Paintings crowd walls, ceramic jars are crammed into display areas and colourful glassware sits atop every surface. Pottery, vases, linen, decorative jugs and objets d’arts are everywhere. Welcome to The Majlis Gallery.
This one-time family villa was Dubai’s first fine-art gallery and it celebrates its 25th anniversary this month.
“I like to keep the place well-stocked,” says owner Alison Collins. “I want to make sure it’s nice and busy.”
Here, there are rooms that focus on works dedicated to Dubai – souks, sand, skyscrapers – and rooms for revolving exhibitions. A central courtyard features a large sculpture of a bird and a magnificent henna tree. Wherever you stand, you’re never more than a few feet from an image of a camel.
If the art is the prime concern, heritage is up there too. The wooden doors and windows have been handmade in Dubai, floors are of paved stone and the upper terrace has a view that – if you ignore the angry traffic of Al Fahidi Street to the south – could be from anytime over the last 100 years. The skyline is filled with wind towers.
It is easy, in short, to see why this vaguely hippie, vaguely genteel compound has become so popular with both residents and tourists – “we don’t count numbers,” says Alison, “but we’re looking at tens of thousands of visitors every year.”
Yet 25 years ago, in November 1989, it was a very different story.
Back then, the gallery’s success was by no means such a certainty. For that was the month this place opened. “If you’d told me then that we’d still be here now – and getting stronger each year – I’m not sure I’d have believed you,” says Alison, 67.
But, in fact, the story of The Majlis – meeting place in Arabic – stretches back even further than that to the Seventies, when this whole area, now officially called the Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood, was in danger of crumbling into the sand and the gallery itself was still a family villa.
It was rented then by English expat Alison Collins and her husband Dick. They lived there with first-born Thomasina, now 37. (Two more children would follow – Clementine, now 34, and William, now 30.)
The couple – Alison, an interior designer and Dick, a vet – had initially come to the UAE for work opportunities and, for some time, they lived above his clinic in Al Wasl. They moved to the property in 1978, after a couple of Iranian tea merchants told Alison the property was available.
Yet a knock on the door one day in the summer of 1979 would set in course the events that turned the place into The Majlis and, in doing so, changed both Alison’s life and the cultural fabric of Dubai forever.
The knock came from a chap called Julian Barrow. He was tall, unshaven and his face was smeared with dried paint. He wore a ruffled shirt and carried a threadbare canvas bag. When he spoke to introduce himself it was in a deep English baritone. He was a “traveller painter”, he said, and had heard there was a British lady who loved art living here in this wind-tower house.
The pair spoke on the doorstep for a few minutes – a mutual friend had told Julian to visit Alison; he was travelling to India via the Middle East – and then she invited him in for lunch.
Over a salad in the shade of the villa’s courtyard, the caller showed his host the paintings in his bag. They were oil paintings of Dubai’s creek side and souks, painted in the four weeks he had been there.
“He asked me what I thought, and I told him they were wonderful,” recalls Alison today, sitting in the same courtyard that lunch took place in 35 years ago. “And he said ‘Will you hang them up in this house and sell them?’ And, well, I said ‘of course.’
“It took a few weeks’ planning but we ended up moving all the furniture out the majlis room and putting up the paintings in there.”
She decided to hold a soirée and ask every one she knew.
“There wasn’t much to do here back then. There were just a handful of hotels and an outdoor cinema, but when it came to culture there were really not many places. So we were confident people would come, if just for something to do.”
And people did come. About 100 in all – Emiratis, Europeans, Iranians. Julian hung 45 paintings up. By the end of the night, every single one had sold. He left Dubai a richer man than he arrived. He offered to share the spoils with Alison but she refused. “It was a magical night and that was enough for me,” she says. “No one was doing anything like that in Dubai. It was a one-off.”
Or at least it would have been, if another amateur painter called Doug Saunders hadn’t asked her to do something similar for his work. She did, and, again, the night was a hit. From there things snowballed.
For nine years, as their family grew, Alison and Dick hosted these soirées. They became well-known cultural events. People travelled from across the growing city to attend. Newspaper men would turn up and write about them. To some it felt like a scene was being born.
