Alex, Sofi, Victor and Zaid with Slava Noor on a photo shoot assignment; Zaid at work and Alex preparing to paint. Image Credit: Supplied picture

Zaid Jaffar calls himself the King of Art. And he has good reason. His painting, titled On Mask Batman, has been garnering praise for him ever since it was exhibited late last year at the Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC). His was one of a group of paintings created by artists of the Dubai-based Mawaheb from Beautiful People, an exclusive studio that teaches life skills to young adults with special needs through the medium of art. The works were put on sale to raise funds for the development of Mawaheb (which means ‘talent', in Arabic), and several visitors paused to compliment Zaid on his work. "I felt so proud when people actually stopped by my painting and admired it,'' says the 28-year-old artist. "I was inspired by the actor Christian Bale, who plays Batman in Christopher Nolan's movie versions, and I decided to paint him on a large canvas.''

Until recently Zaid was shy, reluctant to meet others or interact socially. Today he has blossomed into a confident young man thanks in large measure to the unstinting support he receives from the staff at Mawaheb.

"The exhibition was a proud moment for all the artists and their families,'' says Wemmy De Maaker, director of Mawaheb. "The visitors were impressed by the works, which sold for between Dh2,000 and Dh9,000.''

A cultural havenMawaheb is located in the Bastakiya area of Dubai, which offers the right ambience for students to develop their artistic talents and self-confidence while learning life skills. The studio's director, Wemmy, has had a lot of experience of working with people with special needs. "I worked for over 15 years with people with a broad range of disabilities while in Holland,'' she says. "I'm a nurse specialised in working with special needs people and have done so in different settings like residential houses, treatment centres for people with psychiatric problems and other projects like Mawaheb.''

Wemmy, her husband and their two children moved to Dubai in 2002. She was first inspired to set up Mawaheb because "I found there wasn't a place for young adults with special needs to express their creativity. While there are some good schools for such people, they all cater to the below-18 age group. There aren't many places where the youths could go to once they turn 18,'' says Wemmy.

In 2009 she organised a campaign to raise awareness of the creative talents of those with special needs with a big art exhibition at the Grand Hyatt Dubai. The event was organised in cooperation with Robert Wolff, director of the Holland-based Beautiful People, a social concept that helps artists with intellectual disabilities and psychological problems (www.beautifulpeople.nl/site/en/beautifulpeople.html). "We exhibited 40 works of art by people with special needs from the Netherlands, Switzerland and the UAE," says Wemmy.

Following the campaign's huge success Wemmy approached the authorities in Dubai with her plan to set up an art studio. "I felt it was important to start something unique here for such youths so they could have an avenue to develop their skills while also preparing them to find their own feet in the community,'' she says.

A year later, the Dubai Culture and Arts Authority provided her with the premises at Bastakiya and in October 2010 the studio began functioning. "Initially we had only four artists, but today, after word has spread about the centre, we have more than 16 regular artists,'' she says. Today, students can take a range of workshops at the studio in subjects such as photography, yoga, mosaic art, and painting.

Wemmy hired Gulshan Kavarana, the founder of charity Special Families Support (SFS) group, as the art teacher for the studio. Gulshan, who has volunteered for over 13 years at the Dubai Centre for Special Needs and is also on the executive committee of SAATHI, (Society for Advocacy and Awareness towards Holistic Inclusion), is filled with the same dreams and aspirations as Wemmy.

"I want to get rid of the misconception that people with special needs draw baby-like figures and pictures," says Gulshan. "This isn't true. When visitors enter our studio they are surprised to see professionally created pieces of art done by our very talented artists."

"We are not only working on developing their artistic talents but also want to improve their life skills,'' continues Wemmy. "Instead of thrusting people with special needs into the big scary world, we have created a world for them where people from all walks of life can come in to meet and integrate with them.''

Wemmy prefers not to call Mawaheb a school because it does not offer counselling or therapy. It's simply a place where youths with special needs can hone their artistic talents. "It's a studio,'' she says, "and the students are artists. We teach them artistic skills but through art we teach them life skills such as learning the basics of setting up a business or a shop, and of meeting and conversing with people.''

Wemmy and Gulshan's mission is also to educate the parents of young adults with special needs on the necessity of bringing their grown-up children out into society and getting them connected to the real world.

"Instead of people feeling sorry for them I want them to accept them for who they are and listen to their opinions, views and dreams,'' says Wemmy.

Coming out of their shellsShe has been thrilled with the progress of the young adults she works with at Mawaheb. "Zaid, for instance, was really shy when he first joined Mawaheb, but we encouraged him to speak out and put forward his views openly." Now he is able to hold conversations. "He has improved tremendously,'' she says.

Gulshan has also been delighted by the artists' development. "I enjoy being here and talking with the artists. Seeing them come out of their shell and interacting with people is hugely fulfilling,'' she says.

One of the artists Gulshan mentions as having improved vastly is Alex.

Aged 19, Alex joined Mawaheb in 2011. "When I walk into Mawaheb and see my works on the wall, my eyes brim with tears of joy," he says. " Until I joined Mawaheb, I had not painted anything. But once I joined this group, I have started to enjoy art and look forward to creating major works.

