silver and gold. "There isn't the pressure for me to get a whole bunch of work done for a solo exhibit."

Gordon likes the fact that all of the Fanaan artists have contrasting work - there is no general aesthetic ethos like art collectives of the past centuries. Aesthetic or concept-based art collectives such as the Fluxus group in the Sixties swiftly rose to prominence by breaking through boundaries as a unit, but then just as quickly fell apart when members wanted to veer off from the prescribed artistic mandate. Fanaan is no Fluxus; it is more of an artistic support network than anything else. Everyone involved does work that is unique to them, with different media, techniques or concepts. The group is made up of various nationalities (British, Indian, Iranian and American to name a few), different age groups and different levels of experience. "We are all just totally different, which sets off everybody's work to an advantage, because it is so diverse," says Gordon.

Ibbini trained in graphic design and is inspired by the flora and fauna she finds in the UAE's outlying islands. She works with digital images by layering them like a collage. This is wildly different from the work of Linda Stephanian, an Iranian sculptor who manages the Ghaf Gallery, who also takes inspiration from the Emirates in a different way. "I am very much interested in dancing figures and I kind of connect them to sand dunes because I see the sand dunes as dancing - I believe they are not constant and they are moving all the time," says Stephanian, who works in papier-mâché, plaster and metal. "When Julia said she had the idea of a group as Fanaan, we all had the same concept and wanted to promote art in the capital. That's why I thought of joining."

Art is a notoriously solitary and often lonely profession. Most artists work by themselves, in their own creative world, undisturbed by others but also prone to a bit of creative cabin fever. None of the members of Fanaan have gone stir crazy (at least discernibly so), but many of them say that the point of the group was to help put their work into perspective and to see their works in a new light. "With commissions or getting ready to do a solo exhibition, you're kind of in your own bubble," says Gordon, who has lived in Abu Dhabi for 18 years.

Buchel agrees with her. "Any interaction with fellow artists is a source of motivation because otherwise you work in isolation and you lose your perspective and don't know how good your work is," he says. "The best encouragement as an artist is your environment and particularly if it is an artistically-inspired environment like Fanaan creates, then it motivates you to paint more and you become more focused."

All of the Fanaan-ists compliment each others' work and share resources like good framers and where to buy supplies. "I don't know if we all like each other's work, but we all appreciate each other's work and are very supportive of each other and that's the whole point," says Beaumont, who has spent the major part of her life in Africa and the Middle East and uses the sunlight of those regions as inspiration for her pictures. "It's very hard working in a vacuum and I think artists tend to isolate themselves. It's the nature of the profession. I know I have to make an effort to get out of the house, otherwise I would just stay home and work non-stop."

Their show at the Ghaf Gallery might be their first outing as a collective, but Ibbini and the others have great expectations for the group. Their mission statement says that their goal "is to create a channel for artists of any nationality and media to come together, share ideas, develop and exhibit work". This includes holding an annual art fair, collaborating on projects and events, visiting each others' studios on a regular basis, building a website and sending out a quarterly e-newsletter. The group is also firmly dedicated to remaining a not-for-profit collective and unlike various other artistic communities, they do not share studio spaces, equipment or living quarters. They are also content to stay at their current size - for now.

Says Ibbini: "I think we will grow, but we want to grow at the right pace so that we don't take on tons and tons of new members and we can't cope with everybody. Once we've got the structure and the events in mind, we absolutely will. But we're still in the fairly early days yet as a group, so that will come a little down the line." "We very quickly became 10 members, and we're keeping it at 10 members for now," says Beaumont. "It's hard enough to sort out what we want to do with 10 different opinions flying around the table." To that effect, Fanaan is trying to sort out a theme for their next show. The group wants to mount an exhibition featuring work inspired by a central idea, but they haven't been able to agree on an idea just yet. Sometimes it seems that the only thing the Fanaan collective has in common is Abu Dhabi and their love of art. This is no problem for the artists, since they all say that they enjoy seeing how the other members filter the environment around them into creative expressions.

Ibbini is inspired by each artist on a different level. "It's either their way of working or how they represent themselves, how they sell in the community, how they network," she says. "I'd say I take a little bit from everybody, which is really quite nice and it's quite varied." All of the Fanaan group is looking forward to their upcoming show. "We've worked very hard to this point letting everybody in the community know what we've been doing and everybody has worked very hard on their individual pieces," says Ibbini. "And I think we'll go from strength to strength from this exhibition."

swolff@thenational.ae