Before The Third Line, before Art Dubai and before Susan Cochran’s big metal ants landed at DIFC, the Majlis Gallery was firmly on the art map. Yet at that time there was no art map (there wasn’t a DIFC, either). When Majlis owner Alison Collins opened her Bastakiya home up for an exhibition in November 1979, she really was planting the flag in the murky, uncharted world of independent art-flogging in Dubai.
‘We signed the lease for this house in 1977,’ says Collins over the chaotic din of preparations for a new group show. This one will mark 20 years since she moved out of her Bastakiya home and converted it into the full-time gallery space that Majlis now occupies. ‘The owner was this wonderful old Iranian guy – he still wore a turban and curly shoes. He looked at my husband with this sparkling wink, and his son, who was interpreting, said, “My father has warned you, this house is very procreative.”’ Collins laughs, ‘But it was prophetic. He meant, “Be careful, you’ll have lots of children,” which we did, but just think about the creativity that this place has engendered since.’
Majlis is known for the markedly traditional slant in the artists it exhibits. The gallery’s selection of what Collins refers to as ‘traveller-painters’ often capture the region (usually Oman and the UAE) with more than a hint of romance – sunrise over a dhow-filled creek, a sun-bleached collection of coral Arabic bungalows and, as in the case of Sue Casson’s work (above), who sits in on our interview with Collins, a lone Omani fisherman on a grey beach.
‘When the art world exploded here, about the turn of the millennium, it was very much in the conceptual – video, photography, a celluloid approach to image-making. It was a bit reactionary and a bit of a shock, but it was what Dubai was absolutely ready for.’ By the time Al Quoz started to become a hub for everything caustic and conceptual coming out of the Middle East, Majlis was already a decade old and came to naturally define itself as distinct from the developing boom.
‘I can fully appreciate the other things that are going on. It’s incredibly exciting, but there’s a place for everything and that’s not the place for this particular gallery. We do handle very, very contemporary images, but they tend to be painted or drawn rather than photographed. It’s an academic and much more traditional approach to image making – it centres around the craft of handling paint and pencil.’
It’s hard to pin down exactly what the Majlis aesthetic is. A lot of Collins’ artists use the gallery as a base for their expeditions, coming from South Africa, Edinburgh and Cornwall. We broach the idea of a hint of orientalism about these artists’ practice, but Collins is refreshingly easy about it. ‘We actually had a show called The New Orientalists,’ she says. ‘The body of work that’s been produced through this gallery will be regarded as a period that was very fruitful for painters. The images that Julian Barrow did in the mid-’70s are totally historic. Consider that a lot of painters came here when this country was pristine; not quite the Wilfred Thesiger era, but not far off.’
This 20-year anniversary show gives a bold sweep across the artists who have been in and out of Majlis in the past two decades. Aside from English artists such as Paul Wadsworth, with his dramatic yet eloquently stilled representations of landscapes from the region, there are a number of prominent artists from the Middle East who have made Majlis their own. Take Khaled Al Saai, featured in the British Museum’s lauded Word Into Art exhibition. A calligrapher, Al Saai has a very noticeable style – not so much a tangle, rather a submerged mass of Arabic letters that sweep across his canvases like a shoal of fish.
But it’s the traveller-painters that remain a defining aspect of what Majlis does. We ask whether, as the country hammers on with progress, something has been lost in this past 20 years – a simplicity that so many of Collins’ artists try to capture about the Middle East. ‘The local environment is being encroached and not necessarily well cherished, but I’m hoping that’s just a temporary glitch. It hasn’t lost its sparkle for me or for the artists. You’ve got to see beyond the changes.’
And as Dubai’s art scene becomes ever louder? ‘It’s a bit like when you go to Sharjah and all the florists are on one road. That’s healthy – people can make comparisons. All the gallery owners know each other here, we all respect and appreciate what every gallery is doing. It’s a very Middle Eastern concept, a souk concept.’
Majlis Is 20 continues at Majlis Gallery until December 31.