There are many art galleries and studios located in the restored traditional wind-tower houses of the Bastakiya area in Dubai. Tucked away in a quiet corner of this vibrant art quarter is a special art studio, called Mawaheb From Beautiful People. Step inside and you will see many young artists working intently at their easels. The courtyard and rooms are decorated with their beautiful creations, which include paintings and decorative pots and mirrors. What makes this studio special is that all the artists here are people with special needs.
"Mawaheb is the Arabic word for talent and this studio is a place where young adults with special needs can discover their talent and showcase it to the world. But this studio is not just about creating artworks. We are using art as a medium to teach them life skills, to help them develop self-confidence and become independent. So while the artists are working on their artworks, these artworks are shaping them," says Wemmy de Maaker, founder of the studio.
De Maaker has more than 15 years of experience working with people with special needs in the Netherlands. When she moved to Dubai nine years ago, she found that the options for young adults with special needs were very limited. "Children with special needs grow up in the sheltered environment of special schools and protective parents. When they go out to work, they feel diffident and isolated. Besides, job opportunities for them are quite limited here, and often they have nothing to do after completing school, which leads to depression, loss of confidence and other problems. I wanted to create a space where they could be involved in constructive activity and discover their potential, while learning life skills that would help them integrate with society," she says.
De Maaker collaborated with Dutch company Beautiful People to develop the project. They began by organising an art exhibition of paintings by people with special needs from the Netherlands and the UAE, which helped create awareness about their abilities and potential. "People were surprised and impressed by the artworks. And we were fortunate to get the support of Princess Haya [Bint Al Hussain, wife of His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai], who arranged this venue for us. Being in the bustling Bastakiya area is a dream come true for me because my main aim is to break down the barriers between society and people with special needs. Here, visitors are constantly walking in through our door. So, instead of our artists going out into the world, the world comes to them, and they can interact with society while being in a safe environment," De Maaker says.
Mawaheb From Beautiful People welcomes young adults with special needs over the age of 16. The artists can choose how many days a week they wish to come. While some come every day, some who have jobs come on their day off. Resident artist Gulshan Kavarana and several volunteers are on hand to guide and assist them. But every artist is encouraged to think and work independently. "Most of them have just a basic exposure to art, but they have surprised themselves and their parents by their ability. Some have the potential to become successful artists. But coming here and planning and working on their own projects has helped all of them to learn life skills that we hope will help them find jobs in the future," De Maaker says.
The entire routine at the studio has been designed to make the artists more confident and independent. "These youngsters are not used to thinking for themselves or voicing their thoughts and opinions. But we encourage them to take responsibility and take part in social interactions. They start the day with making tea for themselves and their friends. Then we all get together and discuss the news and local events. Often this inspires them to create topical artworks. Afterwards, they are responsible for washing the dishes and keeping the kitchen and other areas clean," De Maaker says.
Each artist is asked to think about what their aim is for the day and arrange the things they will need. They must lay out their canvas, brushes, paints and other materials themselves and clear up properly after they have finished. They are also encouraged to step back while working and think about how the work is progressing. And after a work is completed, the entire group is invited to discuss it.
"The idea is to make them think and work independently. Sometimes they do not like cleaning up and doing things on their own, but they understand that this is the price they have to pay for being treated like adults," De Maaker says. "We also encourage them to be independent in other ways, such as travelling to the studio by the metro or walking around in the Bastakiya area on their own."
"Many of the artists have become good friends and meet on weekends at a café. Seeing them lead a normal life is my biggest reward," she adds.
The artists come from different backgrounds and have different abilities and interests. Zeid Jaffer, a 28-year-old Iraqi, loves to come every day. "I hated school because we had to follow a schedule and do what the teacher told us to. But here I can do what I feel like. I enjoy painting and I have made some good friends here," he says. Zeid is excited about his latest project — a painting of the Japanese flag using paint and ceramic tiles. "This is a tribute to the victims of the earthquake in Japan and I hope to raise money for the relief effort by selling this painting," he says.
