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Matters of identity and representation

Artists from Mawaheb from Beautiful People take inspiration from Jean-Michel Basquiat to share their personal dreams and struggles to gain acceptance in society

  • Abdulla Lutfi’s paintingImage Credit: Supplied
  • A photograph by Fernando Manso which ison show as part of Lux Oxidada exhibitionImage Credit: Supplied
  • I am not a King by Anjali GuptaImage Credit: I am not a King by Anjali Gupta
  • Victor Sitali's paintingImage Credit: Supplied
Gulf News

American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat’s graffiti-inspired paintings combined bright colours, words, figures, abstraction and historical information to comment on issues of culture, identity and the dichotomies in contemporary society.

His work was focused on attacking systems of power structures and racism, but it was also about exploring his inner world and searching for deeper truths about the individual. The artist, who died in 1988, at the age of 27, continues to inspire people to examine their inner and outer worlds with a critical eye and open mind.

The artists of Mawaheb from Beautiful People, Dubai’s only art studio for adults with special needs, have also taken inspiration from Basquiat’s work in their latest show, “I am who I am”. The show explores issues of identity and representation through the eyes and brushes of these talented artists. Their paintings are in Basquiat’s neo-expressionist, primitivist style, but with words and images that express their individuality and their perspective of the world.

Participating artists include Abdulla Lutfi, Adrian D’Souza, Alex Loveday, Ali Alsalhi, Angelina Lawless, Anjali Kakkar, Anjali Gupta, Faran Ahmad, Farzeen Maswala, Gregory Schmarr, Jack Stewart, James Casaki, Keira Thorson, Leila Murgian, Mahek Anadkat, Reyam Omer Ahamed Al Sakaf, Sharan Budhrani, Victor Sitali, Vincent Richter and Zaid Jaffar.

Gulshan Kavarana, principle art teacher and mentor at Mawaheb, says: “We try to introduce our students to various artistic styles. We chose Basquiat as our main inspiration for this show because our artists really connected with his work and his life story, since like him they have had to struggle to be accepted by society.”

The artists did extensive research on Basquiat’s work, including his collaborations with Andy Warhol and Madonna. Using his style, they have tried to express who they really are, what their dreams are, and what they want to tell the world about themselves.

“We are always trying to fit in, trying so hard to be what people want us to be, and on the way we sometimes lose our own identity. One of my favourite Basquiat quotes is, ‘believe it or not I can draw’. People didn’t believe Basquiat could draw because he was different and painted in a different way.

“We are seen as ‘different’ and sometimes people assume we cannot do things, but we can! This exhibition has helped all of us at Mawaheb to have the courage to find our voice and express it through our paintings,” Alex Loveday says.

His painting, “Dream Wedding”, is based on a dream he had about his own wedding. “I like art and jewellery designing and hope to run my own business in the future. Like everybody else I dream of getting married some day. People think that just because we have disabilities we should not have such aspirations. But I can dream about it, and nobody can take away our dreams,” he says.

Like Basquiat, Zaid Jaffar has combined personal and social concerns in his painting “Love and War”. The artist empathises with his father’s pain on the loss of his brother, but urges him to move on. He also expresses his anguish about the death and destruction caused by wars.

“I love my father and feel sad to see him depressed. I am also very upset about the misconception that all Muslims are terrorists. I want to tell the world that Islam is a peaceful religion and these terrorists are not Muslims,” he says.

Victor Sitali, a hearing impaired artist, has highlighted the difference between how the world sees him and how he sees himself, with a self portrait featuring an exaggerated ear, and a reflection in the mirror, showing himself as a confident and successful artist, who believes in himself.

In other paintings, words such as “I am a good artist”; “I am happy”; “I am not stupid”; “I am not a loser”; “I am unique”; “I am shy”, “I am not crazy; I talk to myself”, and “miserable in love” express the dreams, fears, joys and sorrows of these special people, who are discovering themselves through art; and want to share their vision of a world where acceptance for being who they are, is a human right and not just a dream.

With this show Mawaheb is also celebrating its move to a bigger, disabled friendly space at Villa 11 in the Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood. Wemmy de Maaker, managing director of Mawaheb from Beautiful People, is excited about this move. “Our studio, which opened in this neighbourhood in 2002 with just four artists, now has 20 artists who have developed tremendously, and are now working on various exhibitions, events and projects. But we know that there are many more people who need something like this.

“We are happy that our artists now have much more space to work comfortably, and we can also offer admissions to more people. We are now inviting applications from people with special needs, aged 16 years and above, who are interested in art and have a certain level of independence,” she says.

Jyoti Kalsi is an arts enthusiast based in Dubai.

“I am who I am” will run at Art Couture, Al Badia Golf Club, InterContinental, Dubai Festival City until May 2.

Mesmerising photographs on show

Spanish photographer Fernando Manso is exhibiting a series of mesmerising photographs in a show titled “Luz Oxidada”, which means “rusty or oxidised light”. The artist, who travels widely, has captured idyllic landscapes, architectural structures, and solitary moments in nature in his dreamy, ethereal photographs, which look like classical paintings. Manso uses a large format film camera, and his long exposures remove the presence of human forms, infusing the images with a sense of serenity and solitude, and transforming everyday sights into magical, mystical moments.

“I am a romantic person and I shoot something only if touches my heart. Before I take the picture, I spend months studying the light, climate, tidal movements and other factors to decide the best season and time to take the picture. I never take photos in bright sunlight or at night. I wait for a foggy, rainy day to get the effect I want. There is a lot of research and patient planning behind every image, because I do it the old fashioned way, with no manipulation after the negatives are developed,” he says.

“Luz Oxidada” will run at RIRA gallery, DIFC until April 30.