Two galleries recently opened their doors in Abu Dhabi, revealing a treasure trove of artefacts as well as a healthy dose of modern art.
Qurans from 8th-century Kashmir and Moroccan prayer books from the 17th and 19th centuries are cased in glass cabinets. Above them hang stunning Ottoman-inspired mother-of-pearl wooden inlaid pieces and hand-painted Quranic inscriptions. These are the treasures that fill just one corner of adjacent villas in Abu Dhabi’s Al Bateen area that’s home to the Etihad Modern Art Gallery and Etihad Antiques Gallery.
The modern art gallery is new, and while the antiques gallery has been in place since 2004, this is the first chance for the public to get inside, as it previously only offered private viewings.
The galleries display the vast collections of the Emirati artist Khalid Seddiq Al Mutawa and Mohammed Khalil, an Iraqi collector and expert in Islamic art and antiques.
Inside the gallery, there are many exquisitely preserved pieces comparable to those seen in some of the finest Islamic museums. As well as the Holy scripts there are swords, pieces of body armour and warrior helmets that, positioned on their stands with their chain mail shields fully extended, almost exude the air of the battles they have fought.
“I have more than 1,500 swords,” says the soft-spoken Khalil, who has published a book to encompass his full collection. “It is the biggest collection of swords in the Arab world. I love weapons because they are so much part of our history. As Arabs, our swords were as important to us as our wives. We loved them, we made intricate patterns on them and everyone had them.”
Although he is reluctant to show us which is the most significant or important sword on display, he does reveal that one of the weapons belonged to the last sultan from the Ayyubid period and is the only one of his weapons in existence in the world.
“It makes me happy to display them to the public,” he continues. “I think we should be proud of our history.”
In the second villa, rare European paintings compete for space on the walls. A 19th-century piano sits alongside tables, chairs and silk rugs from across the centuries, giving the space a cosy living-room feel despite being full to the rafters with priceless items.
In an upstairs room, a curtain from the Holy Kaaba in Mecca covers one wall and an early gramophone sits on the floor opposite it while African figurines populate the shelves. It is a cacophony of information that can start to make the mind boggle.
“They have been collecting these items for 20 years,” says Mohammed Al Homsi, the gallery manager. “It is a very important moment for them to finally display them like this because there are only a few gallery spaces in Abu Dhabi and they are creating something new.”
Alongside the antiques, there is space dedicated to contemporary art from a variety of locally based artists.
The Greek photographer Yiannis Roussakis is afforded a whole room for his spectacular black-and-white images of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, as is Khaled Al Najjad, a Cuban-Syrian artist who paints photorealistic portraits.
On a wooden balcony, running along one side of the villa and behind it, is an entire gallery of mixed-media pieces, many of which are by artists from the Abu Dhabi Art Squad collective. Some of the highlights include an abaya made from multicoloured Nespresso coffee capsules that makes a comment on the seemingly disposable nature of traditional culture, and framed fish made from sequins, beads and paint that shimmer under flickering light.
“I don’t want this to be a normal gallery,” says Al Mutawa. “We work with our hearts and not our minds. We will have regular exhibitions and promote modern and contemporary art, but we are also placing a strong emphasis on the extremely important items from our deeply rooted history.
“The old civilisations are so beautiful and they are disappearing fast. In Abu Dhabi we do not have a very old civilisation but we appreciate and love art. This is part of our responsibility to preserve and display it.”
• Etihad Modern Art Gallery and Etihad Antiques Gallery are located opposite Al Bateen Mall in Abu Dhabi. The modern art gallery is open for drop-ins; viewings at the antiques gallery are by appointment only. For more information, call 02 667 1229 or visit www.etihadgallery.com