Alison Collins: Woman behind Dubai’s oldest fine art gallery passes away

Tributes pour in for Majlis Gallery owner who died in Italy on December 11.


Mazhar Farooqui

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(KT/Juidin Bernarrd)
(KT/Juidin Bernarrd)

Published: Thu 16 Dec 2021, 1:04 PM

Last updated: Thu 16 Dec 2021, 1:12 PM

Tributes have been pouring in for a woman behind Dubai’s oldest fine art space who died last Saturday.

Alison Collins, who founded the now-defunct Majlis Gallery in 1978, passed away in Sicily, Italy, on December 11.

She was in her late seventies.

The news of her death has plunged her friends and the UAE’s arts community into mourning.

Those who knew Collins describe her as an extraordinary woman and a tireless promoter of arts in the Middle East.

Cheeni Shah, who has been associated with Majlis Gallery since the first day, broke down as she remembered her former business partner.

“This indeed is an extremely difficult time. Alison was my friend, mentor and colleague for over three decades. Her passing away, besides being a personal loss, is also a huge loss to arts and artists in the region,” said Shah. “Alison touched many lives and, through her works, leaves behind a legacy that will be remembered by generations to come,” she added.

South African artist Lynette Ken Kroden said she will forever cherish the fond memories of working with Collins.

“She created a haven for aritsts and promoted the UAE as a truly distinct arts destination in the desert,” Kroden said over the phone from South Africa.

“I have been traveling to Dubai twice a year over the past three-and-a-half decades to exhibit my work at the Majlis Gallery on Collins invitation,  She was one of my best friends and will be sorely missed. It will be a befitting tribute to her if Majlis Gallery is revived,” she said.

The absorbing arthouse in Bur Dubai’s historical Al Fahidi neighbhourhood shut down permanently last year, marking the end of an era.

Collins was a picture of composure when Khaleej Times met her in October 2020 as she prepared to hold a swan song sale ahead of the gallery’s closure.

“I have never thought life owes you anything. To be honest, my big mantra right now is 'job well done'. One of the worse emotions in life is regret, and an even worse one is guilt. They don't take you anywhere," she had said.

A Sharjah- based artist, who didn’t want to be named, said Collins put up a brave front when Majis Gallery closed but a part of her had died with it. “She tried to keep it going as long as she could but the Covid-19 pandemic worsened the situation. It wasn’t financially viable to run the place.”

UAE-based art consultant Ambika Vohra said Majlis Gallery was a meeting place for people who wanted to experience and appreciate arts and Alison Collins was its heart.

“The art world is a little less colourful without her,” said Vohra.

Originally from Cornwall, a county in England’s rugged Southwestern tip, Collins came to Dubai in 1976 to work as an interior designer. She instantly fell in love with the UAE especially with the architecture and the ambience of the old wind tower houses in the Bastakia. In 1978, with the help of two Iranian tea importers and an Egyptian curtain maker, Alison and her husband secured the lease on villa number 19 (Bastakia) from its owner Mir Abdulla Amiri.

Little did they know then that their abode would transform into an arts space.

As it turned out, a travelling British painter by the name of Julian Barrow showed up at their door in 1979, looking for somewhere to show his paintings of Dubai.

Collins was delighted to comply with the request. She moved all the furniture out of the family majlis to make room for the paintings and sent out handwritten notes inviting people to see the works.  “Loads of people came. It was tremendous fun,” Collins would recall in an interview with Khaleej Times years later.

This is how foundations of Majlis Gallery, the first gallery in the UAE, was laid.

It's here -- over the next ten years -- Collins and her husband raised their three children and played host to many informal soirees in their ‘majlis’, hence the name, introducing artists both professional and amateur to a somewhat culturally bereft community.

However, in the summer of 1988, the family was served an eviction notice as Al Fahidi was facing redevelopment.

Collin proposed her landlord to turn the place into a commercial art gallery. He readily agreed.  On November 2, 1989, Majlis Gallery opened its door and soon evolved into one of Dubai’s premier fine art galleries.

Over the years Collins provided a platform for hundreds of artists, many of whom are now known on a global stage. These includes the likes of multi award-winning Emirati artist Abdul Qader Al Rais who exhibited his first works here and the late Syrian painter Abdul Latif Al Smoudi who began showcasing his works in the gallery in the mid-nineties.

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