Oliver Ephgrave

May 24th 2017

Behind the open doors of a beautiful, century-old villa in Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood is an art studio like no other in the region. Mawaheb, meaning ‘talent’ in Arabic, is a creative and nurturing haven for adults with special needs. Set up by Dutch national Wemmy De Maaker in 2010, Mawaheb’s current crop of 27 students range from 18 to 60 years old and originate from 14 different countries, united by a passion for art.

On 24 May, Dubai Airports celebrated the launch of artDXB, an ongoing platform for artists to showcase their work in Dubai International while inspiring and entertaining the millions of passengers passing through the airport. Mawaheb partnered with Dubai Airports for the launch, providing a number of artworks by its students, including 24-year-old Emirati artist Abdullah Lutfi.

At the time of visiting, Lutfi was putting the finishing touches to a special commission for artDXB – a huge cartoon-style drawing of life inside the airport. Armed with a thick black pen and a mischievous sense of humour, Lutfi draws at an incredible speed, purely from memory. “I always draw the head before the body,” he says, before creating a kimono-clad Japanese woman in a matter of seconds. “Japan is one of my favourite countries to visit – the sushi is awesome.”

Brimming with pulsating energy, Lutfi’s drawing showcases plenty of raw fish – with a detailed depiction of the YO! Sushi conveyor belt in D-Gates – as well as DXB’s music stage, health club and swimming pool, all being enjoyed by travellers from around the globe. “Drawing this makes me want to travel,” adds the artist. “I love sitting in a plane and seeing the world outside.”

Another of Mawaheb’s featured works for artDXB is a colourful series called Squiggly Wiggly, which has been printed onto boards and used as construction hoarding. De Maaker describes the collaborative creative process behind Mawaheb’s now signature concept. “Sometimes 20 people are working on this artwork at the same time. It all starts with painting abstracts on the canvas, then we all move around the canvas. We’re singing, dancing and having fun. When the background is done, we bring out the ‘squiggly’ – a fabric paint which adds texture. You can feel the energy.”

As well as delighting millions of passengers passing through DXB, the partnership between Dubai Airports and Mawaheb is also about spreading awareness about individuals with special needs. This builds on the recent announcement from His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates and Ruler of Dubai, that people with special needs should now be known as ‘the determined ones’.

The change in terminology is a positive step, according to De Maaker. “I love the fact that it is a positive expression and I absolutely embrace the new terminology. I think we have to bring a lot of awareness about it while still explaining what we mean by ‘the determined ones’.

“People usually think of Down syndrome and autism, but there are so many more syndromes and disabilities such as Kabuki syndrome and muscular dystrophy. No matter what terminology we use, we still have to improve awareness.”

This lack of awareness – as well as support networks for adults – sparked De Maaker into action. “When I arrived in Dubai in 2002, I worked as a volunteer and learned we have beautiful schools for children with special needs. It was then I knew we really had to do something for adults. Every cell in my body knew what the idea was about. Art is a common language across all cultures.”

She highlights there was a big gap between the idea and the opening of Mawaheb in 2010. “I did an awareness programme to find out if there was a need, and there was, but people were a skeptical of the concept as it is outside of the box. I reached out to Princess Haya [bint al Hussein]. After a few meetings, her office called and said they have a villa to rent in Al Fahidi. It was like a dream.

“We started with four students and went from strength to strength. After four years, the villa became too small – we wanted to take on more students and it was really difficult to handle – we had to either close or grow. Luckily, this villa had been empty for some time and I managed to convince the management of the neighbourhood that we should take it on.”

With its shaded palm tree-filled courtyard, historic architectural details and solid sand-coloured walls adorned with beautiful artwork, Mawaheb is a wonderful and inspiring location to visit. The palpably positive atmosphere is infectious, especially when greeted with a warm smile and handshake from the students. This is all part of the Mawaheb ethos, as De Maaker explains.

“It’s not only about the art – we teach them so many other things such as social and communication skills. If the student is working, they have to approach the visitors and introduce themselves and Mawaheb’. If they are able to handle money, they can help out in the gift shop. When Abdullah [Lutfi] first came here, I did not know he was really good at maths as well as art. He now handles the cash machine on his own – he loves it. Whenever they pick up the paintbrush, they are shaping themselves.”

Certainly the support network has helped Mawaheb student Nazeer Ali build up much needed confidence. “Mawaheb has changed me,” says the 23-year-old Canadian national. “Before I wasn’t independent, but now I use the metro every day and take driving lessons. It’s given me a lot of courage, and I’m confident in travelling to other countries.

“There’s so much happiness and love here that it makes you forget your stress. As one of the determined people, it’s really difficult sometimes, but we are getting along [with life]. Some people don’t understand us.”

Ali and Lutfi collaborated on the Falcon Sculpture, one of Mawaheb’s exhibits for the launch of artDXB. For Ali, the chance to exhibit in Dubai International is a dream come true. “I’m speechless. I’m so thrilled that so many people will see my work.”

De Maaker adds: “It’s a dream of every artist to be exhibited in an environment like Dubai International. With 90 million passengers predicted this year, what bigger exposure can you get as an artist? You can’t even get that on social media.”

While the launch of artDXB provides an opportunity for Mawaheb’s artists to display their work in front of millions, De Maaker emphasises the bigger picture. “I really hope the collaboration with the airport is going to bring awareness about the determined ones on a much wider level.