Michael Chaikin Image Credit: Gulf News Archives

Today, the UAE has a vibrant and dynamic art scene, with many art galleries, art fairs and auction houses bringing the best of international art to our shores. But far away from the modern skyscrapers and “white cube” galleries in the new art quarters of Dubai, is a charming traditional wind-tower house, which is truly the place where it all began. The Majlis Gallery, located in the Al Fahidi Historic Neighbourhood, by the Dubai creek, opened on November 2, 1989, and was the first fine-art gallery in the UAE. However, the gallery’s association with art goes back to 1978, when British interior designer and the gallery’s founder Alison Collins moved into the house with her family, and began hosting informal exhibitions by traveller artists in the majlis of her home.

True to its name, The Majlis Gallery has always been a meeting place for artists and art lovers. Over the past three decades it has hosted many traveller artists and presented numerous exhibitions by local and international artists that bear witness to the UAE’s changing landscape and sociocultural environment. The gallery continues to be a haven for artists and a treasure trove of art. You will always find some traveller artists living and working in the house. And beautiful artworks such as paintings, sculptures, silverware, ceramics, jewellery, furniture and objets d’art are displayed in the five main rooms of the house, in the sun-drenched courtyard and even on the henna tree growing in the courtyard.

To celebrate its 25th anniversary, The Majlis Gallery has organised a special exhibition titled “25 Squared”. It features a collective installation of more than 150 artworks in various media, by more than 40 artists that the gallery has represented over the years. All the artworks are 25 by 25 centimetres in size, presented in identical, white frames, and priced at Dh2,500 each, thus offering art lovers a rare opportunity to acquire works by leading contemporary artists at an affordable price. Displayed alongside the installation are sculptures by various artists, including Dubai-based Patricia Millns, who participated in the gallery’s first exhibition. Her “bird’s nest” sculptures are an apt metaphor for the warm and cosy ambience of the gallery.

Larger works by these and other artists are exhibited elsewhere in the gallery. They include pieces especially created to mark the anniversary, such as a fountain featuring bronze sculptures of cranes by well-known British sculptor, Lloyd Le Blanc; and doctor-turned-sculptor Michael Chaikin’s mesmerising copper and acrylic mobile sculptures, moving gently in the breeze in the courtyard. Glass sculptures by Amanda Brisbane, calligraphic paintings and pottery by Khalid Al Saai, mixed-media sculptures by Mustafa Ali, silverware from South Africa, ceramics from Poland, paper beads made by orphans in Uganda, jewellery from Kenya and mango-wood furniture designed by Collins herself are among the other works showcased in the gallery. Also on display are paintings by the late Syrian artist Abdul Latif Al Smoudi, a long-time friend and supporter of the gallery; and works by leading Emirati artist Abdul Qader Al Rais, whose association with the gallery also goes back three decades.

In a walk down memory lane, Alison Collins spoke to Weekend Review about the gallery’s 25-year journey and about her plans for the future. Excerpts:

What brought you to Dubai?

I am an interior designer and worked for a British company, which was one of the first interior-design companies to come to Dubai. I came here from the UK in 1976, and I just fell in love with this country. The first major project I worked on was the old headquarters of the National Bank of Dubai across the creek. I used to take the abra to work, and just loved the architecture and ambience of the wind-tower houses in the old Bastakiya area. Fortunately, with the help of friends who had a business in the souq, we were able to get a lease on Villa No 19. We moved into the house in 1978 and lived there for ten years. My husband was then the only veterinary doctor in the area. Our three children grew up in this house, and I have fond memories of us relaxing under the wind tower in the majlis on weekends.

How did the house become an art gallery?

A few months after we moved in, there was a knock on my door. The person who stood outside introduced himself as Julian Barrow, a travelling British artist, and said that he had heard there was a lady here who loved art. He was right, and soon I moved out the furniture in our family majlis and held an exhibition of his wonderful oil paintings of Dubai. I sent out handwritten invitations and asked people to bring in their friends. After that, other artists approached me, and I organised many informal exhibitions. Dubai was a small place then, and we were a small, close-knit community. There were very few cultural activities, so my art soirées became very popular. But sadly, in 1988, the municipality decided to demolish the old houses. We were evicted and moved to Jumeirah. But a few months later our landlord called to say that the demolition order had been cancelled and we could move back. Since my family was well settled in the new house, I thought of giving the house a new life as a gallery. I was lucky to find people who were willing to invest in my whacky idea. I applied for a trade licence, and visited the municipality every day, until they realised that I would not give up, and gave me the licence. And finally, The Majlis Gallery opened on November 2, 1989 with a group exhibition.

What was your vision for the gallery?

