WKND Spotlight: Majlis gallery, the end of an era for art in Dubai

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From founding one of Dubai's oldest art galleries to seeing through its impending closure, Alison Collins walks down the memory lane.


Anamika Chatterjee

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Published: Thu 24 Sep 2020, 8:00 PM

Last updated: Fri 25 Sep 2020, 9:26 PM

Alison Collins vividly remembers that day in June, 1978, when she and her husband decided to have a picnic at the terrace of the Al Bastakiya villa they were to move into along with their children, including a six-month-old baby. "I simply love picnics and doing this here was a whole new experience," she remembers. Little did they know that their new abode would soon find another purpose. British painter Julian Barrow had come visiting a friend in Dubai en route to India. When informed of Alison's passion for art, he decided to meet her at her new home. He had drawn a couple of portraits of the city and requested her to show them at her luxe house. "We put some furniture in the garden and painting on the walls. I sent handwritten invitations to people and phoned them personally. Loads of people came. It was tremendous fun," she recalls.

The next 10 years saw Alison hosting informal exhibitions for art enthusiasts in her circle. That changed when the family received an eviction order, as a transformation of the Al Bastakiya neighbourhood was underway. They shifted to a house near Safa Park. "And that's when things got a bit romantic," jokes Alison. "One fine day, my son climbed on to my lap and told me, 'Mummy, you must not let that old house die.' What a thing for a child to say, I thought! I had a few projects and four other friends who were prepared to invest. That's how we opened Majlis Gallery."
Four decades and several iconic moments later, the Majlis Gallery is all set to close. As we visit the gallery, Alison, now in her mid-seventies, is busy preparing for a swan song sale that starts from September 26 and will go on till October 16. Some clients and patrons - including ones who have supported the gallery right from its formative years - have come over to have a final look at the works of art and express their disappointment. Alison, however, is a picture of composure. "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 says.
Was it Covid, I ask her. Alison says that while Covid may have been one of the factors, she does not blame it on the pandemic alone. "Art business is tough," she tells it like it is. "Profit levels are marginal. I have never been an elitist gallery; rather it has been a space for everyone. I love it when people walk in, look around and leave saying 'thank you'. I obviously need to sell too. But art is more than that. Art is for the soul."
In between attending to clients, Alison makes time to revisit her journey with us. She remembers a time when the creek had been the heart of Dubai. The art scene then was mostly concentrated to Sharjah with some odd shops selling works in Dubai. "When I arrived, there were some very talented artists living here. Most of them were teaching in Sharjah. But here in Dubai, I don't remember seeing any galleries. Ours was pretty much the first one. I don't want to close this gallery, but in the current climate, it is not financially viable. It needs money, energy and passion."
Over the years, the gallery has acquired a reputation for showcasing outstanding talent. Alison has been personally involved in getting in touch with many artists herself. She also recognises how enormously the local talent has evolved. "There is a lot of local talent, especially among the new generation. But a lot of their work - and it is a worldwide trend - tends to be IT-oriented with videos and software. What I call art is the ability to draw and use various means and mediums to express yourself. An artist has talent, but, gosh, they hone it. All the people we represent are not sitting and waiting for inspiration. Work, for them, means going to a studio and painting, drawing, engraving, etc. There has to be a structure behind it. With the Internet, in many ways, less and less is a gallery needed because artists can market their own work. But most of the really good ones, like their work to be in a gallery because they don't have time to market."
With Covid-19, the site for showcasing artworks has shifted online. But gallerists such as Alison are yet to be wooed by the medium. "Art is tactile, visual and emotional. How do you get emotional seeing something online?" she says. "What you will end up with is not what you will see. The screen flattens everything. The Internet is a selling tool but it's not a means to the end. I once joined an online gallery and was with them for a year. It cost me Dh20,000 a month and I did not sell one painting. Where is the joy in selling something to someone when there's no contact? It's probably committing commercial suicide, because that's how the world works these days. But I think there will be a reversal after all this is over."
The closure of one of the oldest galleries in Dubai has also left many patrons bereft. Alison recalls the day she opened the house as an art gallery. Driving to Bastakiya for the opening night on November 2, 1989, she told herself, "Yes, I did it." Ever since, November 2 has been a day to celebrate every year. This time? "I just hope I will be able to celebrate something."

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