Meet the sisters behind Abu Dhabi's Blank Canvas Community

The story of how Christina and Tanya Awad started one of the most exciting art organisations in Abu Dhabi

Abu Dhabi, U.A.E., February 2, 2019.   Christina (right) and Tanya Awad with their dog Brownie, have brought together hundreds of people since they launched their indie arts and culture initiative, Blank Canvas Community. 
Victor Besa/The National
Section:  WK
Reporter:  Nathalie Farah
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Australian sisters Christina and Tanya Awad are rising stars among the capital's independent arts scene. As the founders of Blank Canvas Community, they organise monthly events, where participants are encouraged to let their inner artist come out and play in a creative, intimate setting, usually featuring five-metre-long blank canvases set atop tables, as well as live music and spoken poetry performances. These take place in constantly changing locations, from cafes and studios to concerts, festivals and even – once – a beach retreat.

Their latest project, as part of Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week last month, resulted in a portrait mural of Sheikh Zayed, the Founding Father, to mark the Year of Tolerance. The artwork, which was created during The Festival at Masdar City, is made up of 900 paintings and was one of two portraits they created of Sheikh Zayed in recent months. They also created a maze at Masdar made up of 200 boxes with blank canvases the public could draw on.

A recent four-month project created as part of the Year of Zayed in 2018, resulted in a mural of Sheikh Zayed, which can be viewed at Masdar City in the capital. Courtesy Blank Canvas Community

The Awads, who are ­Palestinian- Lebanese by birth, pride themselves on their hands-on, personalised approach, which, as mentors, has garnered them numerous rave reviews and an ever-growing fan base. It’s the reason why the pair have been commissioned to organise a variety of other experiences, from corporate soirees to team-building sessions and an album launch event for Bafouri, a UAE rock musician.

The start of an artistic journey

Through it all, they remain passionate and tenacious in their mission to encourage communities, not just in the capital, but across the country, to connect through artistic expression. And yet, none of this would have ­happened were it not for a nine-hour car journey in France, from Ance to Paris, in 2013. “The man who was very kindly taking us [to Paris] didn’t speak a word of English and we spoke enough French [to get by],” Christina, 29, an interior designer, events designer and art director, explains with a laugh.

"So we created this game called Thoughtless Joy. You start drawing until your mind interrupts you, then you pass the page along." They passed a notebook back and forth, and it quickly began to fill up with little designs. "We never knew what to expect," Tanya, 27, a ­sustainable development, ­humanitarian aid and programme executive, adds. "I never knew what Christina was doing and she never knew what I was doing."

They were living in an art community in Melbourne at the time, and they'd had so much fun creating this impromptu artwork, that they ­decided to introduce the idea to fellow residents, who then encouraged the sisters to turn it into a fully-fledged event. "And that's exactly what we did," says Christina. "We covered every possible surface of the warehouse with blank canvases. We brought in local musicians and poets, we had a live-in chef who made amazing food, and entry was through [A$1; Dh2.6] donations." This was back in 2014, and it attracted 100 people.

Bringing the idea to Abu Dhabi

Sisters Tanya and Christina Awad started the Blank Canvas Community in 2016. Courtesy Blank Canvas Community 

It was followed by a second, even more successful iteration soon after. That’s when Christina and Tanya realised they were on to something, and began working tirelessly to grow this concept of community art events. But then, although it was catching on in their Australian home, the ­following year they moved back to Abu Dhabi, where the sisters and their older brother, Fadi, were born and educated. They were keen to keep the concept of Blank Canvas Community alive, however, and so they set about exploring the possibilities of setting it up in Abu Dhabi.

Luckily, a chance encounter with an old school friend, Waleed Shah, at the Metronome Music Festival, which was hosted by the music collective White Cube, meant they quickly found a stepping stone into the capital's artistic scene. "Shah is an old friend from Choueifat [school]," Christina tells us. It took one hour from the moment she sent him a message, for the sisters, Shah and the White Cube team to start discussing collaborations. In April 2016, they launched Metronome x Blank Canvas. And the rest, as the saying goes, is history.

That's what Blank Canvas serves as here. It's to invite everyone into this world and let them know that they're just as much an artist as a person selling their art.

“People in Australia need a space to express their art; here, people need a space to feel safe to explore it,” Tanya explains. “They need a space where they feel like they are allowed to be artists, whether or not they’re professionals.

“That’s what Blank Canvas serves as here. It’s to invite everyone into this world and let them know that they’re just as much an artist as a person selling their art.”

The response in Abu Dhabi was fantastic. In November 2016, the sisters organised their first Expression Sessions event at The Third Place Cafe, by the Corniche. “It was called Life Cycles,” Christina says. “It was inspired by a death in the family. It made us question everything about how valuable life is and how everything has a life cycle.” The evening of live music, poetry and collaborative art saw dozens of people pass by.

What's in store for the future

Since then, the sisters have gone from strength to strength, and get busier every year. In 2017, they were invited to give a TEDx Talk in ­Fujairah. In 2018, they received a four nominations at the Pride of Abu Dhabi Awards 2018, including for Best ­Contribution to the Arts, and hosted their first, well-received events in Lebanon and Goa, India.

In 2019, there's no stopping them and this year's ­itinerary is shaping up to be even more ambitious. "We've got a pretty busy year ahead of us," Christina says. "We have 15 events lined up over the next five months alone." This includes ­organising an art and contemporary dance workshop, the launch of their own product line (sketchbooks and bookmarks, for example) that will ­feature upcycled artworks from previous sessions, new open-mic and collaborative art sessions, creating large-scale installations and sculptures – to name a few.

The Blank Canvas Community host organise monthly art events. Courtesy Blank Canvas Community

They also aim to build on existing relationships, as well as establish new ones through partnerships and collaborations, plus start attracting potential sponsors. “We want to reach as many people as possible,” Christina says. “In fact, I’m even looking into organising collaborative art events in Nepal and Kenya because it’s important to us to be able to give back.”

No matter how big the events get, the sisters still remain grounded in their purpose. Christina sums up their mission: “The most important thing for us is to keep art alive, to keep building communities through art. I hope that we can continue sharing joy with people through what we do.”

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