And then one day in the summer of 1988, Dubai officials knocked at the villa door and told the family the neighbourhood was to be knocked down, and they would need to find somewhere else to live within the next six weeks.
So, how did a home earmarked for demolition become the UAE’s first fine-art gallery within a year? The exact answer remains a little unclear even today. “We were left shocked when we were evicted,” says Alison. “We half-expected it because others nearby had already been demolished, but it was still devastating.”
The family moved to Safa Park, yet within months their old landlord – an Emirati and, by then, a friend – had got back in touch.
He told them the demolition appeared to be delayed. There were suggestions it might not happen at all. He hinted there had been a change of heart, that the neighbourhood might be saved and renovated for posterity. “The landlord asked if we’d like to move back, but we were settled in Safa Park by that point. Yet I didn’t want this house not to be part of my life. I’d never thought about owning a gallery before. But, suddenly, having become known as this lady of art and having got these contacts, I started to think maybe this was something I could do.
“Dick thought I was crazy, and he was probably right. Had I thought about it properly, I probably wouldn’t have done it, actually. But I had a passion for it by then.
“I did a feasibility study and, financially, it looked unlikely. But when I mentioned it to the landlord, he was very encouraging. He came back a couple of days later and he said: ‘It’s a great idea, Alison, I’ll invest in your business’.” That, combined with Alison’s own savings, meant it became financially viable – and so The Majlis opened on November 2, 1989.
Ten local painters were the first exhibitors. A gift shop was established in one of the rooms. “If it was beautiful we’d include it,” says Alison. “That was the only criteria to be displayed or sold.”
Arguably, that is why the place has retained its reputation for quality. Art-lovers know they will see something interesting and innovative at The Majlis.
But by the late Nineties, a great reputation could no longer hide the fact that the actual building was starting to crumble. More government officials arrived at the door. This time, however, they told Alison they were taking responsibility for the whole district – which would be officially renamed the Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood. They told her they were renovating the villas and that hers would be first.
And then they asked her to talk them through her business model for making a creative independent business work in this part of Dubai. They listened as Alison explained, and asked questions. They looked around, and when they left they told her the regeneration of the area would begin within a few months, which it did.
Only a couple of years later did Alison begin to wonder if that afternoon’s discussions had anything to do with the new creative industries – shops, boutiques, tea houses – which have since sprung up in the area.
“We were the first,” she says of the area’s growing reputation for independent retail. “Whether we were the inspiration for the others, I don’t know. What I do know is that it’s been good for the area. This is a fascinating part of old Dubai to visit and immerse yourself in where this city came from. There is so much potential here.”
Artists are very fond of the gallery. Exhibitions are a mix of locals looking for greater exposure and big international names. The late Syrian painter Abdullatif Al Smoudi – widely considered one of Mena’s finest artists – had one of his first exhibitions here. So did the UAE’s Abdul Qader Al Rais, who met Alison while he was a labour permit processor. She encouraged his talent and ended up staging his first professional exhibition.
Julian Barrow, the travelling painter, went on to become a much-respected globetrotting artist. Arguably his most famous piece hangs in his hometown of London. For the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, he produced a portrait of the House of Lords, which can now be seen at Westminster. He passed away last year, aged 74.
“These are all incredible artists who I’m so proud to have had exhibit here,” says Alison. “I wouldn’t say I’ve put anyone on the global map. I don’t think galleries work like that. But I like to think that exhibiting artists like Abdul Qader Al Rais and [Syrian sculptor] Mustafa Ali, when they were first starting out, has helped them in their careers.”
There are four staff at The Majlis now, but Alison still works there. How long, Friday wonders, will she keep running it?
“A while yet,” she says. “I don’t ever plan on going back to England. Do you know what I would love, though? For, one day, a young Emirati to take the gallery over and run it.
“They would need a lot of energy and a passion for art but it would be perfect for it to be run by a local.”
* The Majlis Gallery celebrates its 25th anniversary with a special exhibition where 40 artists, who have exhibited there over the years, create an installation of more than 150 25x25cm paintings. It runs into the new year.