UKNA artists' work bought at Saatchi Gallery exhibition

The finalists of the UK New Artist of the Year Award have had their artwork bought from attendees of their Saatchi Gallery exhibition and share the stories behind the pieces sold

The British public’s love-hate relationship with contemporary art has transformed dramatically since the media storm around the Royal Academy of Art’s ground-breaking Sensation exhibition in 1997 and the opening of Tate Modern in 2000.  Tracey Emin and Antony Gormley are household names and contemporary art galleries have sprung up in cities large and small across the UK. Nevertheless, buying contemporary art retains an air of exclusivity, with the focus seemingly on record breaking prices, talk of investment and appreciation in value, rather than the enjoyment and pleasure of living with contemporary art at home.   

As the 2021 Robert Walters Group UK New Artist Award approaches, UKNA catches up with 2019 shortlisted artist Linnet Panashe Rubaya, and chats to collectors Al-Karim Makhani, Vice-President at TransPerfect Legal Solutions, and restaurateur, Edin Gondzic, about the works they bought from the 2019 exhibition. 

Linnet Panashe Rubaya with her paintings at the Robert Walters Group UK New Artist of the Year Award 2019. Photo by Reece Straw.

Leeds based artist Linnet Panashe Rubaya was one of ten artists shortlisted for the Award in 2019 “I had been drawing and painting for a couple of years outside my day job.  As much as I was creating art, only people on Instagram were seeing my work and I wanted the stories I was saying and the narratives I was telling, which I felt at the time were quite different, to be seen in a different arena.  So, I searched up the next steps and the Robert Walters Group UK New Artists Award was one of the first things I applied for. I applied just to see how I would get on and to be shortlisted was a real surprise.”  

Linnet discusses her work with a visitor at the 2019 award. Photo by Reece Straw.

One of Rubaya’s works, Black Boy’s Liberty was sold following the Award exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery.  “It was incredible and unbelievable” says Rubaya ‘I didn’t expect it, I was honoured.  I met up with Prof Stephanie Hemelryk Donald who bought the work, because I feel as a Black artist it is really important to know your buyers and where your work is going to. I think a lot of new artists forego building a relationship with your buyers but for me it’s very, very important.” 

“It may sound strange, but my goal has never been to sell my work and that is one of the reasons I have kept my full-time job, my goal has always been to tell the stories. When I told Stephanie the story behind the painting, I could see she had a visible emotional reaction (the painting refers to the fatal shooting of a 12 year old Black American, Tamir Rice, by a white policeman).  When I sell my work, I want it to go to somebody that feels something when they see it.”   

Mr Al-Karim and Mrs Bindiya Makhani

For Al-Karim Makhani and his wife Bindiya, this was the first time they had been to an event focused on up and coming artists. ‘Bindiya appreciates art much better than I do, but neither of us had thought about purchasing a piece before we arrived. I suppose to many people, owning an artwork always seemed reserved for land owning aristocrats!”.   

‘We were immediately drawn to Conor’s piece. From afar, you could feel this abject sense of loss and hopelessness. Only as you arrive at the painting do you realise the whole thing is painted on “baggies”. We’d never seen anything like it.  We know nothing about art but fell immediately in love with it.”  

Close up of Conor Rogers’ painting, ‘Sticky Fingers’. Photo by Reece Straw.

However, the idea of buying the work had not crossed their minds until a UKNA assistant asked if they were interested in purchasing any of the works. “We had a chuckle, we hadn’t come to buy art. In fact, we’d never bought art! Quick chat and decided to phone a friend (my good buddy Guy Harper, an art law specialist who’s advised Christies for many years). His view was ‘if you like it and can see it hanging in your home, buy it and don’t worry about the investment side of it too much.’ So, in what seemed like the perfect storm of wonder, impulse, ambition and excitement we went for it.”

Attending the Awards has also had a long-lasting impact on the perception of new artists.  “The reality is that artists need support to survive, to work and to thrive. We must lose thousands of artists in music, drama, design to that very basic problem of funding. It’s not dissimilar to Olympic athletes, many of whom come out of the games in serious debt. Those who can, need to work hard to ensure the spark for artists, and particularly new artists, is not extinguished before it even has a chance to burn.” 

Robert Walters and guests admiring Conor Rogers’ painting, ‘Sticky Fingers’. Photo by Reece Straw.

The couple had a long wait for the work to be hung at home, as Conor Rogers went on to win the Award, and part of the prize was for the painting to be shown in the London office of Robert Walters Group.  “It’s still a strange feeling every time we look at it or show it to anyone. I know we didn’t make it – but there’s a certain pride. It never seems to get old. That’s testament to Conor and the work itself. It really is jaw dropping. Every detail, every bag. It really is incredible.”

Restaurateur Edin Gondzic has collected several contemporary art works.  “My venues are based in Hockley in Nottingham, which is a vibrant and creative part of the city which I love, so over the years I have bought several pieces for my venues and personally. There have been lots of interesting meetings, pop-up galleries, and new artist events and I always like to support and encourage new artists and give an opportunity to someone to get a step up”

Will Harman with his paintings, ‘Pulutan 1’ (left) and ‘Grace Before Meals (right), at the Robert Walters Group UK New Artist Award 2019. Photo by Reece Straw.

“The two works which I bought from Will Harman, Pulutan 1 and Grace Before Meals which I saw at the Saatchi Gallery (as part of the RWG Award) were full of youthful energy, colour and style, that I connected with them immediately... I also really liked Will. He has had a very interesting life, and this was reflected in the stories behind the works.  And most of my favourite sports brands are listed on it and I think that kept my kids amused!"

Close up of ‘Grace Before Meals’ by Will Harman. Photo by Reece Straw.

Grace Before Meals with its family gathering around a table symbolises to me happiness and joy, something which as a restaurateur I really connect with, and I liked that this was a story that Will had carried from childhood to the painting. They have now been with me for nearly two years, and I think I have grown more and more fond of seeing them in place.  They are central pieces in the space, with a very positive energy and really most of the mornings when I get up and I look at them I feel hungry!  To own original work, which is so enthusiastic and full of joy, is a great pleasure.”

 “I hope in the future I have a chance to come across more interesting pieces and add them to my collection and would encourage others to invest in the work of these wonderful artists as it’s been a joy to own them.”

Would Linnet Panashe Rubaya encourage other artists to enter the Awards?  “My friend Wesley George was asking me all these questions about the Award, and I was like, just apply.  And now he has been shortlisted, and I’m so proud of him. So, I’d say just apply!  For me it all started with UKNA and Robert Walters UK New Artist of the Year Award.”   

The Robert Walters UK New Artist of the Year Award will be announced on 10 November 2022 at the Saatchi Gallery exhibition, Duke of York’s HQ, King’s Road, London, SW3.   

Read about the 2021 finalists and get a glimpse of their work here.

The virtual viewing room will open on 11 November, accessible via UKNA’s website.