Womad Beyond is an initiative that involves the community in the music, arts and dance festival. One group of school pupils got a special visit from Cuban artists, who showed them how to make papier mâché figurines that will feature in the children's parade, writes Alice Haine In a brightly lit classroom in Abu Dhabi, a group of primary schoolchildren are gazing in awe at the colourful model of a bus made entirely from papier mâché.
The bus is crammed full of flamboyantly dressed passengers and balanced on the roof are several model cars, all created in the style of the traditional taxis you might find on the streets of Havana in Cuba. Holding this mesmerising piece of artwork is the 43-year-old artist Filiberto Mora, who has travelled with his brother, Yanoski, from their native Cuba to teach the pupils how to construct an even bigger model of the bus themselves.
This curious scenario was all made possible by the World of Music, Arts and Dance and its Womad Abu Dhabi festival, which starts simultaneously at the Abu Dhabi Corniche and Al Ain's Al Jahili Fort on April 22. It's the second year this free festival has graced the UAE and the organisers hope to top the 80,000 visitors that thronged the event last year. And once again at the core of the carnival is Womad Beyond, a UAE initiative that takes the festival into the community prior to the big event, with artists, musicians and dancers working with children and young adults in a series of educational workshops.
"Reaching out to kids is at the heart of the festival," says Isadora Papadrakakis, the performing arts adviser for the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage, the institution responsible for bringing the British concept to the UAE. "Last year we were testing the water and we found the demand from children was huge, so we are prioritising education this year by doubling the number of workshops and the amount of artists working with young people because we want the kids to produce work that will be displayed at the festival itself."
Back at the Emirates National School, the pupils listen quietly as Filiberto explains how they are going to construct the bus that will feature in the festival's children's parade. Their faces light up when the Cuban hands out the tiny taxis for them to touch. The beautifully crafted models are intricately detailed with wheels, windows and even a football, guitar and drum loaded onto the roof rack.
The pupils instantly run the lightweight cars along the floor, treating the artwork like toys, but when they are reminded that they too will create such a masterpiece in just four days, they look doubtful. "It is very good, learning how to make new shapes, but I don't think we will finish it in time," says the nine-year-old Emirati Abdulla Ahmed. Despite their apprehension, over the next two hours three different classes learn how to make the papier mâché figurines that will sit inside the bus.
Working in pairs and simply using old copies of The National and a roll of masking tape, they set to work creating the stick figures, first creating a ball of paper bound tightly by tape, then an oval shape for the main body and two lines for the legs and arms. It's incredibly simple and as the children accomplish each section of the task, they proudly hold up their work, eager to show their new Cuban friends what they can do.
For the Mora brothers, the session is just another example of how their work can transcend language and culture. The pair have been working with young people for the past two decades and with Womad since 2004, after the organisers spotted their work at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland, where they had created a set for a Cuban theatre company. The brothers are trained artists but when Cuba hit hard economic times in the early 1990s, they started making papier mâché pieces for the tourist market.
Filiberto explains: "We made cars, animals and traditional figurines, but after a while we realised we did not just want to sell our work, we wanted to teach it too, so we started going into the Cuban community to work with children and people with special needs." While Filiberto talks constantly to the children, helping them create their figurines, his older brother works quietly alongside him. Yanoski cannot speak English as well, yet he clearly communicates with the children through nods, smiles and laughter.
"Language is not important when you are working with art," says Filiberto. "We have body language to express ourselves and when we make the papier mâché, the children connect with us. Children like our work and they enjoy learning to do it themselves because it is simple to do and that creates a good feeling between us." And it is this connection, where artists help children understand the language of art, music or dance, that Womad Abu Dhabi is all about.
"Through the workshops, children understand the ways in which music and the arts fulfil different roles in society in different cultures around the world. Music can be a powerful tool for the imagination and has always been a potent form of communication. When it engages with young people's emotions, it can express feelings and ideas that transcend everyday language," says the Womad executive Annie Menter.
"Everyone knows that when children enjoy taking part in an experience they open themselves up to the opportunities for learning that exist within it. They become very focused. Playing a simple rhythm or learning a set of dance steps or a new arts technique can give them enormous confidence and a sense of achievement." The workshop in Abu Dhabi is just one example of the work Womad carries out around the world. Set up in 1980 by the British musician Peter Gabriel, the aim of the organisation is to bring different cultures together by celebrating global forms of art, music and dance. The first festival was held in 1982 in Shepton Mallet in the UK and since then its message has been taken to 27 countries with more than 160 festivals held to date. While each festival has its own identity, they all follow a similar formula with several stages providing opportunities for artists and musicians of different nationalities to perform and a series of interactive workshops to get people involved.
This global mission to unite different cultures was demonstrated in the Abu Dhabi classroom when the Mora brothers described where they were from and one boy piped up: "We read about you on the internet." "Abu Dhabi is such a fantastic hub of cultures," adds Menter. "This year we are working with more than 20 schools, colleges and universities both here in Abu Dhabi and Al Ain and more than 1,400 young people will have the experience of working with artists from the UAE, Egypt, Sudan, Tanzania, Britain, India, Iran and France in the lead-up to the festival.
"Participatory workshops can challenge many of the stereotypes that may exist about other parts of the world. Engagement with the artists offers opportunities for conversation not just about the music but about family, religion, sport, travel, history, geography and so much more." In the classroom, the children have finished their handcrafted figurines and the atmosphere has become playful. While the boys loudly brandish the stick figures at one another, the girls play more quietly, but it's clear they have all been energised by the experience.
"When they first came in, you could see they were worried about how they were going to finish the work, but once the Mora brothers showed them the demonstration, they realised they could do it and it increased their confidence," says the art teacher Nahed Almahmoud. "Art is so important in education because it gives children the space to express their emotions and inner feelings through painting or sculpture. Art reveals everything about them even if they don't intend it to and it allows them to grow spiritually."
By tomorrow the model will be complete and at the festival some of the children will carry it on their shoulders at the parade. The school linked up with Womad as part of its mission to be more interactive and keep pupils updated with what is going on around the world. And the experience has paid off with both the children and parents becoming involved. To make the bus, the brothers needed recycled paper and cardboard, and Almahmoud said the parents responded enthusiastically to the request.
"Parents like their children to engage in these activities and they were asking me how they could help," she says. "I expect most of these children will take their families to the festival too, as they have been inundating me with questions about it since the workshop." For the eight-year-old Ayah Jamal from Palestine, the experience has been a big learning curve. "I really like the things the artists make because they are colourful and I learnt you can make lots of things with newspapers. I won't throw newspapers away now, I will just make some 3D shapes and decorate my room."
Eight-year-old Noor Mohammed, from Sudan, is another example of how Womad's mission "to excite and inform" is getting through. She says: "We had partners so we had to work together; it helped us to work as a team. I learnt that you need other people to help you and even though it is a new experience, you can learn from it. It makes me want to do much, much more."