A Tour Of Artist-Collector Noura Ali-Al Ramahi's Abu Dhabi Art-Filled Abode

BY Ayesha Sohail Shehmir Shaikh / Sep 25 2019 / 10:08 AM

The Lebanese-born artist and collector opens the door to her Abu Dhabi home to reveal her ever-changing collection of modern and contemporary art

A Tour Of Artist-Collector Noura Ali-Al Ramahi's Abu Dhabi Art-Filled Abode
Courtesy of Noura Ali-Al Ramahi
Noura in her studio. In the background: Noura Ali-Al Ramahi. Untitled. 2019. Acrylic and plastic bags on wood

Reminiscent of a rustic cottage house in the South of France, Noura Ali-Al Ramahi’s Abu Dhabi villa in Golf Gardens features a treasure trove of eclectic art works hanging on large white walls that serve as her personal blank canvas. With wooden beams on the ceilings, wooden flooring and beige-coloured furnishings, the double story home marries traditional with contemporary. Hanging at the top of the stairs is a commissioned painting by Miami-based artist Jason Seife entitled City in Colour (2017), resembling a hand-woven, traditionally patterned Persian carpet.

“Most people who visit my home actually have to walk up the stairs and touch it to believe it’s not really a carpet,” laughs Ramahi. “I’m a big fan of Seife. He was here at an exhibition at the Sharjah Art Museum earlier this year and I invited him over to my studio. He gave me tips and an insight into what he has learned from his experience.”

Also on the staircase is a large work by British painter  Will Martyr entitled Call Me When You’re Not Busy (2017). In the family room is another commissioned work by Martyr  depicting Ramahi’s orange European townhouse in Portugal. When Ramahi encountered the artist’s work at UK-based Unit gallery, she was instantaneously mesmerised and arranged a visit to his studio. “It was just terrific for me to see an actual artist in his own space, to learn about the kind of paint he uses, that was a very big key for me,” she shares.

Jason Seife. Chinese New Year. 2018. Acrylic on concrete. 33x33cm. Courtesy of Noura Ali-Al Ramahi

Courtesy of Noura Ali-Al Ramahi

“I was travelling from the UK to Portugal where we have a home and I told him I’d love for him to make a painting of it. I showed him pictures of the house and he captured it in his own style. It’s like having a piece of Portugal right here with me in Abu Dhabi.” Following the visit, Ramahi began using Golden Acrylic in her own work—the same type of paint that Martyr works with. “I buy all paint from the UK now and it’s changed everything. Visiting his studio hugely impacted me.”

It began almost 18 years ago during her trip to a local flee market in Beirut, Lebanon, where Ramahi spotted an alluring painting of a guitar by an unknown artist. “I never really thought of it as collecting. I was walking around with a photographer one day and taking pictures when this painting caught my eye—I fell in love with it,” she recalls.

“I still don’t know who the painter is or how much I paid for it but that’s the first memory I have of buying an artwork.” From then onward, any place she travelled to including Paris, Italy and Spain, she would return with a piece of art as a souvenir. “It started as part of me trying to capture a memory while we were travelling,” says Ramahi. It didn’t occur to her that she was in fact, building a masterful art collection.

Jason Seife. City in Colour. 2017. 152.4x101.6cm. Courtesy of Noura Ali-Al Ramahi

Courtesy of Noura Ali-Al Ramahi

Untitled (2014) by Syria-born contemporary artist Diana Al-Hadid is another highlight of the collection, gracing the living room on the ground floor. “I first saw her work at the NYU Art Gallery during an exhibition in Abu Dhabi and it just blew my mind,” says Ramahi.

“It’s one of the most important pieces in my home.” Landscape II (2016) by Lebanese expressionist artist Marwan Sahmarani hangs by the entrance, a piece Ramahi bought from Dubai-based Leila Heller Gallery. “I wish I could paint like Marwan, he reminds me of Willem De Kooning who I absolutely adore but could never afford because he’s one of the masters of abstract expressionism,” she says. “With every piece I purchase, I learn something.”

