It was a simple statement, but it stayed with me for days. When Gayane Umerova summarised what defines Central Asian art, she simply said: "For us, art is about beauty. No politics, no conceptualism, only what looks good and creates a harmony with the canvas."
I took a breath before I replied and found myself pausing my thoughts. Taking in the paintings populating the walls of her new gallery, I appreciated greatly what this young Uzbek curator was saying. In the end, I thought, that is what art is supposed to be about.
I met Umerova last week, ahead of the opening of the gallery she co-founded with her business partner Natalya Andakulova. Alif Gallery, in the gleaming Gherkin-esque Park Towers in Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC), is the first gallery dedicated to Central Asian art in the Middle East, and it is causing quite a stir.
Already receiving attention from the international press and with a healthy presence at the launch, hopes are high for success. "We were expecting interest but we are surprised by how much we are getting and we are a little overwhelmed," says Umerova. "Central Asian art is something new for the region and I guess it is fashionable. People are always interested in a new trend."
Umerova is a specialist of art from the region; she trained at Sotheby's in London and in 2011, she curated the Sixth Tashkent Biennial of Contemporary Art. Andakulova is the business mind; with a degree in maths and physics, she is overseeing the commercial aspects. Their differences complement each other but it is patriotism for their native Uzbekistan and the rich cultural history of the Central Asian region that unites them.
"We have a very deep culture," explains Andakulova. "We have Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva, which are ancient and mystical cities with 2,000 years of history. With art, we want to create a bridge to access that culture and introduce people to our great stories."
Alif's inaugural exhibition will be a solo show called Myths and Legends, from the London-based artist Timur D'Vatz. His work, characterised by figures and animals of an almost mythical quality, is brought to life by his choice of colour and use of gold leaf to bring texture and warmth.
"The gold signifies the sun and prosperity," he says. But it is again Umerova who captures its importance. "Timur's work is simply beautiful and that's why we chose it," she says. "Central Asian art is not political; we really appreciate figurative work."
Umerova also admits that D'Vatz (represented by the Cadogan Gallery in London's affluent Chelsea) will be good for business. And with price tags at around the US$20,000 (Dh73,500) mark, she is certainly hoping for some profitable sales.
But the attention the women paid to the details of the opening night reveal that this is a venture of passion rather than financial gain. Umerova ordered hand-painted teapots that took two months to prepare and Andakulova selected more than 100 images of the mosaics, doorways and domes of buildings in ancient Uzbekistan to be made into postcards and presented to visitors in a black and gold, wood-embossed envelope.
"Art from our region is extremely concerned with detail," says Andakulova. "We have many reputable schools and education is classical so artists are very skilled. Given this, I was surprised when I first came to Dubai in 2007 to find very little art from anywhere in the region, so I am happy to be finally introducing it now."
Alif Gallery is now open in DIFC. Myths and Legends continues until March 15. For more information, visit www.alifartgallery.com