Art runs in Luma Al Mukhalalati’s family. The Canadian-Palestinian manages Art Central, a casual art hub that encompasses classes, art supplies, and a gallery, on Reem Island in Abu Dhabi. But her journey to starting and running the business was anything but straightforward.
Ms Al Mukhalalati, born and raised in the UAE, was drawn to painting as she grew up watching her father, Talal, an artist, produce beautiful work in his spare time.
“Although he worked in the oil and gas industry, painting was his passion … Painting has always been in my background. He says that I am a very good critic and that I tell him when something is not right [with a painting].”
Ms Al Mukhalalati went to the University of Ottawa to study communications but felt adrift until she decided to pursue her passion for art.
“My last two years, I felt that something was missing, I really want to get to something that I loved, so I decided to apply for the visual arts programme. I sketch from time to time, I take photographs, so I said I will try.”
“So I went in and I had a small folder with my sketches and photographs – everyone else had a huge portfolio with them. I said to myself ‘no way, I am not getting in’, but I did.”
The last two years of university were the best for Ms Al Mukhalalati, as she acquired a double major in communications and visual arts. After graduating in 2008, Ms Al Mukhalalati worked with PF Emirates, an interior design company, for four years as marketing and communications manager and then briefly dabbled in freelance lifestyle photography. But then in 2013, her family came up with the idea of a starting a business that supports art.
Ms Al Mukhalalati runs that business, Art Central, with her father and two brothers. The brothers handle the finance and tech side while she focuses on the creative side with her father.
“My dad always said that there aren’t a lot of places that support art in Abu Dhabi,” she said. “We thought of a place that provides all types of services for artists … and also has an affordable gallery to support local artists.
“We wanted to teach art as well. Our motto is, let’s fill the city with artists.”
According to Ms Al Mukhalalati, they wanted to promote being artistic because it is “very therapeutic”.
“Just sitting there and even doodling is very therapeutic for your mental health. We have doodle sketches and actually people love it, because you can spend hours doodling. It is very very therapeutic,” she says.
Art Central offers a range of classes that vary from the basics of drawing, sketching and painting, to using techniques by masters such as Van Gogh and Picasso. It also features sculpture classes and art workshops for kids.
“People don’t necessarily know how to paint or draw a face but the way they can express themselves in colours, it can be a great way to bring some energy and especially for kids. They say the kids are the best abstract artists,” Ms Al Mukhalalati says.
“We wanted it to be a full-service art place for everybody. Even if you are not an artist, you can still come in. If you are an artist, we have things for you.”
The art hub has an open day every month where people can meet all the instructors, ask questions and take part in a free workshop.
But is there such a big enough a market for such a venture in Abu Dhabi? It seems there is.
“There are so many artists in Abu Dhabi. We were surprised by the number of artists in Abu Dhabi waiting for a shop like this to open,” says Ms Al Mukhalalati. “There are so many amateur artists out there who need a lot of support in terms of teaching them how to become better artists.”
But obtaining a licence was one of the biggest struggles for the Al Mukhalalati family. They say the process must be made easier, to encourage small businesses.
“They [the authorities] hadn’t seen an art store before. We tried to tell them what we exactly planned to do. But in terms of licensing there are only a certain number of services that are given one. We didn’t fit in, so we had to get around it in a [roundabout] way.”
Looking ahead, Ms Al Mukhalalati hopes to expand in the city, even though Abu Dhabi is small.
“We feel that people are sticking to their communities. This has been perfect for this community – in Reem Island, but we understand that some people live far.
“[Also] Abu Dhabi people are so homey. They need a push. They need to get out there. We want to support them. We want the art scene to be bigger and better in Abu Dhabi,” she says.
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