We wanted to create a meeting place for art lovers where they could enjoy the artworks on display and chat about trends and artists in a relaxed and homely atmosphere. I wanted to introduce this part of the world to a larger art community. I had a very strong sense of the history of traveller painters through the Orientalist movement; and I believe that documentation in visual forms other than photography is still very relevant. It was about recording what was happening here, and still is. We do not represent any artist who is not willing to come here, stay with us, and spend time absorbing and recording the atmosphere. The artworks we show range from paintings of parts of old Dubai that have now been demolished, to contemporary South African artist Lynette ten Krooden’s mixed-media works inspired by the geology of the Hajar mountains.

How did you find the artists?

As word spread, we were approached by artists from the region and from the UK. I also met Abdul Latif Al Smoudi, who introduced me to this whole new movement of young Syrian artists such as calligrapher Khalid Al Saai, artist Hakim Gazzali and sculptor Mustafa Ali. Interestingly, the soft-spoken ministry official who processed my first residency application was Abdul Qader Al Rais. I noticed a small biro sketch on a pad next to him and asked him if he was an artist. I think we hosted his first exhibition, and we have been friends for more than three decades. Even today, when I travel I have my eyes open for interesting artists and artworks. And works by all our artists are always on display in the gallery. I am happy that most of the artists we worked with in the early days are still associated with us. Our senior-most artist, Sylvia Woodcock Clarke, celebrated her 80th birthday recently. And she is now our artist in residence, creating her delightful paintings about Middle Eastern life and participating enthusiastically in our anniversary celebrations.

What were the challenges you faced as a pioneer in the art scene?

I had no training or experience of running a gallery. But because of that I also had no preconceived notions. I relied on my gut feeling and let things grow organically. One of the biggest challenges we faced was that the house was crumbling and some rooms became unsafe. Fortunately in 1999, the Government of Dubai undertook a restoration project, and The Majlis Gallery was the first house to be restored. In fact, they used us a model for the feasibility study in the redevelopment of the residential area as a commercial one. I am happy that they have managed to retain the spirit of the place despite the transformation.

What has been your proudest moment as a gallerist?

In 1997 we mounted an enormous exhibition called “The New Orientalists” in collaboration with the British Embassy and the British Council. It opened at the Abu Dhabi Cultural Foundation and then moved to Dubai. It featured works by more than 25 artists, most of whom still have a relationship with us. Organising that show gave me a lot of confidence. But what I really cherish is the camaraderie that we have built with people and the rapport we have with our artists. In all these years we have not had a cross word with any of our artists. And we have never felt the need to sign contracts with them, because we have invested time and energy in building relationships of mutual trust with them, nurturing them and creating a market for their work.

How did you deal with the fluctuations and changes in the art market over the years?

I do not like the hype in the art world. I believe that the value of an artwork has to be intrinsic and that most of our clients buy art because it enriches their life. We have seen dramatic ups and downs in the market, but we have always tried to find a balance and be fair both to our artists and our clients. The boom in 2007 worried me because it was artificially created by cartels that looked at art as a commodity, and the spiralling prices of works by young contemporary Middle Eastern artists had a negative impact on their work. We had to work hard during the crash, but what kept us alive was the support we got from our artists, from Dubai Culture and from our incredible team, who have all been working at the gallery for a long time.

What has been the biggest change in the art market here?

The biggest change is that expatriates can now buy property here and can think of this as their primary home. Our biggest potential market is young couples who have decided to live and raise their families here, and would like to build an art collection. I hope that rather than buying posters or prints, they will buy original art, and I know that buying their first original piece of art will set them on the most incredible journey.

How did you navigate the transition from being the first fine-art gallery here to being the oldest in a rapidly growing city and market?

The biggest challenge for us has been the marketing because I have no training in that field. In the old days, our clients all lived close by and sales depended on footfall in the gallery. But today, social media has extended our reach and changed the way we sell. Launching our website was a proud moment for me, and we continue to improve it. We have moved with the times, without losing our essence and integrity. Because we have been here for so long people tend to think that we are traditionalists. We do have traditional paintings by the top artists, but we also have contemporary and edgy works. We are proud of our past as well as of our role as a key player in the creative future of the UAE.

Did you ever consider moving out of this area and into a warehouse in the new art quarters of the city?

Never. I am passionate about the human scale of my gallery, where people can see what the artworks would look like in their own homes. I am unashamedly domestic and believe that art is part of life, and want to be surrounded by it. We are happy to be in this historic neighbourhood by the creek, and to be an oasis of calm in a fast-moving metropolis. This area is what we are about. Today, people buy art on the internet but we are an antidote to that kind of “malculture”; people come here and think “oh, this is like it used to be” — and I want to hang on to that.

What are your future plans for the gallery?

I never plan too far ahead. But I would love to involve young Emiratis in this gallery, because I believe it should ultimately go back into Emirati hands.

Jyoti Kalsi is an arts enthusiast based in Dubai.

  • “25 Squared” will run at The Majlis Gallery until November 27.