x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Art helps cultivate life skills for special needs students

Special needs students are being taught art and sculpture in the first workshop of its kind in the region at studio under the patronage of Princess Haya Bint Al Hussein.

Sonja Tatton helps Umer Shuja, 22, with an artwork at the studio in Dubai.
Sonja Tatton helps Umer Shuja, 22, with an artwork at the studio in Dubai.

DUBAI // Special needs students are being taught art and sculpture in the first workshop of its kind in the region.

One of their first projects was the production of Christmas cards that the workshop organisers would then sell to corporate groups, visitors and locals.

Wemmy de Maaker, the director of Mawaheb [Talent] from Beautiful People, said of the workshop that began last month: "Through art we want to build life skills. This is a stepping stone for young adults once they leave special schools to help them integrate with the community."

The Beautiful People franchise was founded in the Netherlands, Ms de Maaker's homeland, three years ago and its Dubai studio is based in a villa in the central Bastakiya district.

Inside, students were busy painting images of red flowers, green fir trees etched against white snow and a crimson sky for the greeting cards. Seven young adults from Sharjah and Dubai, who have disabilities such as Down's syndrome, visit several times a week to learn techniques from instructors including local artists.

The studio is under the patronage of Princess Haya Bint Al Hussein, the wife of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, the Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai. She and the Dubai Culture and Art Authority provided the villa for the studio, which immediately won support from the local art community.

Hetal Pewani, the owner of Dubai's JamJar gallery, who often invites children with disabilities for art sessions, said: "Painting is a great outlet for people with special needs. They express themselves and you can discover talent. A plan to sell their art in a public place is wonderful."

The artists, who are aged between 19 and 27, are the children of expatriates from India, Pakistan, Britain and Iraq.

Umer Shuja, 22, from Pakistan, jabbing at a self-portrait to which he had playfully added a beard to his clean-shaven face, said: "I put my mind in here. I like to draw, I like to paint. I like crayons and I like red, blue, green, purple."

The riot of colours was on display on large paintings that brightened the studio walls. One frame re-created tall city buildings in shades of blue and red. Another powerful work was dominated by an open eye with the other eye shut tight amid swirls of maroon and purple.

The paintings and colourful mosaic boxes are on sale at the studio at prices that range from Dh50 to Dh2,000. The organisation also plans to feature a series of paintings in calendars, diaries and T-shirts.

Ms de Maaker has outlined proposals that allow corporate offices and individuals to rent paintings for six months and then exchange them for another canvas.

"We can develop corporate gifts for companies from the art," she said. "Companies can also approach us for paintings on a special theme."

The doors of the studio are left open so passers-by can pop in for a visit. The workshop, next to the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Culture and Understanding, in Al Bastakiya, is open five days a week from 8.30am until 4pm. The organisation plans to open a small coffee corner to encourage interaction with potential buyers.

"We want to make them [students] more independent so we treat them as adults," Ms de Maaker said. "We tell them we want to hear their voice."

That motivation was demonstrated when Sarah Charman, a student, held up a drawing of butterflies and asked whether it needed more colour. Asked for her thoughts, Ms Charman, 25, nodded vigorously and decided to add a lot more pink.

"I like it here, I am excited here," Ms Charman said. "I like to draw angels, fairies."

Students head out for a walk every afternoon with volunteers down winding lanes to expose them to new experiences that could be the theme of future art.

Salman Shaikh, 22, a student from India, said: "I have a good memory,. My teacher helps me. I work hard, very hard."

rtalwar@thenational.ae