Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 21 September 2019

Restart the Art celebrates workers’ stories and dreams through drawings

Restart the Art, a new initiative by Dubai-based social group the [sameness] project has paired 43 construction workers with professional artists to share experiences and create collaborative art pieces that will ulitmately adorn two labourer buses, which will be unveiled during Dubai's Art Week.
Idrish Ali with the artist Ramy El Aghaway. Courtesy the [sameness] project
Idrish Ali with the artist Ramy El Aghaway. Courtesy the [sameness] project

Idrish Ali left Bangladesh for a job in Dubai two years ago with a modest ambition. The 40-year-old rigger for the construction company Al Futtaim Carillion wanted to earn just enough to provide for his wife, get his two boys through university and build a house to spend his retirement days.

He has often relied on his roommates in the Parco camp in Jebel Ali to lend a sympathetic ear to the challenges he faces back home and the yearning to be with family. But last month, a Dubai-based community-engagement group called the [sameness] project gave Ali and more than 40 other workers a chance to express those feelings through their Restart the Art initiative.

In addition to listening to their life stories, the group is collaborating on a much bigger piece: transforming two labourer buses into works of art that will be unveiled during Art Week in Dubai.

In December, the group published an open call for construction workers to reflect on their joy, pain and dreams and represent their feelings through art. They were given supplies and the offer to connect with an established resident artist for guidance.

The group pasted flyers on bulletin boards at Al Futtaim and at the contracting company Khansaheb in several languages, including Hindi, Malayalam, Punjabi and Urdu. In the end, 43 workers took part. They were given two weeks to complete their projects and then paired with professional artists.

Ali presented his creation to the freelance artist Ramy El Aghaway in January at Gulf Photo Plus, where they sat down to get acquainted.

“I have a small dream,” says Ali. “And in this small dream I have built a small house for my family. If you have a house, you need a garden. If you have a garden you need a chair and table where you can sit with your children and be happy. That is what I drew.”

Aghaway says Ali’s personality shone through his drawing.

“Idrish has used such strong colours, like red, in his art,” says the artist from Egypt who, at 31, is almost a decade younger than Ali.

“And the work is a reflection of his dedication towards a very simple goal. He drew a table with a vase with flowers in the centre, and to me that represents life and happiness. He had also drawn a mango in one corner. Just one mango. Not a tree, not several mangoes. That to me shows that he isn’t looking for too much and would consider himself blessed if he can manage to make just enough for his family.”

The [sameness] project aims to bring the UAE’s workers out of the margins of society and to create a platform where they are equals, says the project manager Jonny Kennaugh.

“It’s also meant to inspire people to see that there’s an artist in all of us,” he says. “Art is being used as tool to erase the lines that separate two humans seemingly different in backgrounds and bring on the message of ‘sameness’.”

This month, the group will begin uploading stories about the interactions between the workers and the artists onto their website and social media. Once the artists have created their final pieces, incorporating the workers’ drawings, the public will determine what goes on the buses through an online vote.

Another participant in the Restart the Art project is Pritpal Singh, from the Indian state of Punjab, who had to forego higher education to become the breadwinner in his household. That brought the 25-year-old to the UAE two months ago to earn a living as a steel fixer at Al Futtaim Carillion.

“I love painting,” says Singh. “I’ve been doing it since grade six, when I was first handed a drawing book. I’d see something and would recreate it. Even now I’ll photograph something on my camera and try to draw it.”

Singh’s scenic drawing reflects this utopia: “The mountains, river, open sky, they all make me happy”. He was surprised when, during their sessions, one of the artists asked him about his family.

“We haven’t had such interaction before,” he says. “And it’s nice to talk to someone about the responsibilities I have towards my family. My sister is studying and I need to collect money for her wedding, as well.

“I want to pay off my debts and also try to move ahead in life, become a heavy-vehicle driver here. But I don’t have enough money to apply yet.”

Dina Sami, an illustrator who signed up for the initiative, says she had “goosebumps” when she met Rajan, the worker she has collaborated with. “He turned out to be one of the nicest guys, very similar to me, in the sense that he is a family person. He is working towards his family house and shared photos of his children and wife. What I loved the most, and that was the same way I feel about life, is that he said he really doesn’t have any pain.”

The Dubai-based artist and sociologist Fathima Mohiuddin, also a participant, bonded with her partner, too.

“It’s about their stories. Farman Ali, who I’m working with, has six daughters. He told me that his wife had an accident and that everyone asked him to remarry because she is bedridden. He loves her so much that he said that he would never abandon her. I had gone through a painful break-up, so that resonated with me. Our conversation was about hope.”

The artists hope the project will create more empathy among residents.

“People want to know more about the workers’ lives,” says Sami. “So this will inspire people to know more and to see how similar we all are when we draw or express ourselves.”

• For more information, visit www.restarttheart.com and www.thesamenessproject.com

aahmed@thenational.ae

Updated: February 7, 2015 04:00 AM

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