Rebecca Hayday, 19, comes three days a week and proudly declares that she is the princess and pretty lady of Mawaheb. "I have West's Syndrome and used to go to a special needs centre, but I got bored. I like it here because I have always loved art and because I get treated like a big girl. I can decide what I want to do every day. I can go for a walk with my friend unaccompanied by older people. I am not scared, because if I get lost I can call my teachers on my mobile phone."
"It makes me feel good that they trust me and I feel grown up and more confident," she adds with a big smile.
While Rebecca is vivacious and friendly, Victor Sitale likes to work by himself in a quiet corner. The 21-year-old Zambian, who is hearing-impaired, is an exceptionally talented artist. He is proud of the fact that the British Embassy in Dubai recently chose to display a portrait he made of Prince William and his bride at a reception to celebrate the royal wedding. "I would like him to get a scholarship or art residency to further hone his talent," De Maaker says.
For Kavarana, being the resident artist at Mawaheb is a dream job that combines her two big passions. She is a well-known artist and has been teaching art for more than two decades. She is also the mother of a child with special needs and has been passionately involved with the special needs community in the UAE as a founder of the Special Families Support group (SFS) and an executive committee member of the Society for Advocacy and Awareness towards Holistic Inclusion (SAATHI).
"Art is a wonderful way for these youngsters to express themselves. And I want to help them discover their inner artist by exposing them to different techniques, experiences and creative stimuli. I encourage them to visit exhibitions in our neighbourhood and often give them my camera to take pictures around the Bastakiya. I treat them like adults and encourage them to tell me their ideas rather than ask me for instructions. These artists have so much self-belief. They paint not to please others but for themselves, and derive so much joy from their work. From them I have learnt that all art is good art," she says.
The studio has more than 15 volunteers who help the artists in various ways, ranging from teaching them to set up the work area and tidy up after they finish, to discussing ideas and physically assisting those with severe disabilities. "I love the atmosphere at Mawaheb," says Isabell Kober, a former schoolteacher who volunteers for Mawaheb three days a week. "I had no previous experience with people with special needs and have learnt so much from these youngsters. I have learnt to be patient and more easy-going. I have also attended art workshops at the studio, and at present Victor is teaching me sign language. He is patient, but complains that I am too slow. But most importantly, I have learnt that having special needs is not something terrible — it is just something different."
The studio raises funds through the sale of paintings, decorative mirrors and ceramics, beach bags, scarves and other items created by the artists. It also accepts commissions for paintings, corporate gifts and greeting cards, and participates in various art exhibitions in the UAE.
Recently, the artists collaborated with Herriot Watt University to create a hand-painted gown, which was the showstopper for their design students' annual fashion show. "Our artists created paintings of various Dubai landmarks. These were then copied on to the dress and the artists were invited to walk the ramp with their paintings. Participation in such events really boosts the self-confidence of our artists," De Maaker says.
She is constantly trying to introduce new activities and experiences for her artists. She takes them on outdoor sketching trips and invites UAE-based artists to hold workshops at the studio. Once a month the artists attend cooking classes at the nearby Arabian Courtyard Hotel. The hotel is also teaching them to serve customers, because De Maaker is planning to open a coffee corner in the courtyard soon. "This will increase their opportunities for interaction with society," she says.
Mawaheb From Beautiful People is celebrating its first birthday this month and De Maaker is optimistic about the future. "I want to cater to as many young adults with special needs as possible, but I do not want to compromise on the cosy and personal feel of the studio. Rather than expanding this studio, I would like to open more such studios in other areas of the UAE. So far, we have had great support from volunteers and corporate sponsors and I hope to have even more involvement from the community in the future," she says.
Jyoti Kalsi is an art enthusiast based in Dubai.
The studio is open from 8.30am to 3pm, Sunday to Thursday, and welcomes young adults with special needs over the age of 16. For more information,visit www.mawaheb-dubai.com