The Majlis Gallery of Dubai has come a long way since its humble beginnings 25 years ago, when newly arrived English interior designer Alison Collins fell in love with the romance, the wind towers, and architecture of the historic Bastakia Quarter. This authentic pocket of Dubai offers a tantalizing glimpse into a time when the city was a sleepy trading port, before the boon reinvented Dubai and turned it into a center of vibrant artistic culture. It seemed the ideal spot for an art gallery. So, with the help of two Iranian tea importers and an Egyptian curtain maker, Collins opened the first gallery in the UAE, one that shares her passion for Dubai and for art.
Here, Collins shares her take on the burgeoning art scene and the places where visitors can fully appreciate it.
What brought you to Dubai?
I came to Dubai in 1976 as a design consultant. The Bastakia area attracted me because of its history. It’s where Dubai came from; the area is phenomenal. The mountains and wadi (ravines) are superb. So is the Creek. The winters are wonderful. It feels right here, but you have meander to find it.
Why did you set up the Majlis Gallery?
Art is my passion. Once you’ve bought an original piece of art, you’re hooked, and I love sharing my passion with others and making it affordable.
When I arrived, there was nothing cultural available in art in the area, so I had the idea to open it as a full art gallery. It was the first gallery in the UAE. I decided to host an exhibition for British painter Julian Barrow. The opening was enormous, so we continued to host informal soirées. We know how to throw a party here.
What is the art scene in Dubai like? What are some other galleries people can visit?
The art scene is buoyant, diverse, and grass-roots. There is a misconception that Islamic art is old-fashioned and traditional, but there is great work being done by [artists] such as Abdul Qader Al Rais in the UAE and Ali Omar Ermes in Iran. There are great galleries in the Al Quoz and Shindagha Heritage areas and the Alserkal Avenue Arts District. There are new galleries opening up all along the creek. Art Dubai (an international art fair) and the Dubai Museum are important, as is the Sheikh Saeed al-Maktoum House (housing a collection of wonderful photographs of old Dubai).
What will visitors find unique about the gallery?
The gallery is relaxing, informal, and unusual. You are always welcome and you will always be offered a cup of tea here. It’s unusual, but we can still hold a stick up to world-class galleries. It’s where you can meet local people and local artists and see great authentically Emirati art with no pressure to buy.
The word “majlis” means “a place of sitting” in Arabic, and that sums up the atmosphere of the Majlis Gallery. Art and Dubai make for a lovely way of life, and you meet fabulous people. I mean, a bowl of soup and a bread roll is all you need, as long as you are surrounded by good people.