His concentration was almost infectious. Abdullah Lufti sat on a stool, bent over his canvas, and used a black marker pen to outline the cartoon-like faces of two Emirati characters with uncanny precision.
Alternating between the ghutra-clad male and the female in a black abaya, Lufti drew the identical images again and again into a grid. I asked him if he found it difficult to achieve such faultless work. He held my stare incredulously for several seconds. "No!" he said so assertively that I had to smile; he grinned back widely before continuing to draw. "I am drawing happy people - Arabic people."
Lufti, 19, an Emirati from Dubai, is a student at Mawaheb from Beautiful People, an art studio for adults with special needs. He has a high functioning yet mild form of autism that affects cognitive development and can lead to social difficulties such as physical clumsiness, use of odd language and repetitive behaviour.
Artistic talent is common in people on the autistic spectrum but it is often difficult for these people to find an appropriate outlet for their talent and a safe place in which to practise.
For that reason, Wemmy De Maaker, a Dutch national and nurse, founded Mawaheb (meaning talent in Arabic) in December 2010. Now, thanks to her determination, every day in a sun-drenched courtyard of a villa in Dubai's Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood, Lufti and 17 other students create art. As well as the daily workshops usually led by Gulshan Kavarana, their resident art teacher, De Maaker and her team of 28 volunteers take the students on regular field trips to galleries or other public studios.
"All our students are talented in their own ways," says De Maaker. "It is our job to give them the opportunity to express that. The students develop themselves through art and so here at Mawaheb, it is about the process. The fact we have brilliant artwork is a bonus."
Although Mawaheb initially relied on public funding, it is now sustained through sales of the students' work, so the bonus that De Maaker talks about is actually keeping the centre alive. As time goes on, the quality of the art improves, which in turn leads to more sales - another unplanned bonus.
In September last year, Mawaheb had its first international exhibition, at the Bozana Milic Gallery in Zutphen, The Netherlands. In one month, a third of the pieces on display had sold.
"I'm not just saying this but the artwork has become so professional now. It is really touching and really exciting," says De Maaker.
The sounds of laughter emanating through the open wooden doors and down the alleyways of the Al Fahidi neighbourhood are infectious. It is a joy to be in the centre; tourists often wander in to meet the artists. De Maaker is clear: "For us it is mainly important for people to come to visit us. We want people to know that we sell the products and that is what we need to sustain the studio. We welcome people to come and sit with us to meet the students and to see the talent."
As Lufti worked on his grid, Alex Loveday daubed orange paint on to a large canvas under the shade of a palm tree in the courtyard. "This is called Alex in Wonderland," he waved his brush at the painting. "My name is Alex and I live in my own little world so it is like Wonderland."
Loveday, a 20-year-old American, works under the supervision of one of the many volunteers who donate their time to the centre and, as he points out the White Rabbit, Mad Hatter, March Hare and Queen of Hearts, he tells us that the character of Alex is not in the image. "I'm not in the painting," he laughs. "I am in the real world."
Nearby, Victor Sitali, a deaf man who was born in Zambia and raised in the UAE, is working on a watercolour portrait of a man wearing a kandura. It is incredibly detailed and lifelike, as is his self-portrait, showing deep, dark eyes staring from the large canvas, and a portrait he has painted of Marilyn Monroe.
These are just a few examples of the talented people in the centre. Lianne Welford, a British volunteer who comes once a week, says it is not just about the work produced but the increased confidence levels. She says she has noticed a difference in the individual students in only a few months.
"A lot of these people are invisible to the rest of society but they come here and feel completely comfortable. They all have different things wrong with them but it doesn't matter. We all get along and work together. We all need encouragement to bring talent out of us, a catalyst to start you rolling, and that is what this place does. It gives them great confidence."
Case study: Sharan Budhrani, 22
When Sharan Budhrani was 9 years old, he was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy. He had always struggled to fit in and keep up with his classmates in school and the medical report confirmed that he was indeed different from his peers.
He wanted to be a pilot but found it difficult to sit for long periods of time and couldn’t pass all of his exams. Eventually, he was taken out of school. When he was 19, his condition deteriorated. He now uses a wheelchair and attends daily, painful, physiotherapy sessions.
Two years ago, Budhrani, now 22, discovered Mawaheb. When his family first brought him to class, he was very shy and would only look at his hands or the floor. Nevertheless, he had always been interested in painting and drawing so he began creating art. Now, Budhrani holds his head high. Although he is still softly spoken, he is intelligent, polite and incredibly peaceful.
“Before I came here I was a very quiet person and I found it very difficult to talk to anyone,” he says. “I still find it hard but I have got a lot more confidence now. Art has really helped me.”
Budhrani likes to paint the lion, a symbol of bravery and boldness, characteristics that he clearly displays in himself. He says that coming to Mawaheb has allowed him to express himself.
“It is a wonderful place. The people are kind and they accept you just the way you are. I didn’t know how the place would be before I came here but I didn’t expect it to be so nice. Now I really look forward to coming here.”
Mawaheb from Beautiful People is open daily from 9am to 3pm in Villa 28/40, Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood. In April, it will hold an exhibition at the Fairmont Bab Al Bahr, Abu Dhabi