Art-making, Shabnam Habib says, has helped her heal after she lost her husband due to sudden illness Image Credit: Supplied

Tearing off rolls of white paper, Shabnam Habib tapes them on the living room wall of her home in Dubai. She then dips her brush in a jar of paint and etches a string of symbols on the stark sheets. Moving her whole body with each stroke, she lets her intuition guide her to fill the canvas. Soon, blotches of multi-coloured paint mesh with the symbols, layered with some writing. Hours later, Shabnam is still lost in creating this abstract piece.

She had been making such art for days and weeks, each time feeling calmer and more resilient as she poured out all the grief suppressed inside her since the sudden demise of her husband in the early days of the pandemic. Unable to travel to her native Pakistan, where her husband had succumbed to an unexpected heart attack, she had braved this loss alone, without even being able to attend his last rites and bid him a final goodbye.

“That’s when art became my saviour,” shares Shabnam, “it stabilised my emotions. The whole body movement during the art-making released my blocked energies and began the healing process.” At first Shabnam had tried to immerse herself deep into her work, but the long hours and endless sleepless nights eventually took a toll on her health. It was only months later when she picked up her brushes to paint, did she find hope and meaning to live on.

Shabnam is one of many individuals who have benefited from art as a therapy. A powerful tool of expression, art is increasingly being practised world over today. Using artistic self-expression, research suggests, assists individuals to improve mental and emotional well-being. Art as a therapy is gaining momentum at a time when scores of human beings are battling mental and emotional challenges fuelled by the pandemic. As per the WHO, in the first year of Covid itself, there was a 25 per cent increase in depression and anxiety cases around the globe.

Huzefa Goga-1662034708017
Huzefa Goga found art to be that tool which helped him overcome the anxiety caused by the pandemic Image Credit: Supplied

At the onset of the pandemic, Dubai resident Huzefa Goga too found himself in an unpleasant emotional state. Triggered by the fear and uncertainty fanned during the deadly outbreak of the Covid virus strains, he experienced severe mood swings. “The pandemic was changing both the outside world and my inner world. I was living life in two extremes – feeling anxious, depressed and angry. It was getting difficult to function day by day,” he says.

An architect, businessman and aquascaper, Huzefa had turned to art sporadically earlier, but during this dark phase, while feeling claustrophobic one night, he started making a sketch inside a square. “It was essentially a simple sketch with straight lines and basic colours –I used black to depict my feelings of hopelessness, white for simplicity and red for intensity. I followed it up with several other such sketches, each expressing my inner turmoil. Creating them gave me a sense of purpose and I titled the series ‘Man in a Box’,” says Huzefa, who also consulted an art therapist in Dubai. In fact, these sketches played a significant role, when he was later diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

Doodling, painting, sketching and colouring – any form of art, helps channel stress, calms the mind and unlocks emotions, experts say. Engaging in an art activity especially helps those who find it difficult to express themselves verbally. For centuries human beings have used artistic expression to tell stories and document events. The formal practice of art therapy dates back to mid-20th century when it was first coined by British artist Adrian Hill in 1942. During that time, thousands of people suffered from tuberculosis and had to live in sanatoriums. It was observed that drawing and painting were a creative outlet for these patients. The practice of art therapy was later adopted by mental hospitals through the initiatives of Edward Adamson, a British artist who observed and studied the connections between artistic expression and emotional release.

While the British Association of Art Therapists (BAAT) was founded in 1964, the American Art Therapy Association (AATA) was established in 1969. Today worldwide there are several art therapy associations and art therapists. Even though art can be used as a therapy for creative engagement and relaxation, art therapy follows a more professional mode of treatment, that has its roots in psychoanalysis. An art therapist uses clinical skills to create an individualised session as per the needs of the patient. Past research has also supported that art therapy is a low-risk way to help people cope with many health issues including depression, trauma, bipolar disorder and self-esteem challenges.

Kim Oberoi
Kim Oberoi found art helped her deal with the many challenges she faced in life Image Credit: Supplied

Looking back, Dubai-based Indian artist Kim Oberoi recalls that, art had always been a constant companion in her life, supporting her in cruising through life’s challenges. Growing up in India, in an unstable emotional environment and coping with bullying in school, she recollects, resorting to her sketch book to vent out her feelings. “Those days I would come back from school and make wildlife portraits in charcoal. I noticed that the time I spent making art gave me a renewed strength to face the world,” shares Kim.

In her grown-up years, as she made a career switch from hotel management to aviation, much against the wishes of her parents, art, yet again, gave her the power to stand up for what she believed in. While going through a broken relationship and later dealing with pre-natal blues, it was art that held her hand. “Whatever was going inside me was reflected in my art. Interestingly, it was never the pain and the tears but more the hope and strength I believe I had in me that was visible on my canvas,” tells Kim. Navigating through those life-altering moments helped her to evolve her art. Today she is a full-time artist and conducts classes for children and adults.

To reap in the benefits of art as a therapy, you need not have exceptional artistic abilities or know any specific techniques. It is the process of creating art that really matters. The focus here is to enjoy what you are doing. “When I started making art during the low phase in my life, I did not care much about aesthetics. I was detached from the outcome of what I was creating on my canvas. I was not making art for an audience, it was for myself,” tells Shabnam. Coincidentally, the artistic intervention in Shabnam’s life, eventually helped her to steer a new career path. She left her corporate job and is now an abstract expressionist artist.

While seeking solace and healing through art, Huzefa also discovered a new talent in him and received widespread recognition among his peers. He has now made over a hundred sketches in the Man in a Box series, displaying them at World Art Dubai and at the International Studio of Art and Galleries, Dubai. The series is also slated to be published in a book later this year. “Art has helped me to see the world in a different way, supporting me to row through most of my personal challenges today,” he says.


Najah Musthafa works as an art psychotherapist at ATIC Psychological and Counselling Centre in Dubai.

What is art therapy? How is it different from art as a therapy?

Art making is a universal endeavour that we explore for pleasure and healing. The remedial properties of art are varied and vast. So, it is no surprise that many of us use it for its therapeutic benefits. However, art as a therapy and art therapy are not the same.

Najah Musthafa

Art therapy is an evidence-based experiential psychotherapy approach employing creative, innovative, handson and practical techniques with a registered therapist. It integrates mental health and human services by using active artmaking, creative process, applied psychological theory and the human experience. Art therapy is eclectic as it incorporates a range of different theoretical frameworks and approaches. It is a safely guided process by licensed professionals who are trained in both psychology and art.

What happens in an art therapy session?

Art therapy can include a wide range of art materials and processes. The structure and choice within a session is individualised. There is often an art making component including activities such as drawing, working with clay, painting, sand tray, collaging and the use of natural objects.

Whom does art therapy benefit?

This holistic approach offers individuals experiencing physical, emotional, and cognitive challenges with new pathways towards understanding and self-expression. Art therapy is for people of all ages and walks of life. It is inclusive of people at different developmental stages and even for people of determination.