From painting with coffee to collages: how this Dubai art space is encouraging art-making in quarantine

Dubai's thejamjar has come up with an online challenge to get people creating artworks at home

Using oil markers and pastels, Camille Despalle de Bearn gives a demonstration of Pointillism on thejamjar's Instagram account. Courtesy thejamjar 
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“When there’s hardship, you really have to think on your feet, and that’s often when you come up with the best genuinely creative ideas,” says Camille Despalle de Bearn, who heads up projects and programming at community art space thejamjar.

On March 15, thejamjar, located in Al Quoz's Alserkal Avenue, announced the suspension of its classes and workshops. The move followed a circular from Dubai’s Department of Economic Development that urged commercial establishments to temporarily shut as a way to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

As soon as their doors closed, thejamjar's team quickly went to work behind the scenes, inventing ways to keep the community engaged. It came up with #thejamjarfromafar, an online challenge presented through a daily series of videos on Instagram. The team produced 16 videos in five days, each a tutorial that people can replicate at home, and then share their artworks on social media via the hashtag.

Artist Tilika D’souza illustrates the classic idiom 'it's raining cats and dogs' with watercolours. Courtesy thejamjar
Artist Tilika D’souza illustrates the classic idiom 'it's raining cats and dogs' with watercolours. Courtesy thejamjar

The challenges or “prompts” are short and quirky – ideal for children and adults searching for a simple creative outlet as they navigate stay-at-home arrangements. There’s a landscape-­painting tutorial using coffee with Dania Al Tamimi, who shows how to blend different tones depending on the consistency of the drink, and a brief demonstration of painting with primary and secondary colours with Tilika D’Souza.

Others are even more creative, such as D’Souza’s idea to “paint an idiom” (in her case, “it’s raining cats and dogs”); Al Tamimi’s Surrealist collage; and Despalle de Bearn’s simplified exploration of the art movement and technique of Pointillism, wielding only coloured markers and oil pastels.

“The response was immediate and enthusiastic,” says Despalle de Bearn, highlighting that the ethos of the initiative isn’t about the end result, but the act of making and sharing. “What we’re doing is in no way Picasso. It’s about taking the first step in creating and showing people what you’ve done. It’s about exchanging ideas and finding a silver lining to the whole situation.”

She and thejamjar team are now working from home, but they're continuing to develop more videos to keep the challenge going. Starting tomorrow, thejamjar will release videos every other day to continue their digital programming. Inadvertently, the closure has spurred a discussion about how the art space can be more digitally appealing, especially for an activity as tactile as art-making. "This is something we've talked about for a very long time, and we were always looking for the right angle," she says, noting that thejamjar has seen more activity on its social media channels than before the shutdown.

While its online presence may be booming, Despalle de Bearn remains aware of the consequences of a longer-term closure on the business. Thejamjar’s model, after all, is not built on digital classes, but its courses and workshops held throughout the year. In addition, the subject of art itself – like many other creative endeavours such as theatre and music – may not be suited to a completely virtual experience. “The concern is financial, because we have had to close our programming until things are resolved, she says. 

“It’s a difficult position to be in. We’re an art institute, and we’re here to engage and educate people, and share ideas. Our concern is to keep our audiences safe, but at the same time, we face a huge financial problem. The worry is that we have no money coming in to maintain the business.”

Even if thejamjar does reopen soon, she says, there might still be an adjustment period. “I don’t expect people to rush in … I think people would still be wary, as they should be.”

thejamjar's first prompt, how to paint landscape using coffee with artist Dania Al Tamimi. Courtesy thejamjar
thejamjar's first prompt, how to paint landscape using coffee with artist Dania Al Tamimi. Courtesy thejamjar

For Despalle de Bearn, one way to support local cultural spaces at this time is simply to stay home. “The way people can help is to follow the quarantine rules. I know people are aching … but the sooner we seriously shut down and everyone stays home, the sooner everyone can go back to normal life,” she says. “We can start to reopen our doors and get business flowing again.”