'Bait Yado': two Emirati brothers turn Dubai family home into an art space

The new hub in Al Mamzar is the brainchild of Khalid and Gaith Abdulla

On a quiet street in Al Mamzar, a genteel neighborhood sandwiched between Dubai and Sharjah, a new multipurpose art space has taken shape. Bait Yado, which it's being affectionately called until a final name is decided upon, opened on November 20 featuring artists' studios, a gallery, a residency, a co-working and events space, and rooftop screenings and chef-led dinners in the cooler months.

The space is the brainchild of Emirati brothers Khalid, 35, and Gaith Abdulla, 31, a former curator at the Louvre Abu Dhabi, and writer and co-founder of sales platform Engage 101 respectively.

Their father built the villa in the early 1980s, and it was used by the family until late 2018. When in art school, Khalid even briefly used one of the rooms as a studio.

The siblings' nickname for the home has always been "bait yado", meaning “grandmother’s house”.

Khalid and Gaith considered turning the property into a cafe-gallery and private museum before finally deciding that they wanted to address one of the arts community’s most pressing needs: the lack of affordable studio space, and of places to show works outside of galleries and institutions.

I really like how much of the house and its original function you can still sense. But we managed to transform the space into something that speaks to a new function
Khalid Abdulla

“You want to create safe spaces for artists to develop their practice, to develop their discussions and ideas,” Gaith tells The National. They also want to create accessible places for collective learning, and were inspired by grassroots initiatives such as Marsam Sahel in Sharjah and Abu Dhabi’s recently closed Bait 15.

“Finding out about them was super-exciting,” Gaith says. ”Learning from what they were doing was such an important part of the process.”

They took further cues from the dukkan, or small shop, located on the same street, where they used to congregate as children. It functions as a social hub and a repository for collective memory.

When they needed some specific local information, such as the number for the old man who has been maintaining the neighbourhood's palm trees for as long as they can remember, they asked their aunt, but she directed them to the dukkan.

The space, they hope, will grow to function in the same way, through skills sharing, workshops and connecting the community with local craftspeople.

The villa has been sensitively renovated to strike a balance between multifunctionality and preserving its character. Budget constraints meant they couldn’t hire a professional, but were able to consult with architect friends. As such, they were extremely hands-on with the design and refurbishment process, but take pains to emphasise the contribution of their community.

“How it looks today was based on just a lot of people visiting, and each person telling us what they think, and then us incorporating the things that we were able to incorporate,” says Gaith.

Wall-to-wall carpeting was replaced with epoxy floors. One bedroom was, however, left with its original terrazzo floors, lending the live/work space a charmingly nostalgic, old Dubai feel. In the future, this room will house a multidisciplinary residency programme.

The most dramatic changes were made to what used to be a majlis and dining room, which was transformed into the large gallery space. Its dividing wall was removed, two windows were covered up to create more wall space, and the external door was replaced with glass doors for a cleaner, white cube-like feel.

A second door that connected the space with the rest of the house was replaced with a floor-to-ceiling opening to emphasise the double-height walls and create a sense of flow. “It elevated the space: it was one of those little subtle changes that made a big difference,” Khalid says.

Generous proportions aside, it also helped that the space is a fairly typical example of an Emirati family home of its time, designed to house several units. An external structure that served as a laundry room will be turned into a darkroom and photography studio, and the garage will become a fabrication workshop down the line.

Other vestiges include the remnants of what was once a pen for goats and other animals, and their grandmother’s bathroom remains as a blue-on-blue shrine to 1980s maximalism. The brothers also plan to add a plaque detailing the house’s history, and are toying with QR codes that link to a visual archive.

It needs to be a healthy balance between programming that we believe will further the vision of the space and doing things that will bring in community, and good revenue
Gaith Abdulla

“We wanted to keep elements of the house and show a little bit of history," says Khalid. "I really like how much of the house and its original function you can still sense. But we managed to transform the space into something that speaks to a new function. And I think the house really took that on surprisingly well."

Other touches that speak to the home’s history include elegant arches, a metal swing steeped in childhood memories, and marble corridors and patios that looked worn-out before being revived through polishing. Of note, too, are the beautifully worked wooden front gate and front door, painstakingly restored and updated with smart locks for 24-hour access.

The heart of the space is the former living room, which has been transformed into a plant-filled, design-forward reference library, mini boutique, and co-working and events space. In addition to art books, the library includes catalogues and printed materials from the history of the UAE’s art scene.

This room features a low-raised stage, which serves as a more casual, cushioned lounging space when it is not hosting talks, poetry and fiction readings, and performances. In the future, Khalid plans to make custom modular furniture for it.

Each of the house’s four bedrooms are subdivided into studio spaces. Affordability is key; the studios will be subsidised by renting the space out for non-art exhibitions, photo shoots and creative pop-ups, as well as receptions, parties and other events.

“Through that, you’ll also be able to cross-pollinate and make connections that wouldn’t otherwise happen,” says Gaith. "It needs to be a healthy balance between programming that we believe will further the vision of the space and doing things that will bring in community, and good revenue … I’m pretty sure there’s going to be yoga on the roof.”

The opening programme, which runs until November 26, includes an exhibition from Engage 101. The space will also host a one-person short play from Mada Harb, based on the Beirut port explosion, in the near future. The set will be bare-bones, featuring simply tape on the floor and a toilet. Khalid describes it as an example of “how much you can do with just human creativity, ingenuity and talent".

"You don’t need a budget to be able to tell a very interesting story or give people an interesting experience,” he says. The same could be said of this space.

Updated: November 22nd 2021, 10:24 AM