Born in the middle of the Lebanese civil war in Beirut in 1976, Ramahi’s childhood wasn’t an average one. At the age of 11, she moved to Scotland for over a year, where she learned to speak English. When she returned to her hometown, the war had worsened and so in 1989, she settled in Dubai. In 1993, Ramahi returned to Beirut once again, graduating with a business degree from the American University of Beirut (AUB) in 1997.

The dining room on the ground floor with works including Venice Festival, 2016,  by Bakhodir Jalal (middle) and untitled works by Noura Ali-Al Ramahi (left and right) and Lalla Essaydi (far right)

Courtesy of Noura Ali-Al Ramahi

Although she didn’t pursue any formal education in painting, she always found herself drawn to the world of art. During her high school years at Al Mawakeb School in Dubai, she often drew and painted on silk and later, she began painting on terracotta pots which she bought from local markets in Lebanon. “Everything I do is self-taught, no rules, just total freedom and no right or wrong,” she shares.

“I would paint on these pots they sold in in various shapes and sizes and I would just colour them, so our house in Beirut was filled with these painted terracotta pots.” In 2013, Ramahi moved to her Abu Dhabi home where she has been residing for the past six years with her family, the driving force behind her work.

from top: an untitled work by Noura’s mother; An untitled work by Noura’s uncle. Courtesy of Noura Ali-Al Ramahi

Courtesy of Noura Ali-Al Ramahi

“I wouldn’t be able to do what I do without them.” With time, Ramahi’s interest in art became a hobby she couldn’t live without. In 2016, she hosted her very first exhibition at Abu Dhabi-based Twofour54, showcasing her own works as well as works by her mother and uncle. The money raised from each sale was donated to a local special needs centre. “It was a huge success, that’s the only way I can say it,” she says.

“That was kind of my affirmation that I need to continue doing this. It was a boost of confidence and I realised I should take this a bit more seriously because it’s not just a hobby, this is something I need to pursue.” Following the inaugural exhibition, the artist built her own studio in June 2016. “I built myself a little wooden cabin in the backyard, that’s where I paint and I can make as much of a mess as I want,” she laughs. “It was necessary. I don’t think I can do what I do without this space.”

In October 2018, Abu Dhabi-based N2N Gallery, in collaboration with Dubai-based Andakulova Gallery, presented Ramahi’s first solo exhibition entitled Rhapsody. With music being a tremendous inspiration in the artist’s life, each piece at the exhibition was named after a song. Love is a losing game by Amy Winehouse (2018) was a work which sold instantly. “The fact that someone would want to always have my piece with them is just an incredible feeling,” she says. “It was never about money for me and it never will be.”

Noura stands  with her work in her Abu Dhabi home. In the background: Noura Ali-Al Ramahi. Saudade I I I. 2018. Mixed media collage. Courtesy of the artist

Courtesy of Noura Ali-Al Ramahi

The more Ramahi painted, the more she collected. She began regularly visiting exhibitions and art fairs such as Art Dubai and Abu Dhabi Art, realising that her art purchases were no longer a result of her travels. “I started tracking specific artists, learning that I liked a specific style or artist,” she says. “That’s when I started being more selective about what I wanted.”

Works by Chinese artist Zhuang Hong Yi, Tashkent-born artist Bakhodir Jalal, Morrocan photographer Lalla Essaydi and Swiss artist Conrad Jon Godly also adorn the walls of the artist-cum-art collector’s art-filled abode. The paintings rotate as do works in art galleries, until each piece of art finds its final destination. “I keep changing what I have on the wall because as I collect, I make space for new pieces,” she smiles. “There are a few that stay in one place but if you visit me in a few months, you’ll see something new on the walls.”

The artist, collector, full time worker and mother of four is often asked how she manages to juggle all four roles with such grace. “It’s really not a matter of how I do it, I have to do it,” she emphasizes. “It’s almost bordering on an obsession–If there is an overriding passion, there is a way.”

From the Autumn 2019 issue of Harper's Bazaar Art