Multicoloured X-ray portraits of a skull wearing a crown. A child in a skullcap lost in a tune one can only guess at. An updated Jacqueline with Flowers – wearing an adidas tracksuit and gold Rolex – that Picasso would be proud of. The art collection in Michael Davis’s Jumeirah villa is akin to a cabinet of curiosities – it’s eclectic, eye-catching and seemingly unconnected.
“When I moved to the Middle East more than nine years ago, I left all of my artwork and furniture back in the US, and after I arrived, slowly began to acquire things that were important to me because they spoke to a person, place or time that was relevant in my life here,” the chief executive of NMC Healthcare tells The National.
“I like to collect things that are evocative, interesting, sentimental and conversational. I lead a busy, stressful life, so it is important that when I am in my home, I need to be totally at ease.”
His brief to celebrity interior designer Kate Instone, the founder of Blush International – a company through which she has decorated the houses of Madonna, Sting and Seal – and the creative behind Davis’s four-bedroom villa, was simple. “I said: ‘I have a lot of stuff, and I want to enjoy it.’ And I am so pleased with what she and her team have done; I feel privileged to be able to enjoy my artwork as part of my day-to-day life.”
The living area of the 8,000-square-foot house is where many of Davis’s artworks reside, a deliberate decision, he says, because of his love for entertaining. “My bedroom is a beautiful sanctuary, but the living area is definitely the liveliest part of the villa, and it’s where my guests gather.”
When friends do come calling, Davis says he “always lands” on his favourite piece of furniture: an old leather pub chair.
“It’s an antique chair I bought from a friend who was leaving Abu Dhabi. I loved the worn patina and the story it told, and could imagine many late-night pub conversations having contributed to the worn leather. It’s my favourite place to sit and unwind.”
Instone has punctuated the rest of the seating area with burnt orange silk velvet cushions and Hermes throws. The centrepiece on the walnut and wrought iron dining table is a brightly coloured Alexander Calder mobile from the 1930s, framed by white Loro Piana curtains. The sofa in the TV area is brightened by a merino wool Pendleton blanket made in the US, “a nod to Michael’s heritage”, says Instone. The living area also has an original 1950s drinks trolley and shelves filled with the objets d’art that Davis has collected over the years.
A peek inside the bedroom reveals a more pared-back aesthetic. “Michael wanted a very luxurious master bedroom,” says Instone. “He wanted to use opulent textures and colours, so we selected rich deep turquoises and married them with burnt orange raw silks and bronze detailing. The colours are united in an antique Persian rug.”
Instone says Davis’s eclectic art pieces personify pure opulence because “it is a collection with real meaning. It gives power to the collector who has bought the art because he loves it and it moves him, rather than giving the pleasure of curating one’s art to a consultant or designer.”
She cites the example of Davis’s favourite piece that “he was attracted to because it teeters on the controversial”. This is a painting based on Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, except it depicts the “apostles of [Emirati] artist Rashed Al Mansoori’s generation”, notes Instone.
The pastel pink canvas is filled with pop icons including Madonna, Princess Diana, Frida Kahlo, Jean-Michel Basquiat, David Bowie, Kurt Cobain, Tupac and Prince, figures from the Arab world, including 1940s Egyptian movie star Asmahan and singer Jaber Jassim, as well as – somewhat bizarrely – Joan of Arc and JonBenet Ramsey.
“The piece is called Heavier Than Heaven, and it’s the one I get the most questions about,” says Davis. “It depicts certain people who impacted the artist’s youth, many of whom were pop icons for me as well, even though I am much older than the artist.”
Davis’s other favourite is an original Ross Muir. “My dear friend ‘Jenny from Dundee’ introduced me to the Scottish artist by gifting me two beautiful prints. I loved them so much that I bought an original from Maddox Gallery in London.”
Davis reckons this is also the piece that may fund his retirement; he is someone who buys art for both investment and pleasure. “A good example of the latter is a Surrealist-style painting I picked up in a gallery in Amsterdam. It’s by a Dutch artist and is a portrait of a women with a fish inexplicably resting on her head. It’s absolutely absurd, but I love it and it wasn’t terribly expensive.”
Davis is also a believer in art always needing to be reflective of its owner. Case in point: even though he owns one of 1,000 BearBrick dolls produced in 2008 by Karl Lagerfeld – a collectible that has soared in popularity since the Chanel designer’s death – he says: “I love that piece, but I have a feeling it will eventually go back to the person who sold it to me. She is a very special person in my life now and I feel like it is more a reflection of her than it is of me.”
A piece Davis is unlikely to part with is a caricatural self-portrait that occupies pride of place alongside a similar frame of Princess Diana. “I bought the Diana piece from a Dutch pop artist and then commissioned him to do a matching one of me. It is a little self-indulgent, I know, but my friends know it comes with a wink and a nod.”
Another whimsical acquisition comes from a New Orleans artist – an original watercolour of a mosquito. “We jokingly say the mosquito is the state bird of Louisiana because they are so prevalent due to the humid climate. This watercolour was used as a template for street art that was done around the City of New Orleans, and I love it because it’s cheeky and it reminds me of home,” says Davis.
That’s not to say that the art collector in Davis does not have a serious side, though. A lithograph by American artist Thomas McKnight depicts a favourite Grecian island, while next to the dining table hang a pair of powerful photographs by artist Bobby Sager: one depicting a boy fighter from Rwanda who made his first kill at the age of 7, and two girls from a war-torn Afghan village.
“I like things that are provocative and that have some meaning to me, whether associated with a person, a place I’ve travelled to or a concept or cause that is important," says Davis. "The works I have are not all expensive – and nothing I have is super-expensive and anything I own would be affordable to someone who has the means to collect – but everything I have is priceless to me because each piece tells a story."