Sahira Amin in conversation with Bina Samuel, Vandana Valrani, Annemieke Husseini and Alem Goshimi at DIAC. Image Credit: Pankaj Sharma/Gulf News

Dubai: Catching up with some old-timers at Dubai International Art Centre (DIAC), Dubai’s very first art gallery, is like going down a delightful memory lane. The yesteryear Jumeirah Janes, as they call themselves, break into a throaty giggle as they recollect how they were once stuck in a sandstorm in a deserted village in Ras Al Khaimah.

“Some of our husbands didn’t even know we had ventured out to Jazirah Al Hamra that day,” said watercolourist Vandana Valrani, even as she is struck by another attack of giggles when someone mentions a flat tyre incident near a camel farm.

“We would just take off on these quick trips for a session of live painting or sketching. The memories are still etched in our minds,” said Annemieke Husseini, also a watercolourist.

Artists on a sketching trip in the early 1980s.

Among the earliest members of DIAC, which launched in 1976, the talented women have been practising art in Dubai, long before the bustling galleries of Bastakiya or the warehouse wonders of Al Quoz sprang up.

“Art in the emirates back then was just something ordinary people like us did together and in the process shared our knowledge. We were a small and close-knit community and became friends for life. There were no ‘professionals’ like we know them today,” says Husseini, who started out with porcelain doll making.

As the women point out, DIAC, earlier called Art Society of Dubai, was started by a group of art enthusiasts near Jumeirah Beach, with 10 artists showcasing their works at the first exhibition at the Intercontinental Hotel in Deira in May-June 1976.

 Art in the emirates back then was what ordinary people like us did together and shared our knowledge. There were no ‘professionals’ as we know them today.”

 - Annemieke Husseini | Artist, DIAC 

Bina Samuel, a water colour and silk painting teacher, said, “Art sold well in the early days. You could get a good canvas for Dh150 and a great one for around Dh1,000. But now, people are quick to go in for prints.”

“Exhibitions too were well attended,” said Valrani. “People had more time on their hands and there was far less traffic.”

DIAC’s manager Sahira Amin said, “From what I’ve been told, registrations for DIAC courses would get filled up very fast as there were hardly any avenues for art. Courses at Dh50 each were also very affordable.”

A yesteryear exhibition.

Nostalgia reigns as the women recall the works of early DIAC teachers. Margaret Handerson, Marian Ball, Elizabeth Brown, Reta Annen, Shakeel Siddiqui, Tina Siddiqui, Lyndon Ashmore, Nargis Khalid, Helen Wong – the list of artists is long.

Summing up the journey of art in Dubai since then, Alem Goshimi, a male art teacher at DIAC, said, “There has been an explosion of museums, art galleries, exhibitions and other events because of the government’s push for the arts. There are so many people formally teaching and learning art today.”

The erstwhile Arts Society building.

The old-timers also concede a change in the quality of art. “What we see with this explosion is a greater variety of art. It is more varied, international and produced by professionals with a wide exposure,” said Husseini.

“Earlier, we were just ladies at leisure, Jumeirah Janes really, doing art together. Today, the canvas is much larger and there’s so much more to do,” added Valrani.