"I draw faces of women and adorn them with gems to add sparkle to my work. I have also learnt mosaic art, photography at the studio and I want to design jewellery some day."

Mawaheb has 18 volunteers, an art teacher and experts from different fields who conduct special workshops on yoga, dance, photography and make-up, among others.

"Our approach is not to treat them like children. For us it's really important that they speak up and give us their opinion. We encourage them to talk about the story behind their art work,'' says Wemmy.

It is clear that she is very proud when she says that she has seen them grow in confidence, self esteem "and become independent and responsible adults," after enrolling at the centre.

Zaid would be the first to agree with her. "I was very a shy person but at Mawaheb I have learned to be more self-confident and independent. Mawaheb is my new family and drawing makes me feel really happy. When I see my work sold and printed on bags and other items, it makes me feel popular and proud."

Talking of the figures who inspire him, Zaid says "Gulshan is my Muse but Arnold Schwarzenegger and British artist Trevor Waugh are my heroes."

As a teacher, Gulshan says she uses art to connect with the students and help them to grow as people.

"I want to motivate them to be who they are. What we have realised is that very often, they have never been asked their opinion on anything. At Mawaheb, we want to give them the opportunity to learn to express their views and opinions, to have the freedom to choose."

As the students improve artistically and emotionally, there is also the opportunity for them to admire their work on other mediums - the artists' works have also been used on beach bags, coasters, mirrors, postcards, and coffee mugs. While the products are only available at the centre at the moment, Gulshan says she hopes that they will be stocked in stores throughout the country soon.

Finding a voice

One of the artists quite literally found his voice while at Mawaheb.

"Victor Fitali is one of the finest artists with us at the moment," explains Gulshan. "Born deaf, he is a sports enthusiast who loves to play football, basketball, and enjoys swimming and working out in the gym.''

Born in Zambia and raised in the UAE, Victor, 21, attended a school for children with special needs in Dubai but once he turned 18 - the maximum age limit at which a student can remain at most special needs schools - he found himself with nowhere to go and nothing to do, until he was enrolled at Mawaheb.

"Unfortunately, he went to a school for special needs . If he had gone to a special school for deaf people he would have been brought to the level of his peers, because he is perfectly sound mentally," says Wemmy.

Currently, Victor is taking speech therapy classes and is now able to speak a few words.

"Now he does things he had never done before,'' says Gulshan. "When he joined Mawaheb, he wasn't independent - his mother would drop him off and pick him up from the studio. But we encouraged his parents to allow him to travel alone."

Although finding independence can be a steep learning curve, it is part of the journey that Gulshan and Wemmy encourage both the young adults and their parents to go through.

"The first time Victor left home alone, he landed up in Ibn Battuta," says Gulshan. "The mall security called me as Victor gave them my number. I text-messaged him on the BlackBerry I had given him to take the metro to BurJuman Centre, where I said I would be waiting for him. Now he has become independent and travels everywhere on his own."

"We found that Victor has real talent in painting,'' says Wemmy. "We have a plan to give him wings to become an independent artist.''

This could well become a reality because UK artist Trevor Waugh, who conducted a workshop at Mawaheb last year, was impressed enough with Victor to offer to take him to the UK for a month to mentor him and teach him how to set up an art studio, says Wemmy.

Sofia Mehai Mona, 24, a Kenyan girl who has a special interest in photography and artistic make up, is another hearing-impaired student whose life has changed since joining the studio. She, along with a few other girls, was trained by Malini Ohri, a Dubai-based health, beauty and make-up expert, who conducted a special make-up workshop at the studio. "I've found my true self here at Mawaheb. This is my home," says Sofia, who lip-reads.

"Sofia speaks Arabic and English and is amazingly talented," says Grainne Maylor, a volunteer at Mawaheb. "Sofia has on occasions acted as a translator when I am helping Ali, another special-needs youth who speaks only in Arabic." 
Big plans for the futureThe studio has not only made a strong impact on the lives of the artists but also the volunteers and teachers. Gulshan remarks, "I feel Mawaheb has given me the joy to wake up every morning. I honestly believe you don't need incredible resources to make an impact on another human being. You can make a difference by being conscious, by thinking of creative ways to make others feel good about themselves."

Wemmy adds, "The biggest reward for the artists is to see their work exhibited, appreciated, sold and even printed on beach bags, coffee cups, corporate gifts and t-shirts, etc. The money we get from the sale of the products goes to the development of Mawaheb. Some major companies such as Hunter Douglas have also commissioned our artists to create works for their corporate offices.

"Our plan is to start a coffee corner where our artists can integrate with more people, who will visit the place for a nice coffee or cake that is made and served by our beautiful artists."

Making a differnce

  • Who: Wemmy De Maaker
  • What: Mawaheb from Beautiful People
  • Where: Bastakiya, Dubai
  • How: An exclusive art studio that teaches life skills through the medium of art to young adults with special needs, all above 16 years old