Art workshops are a mixing pot for different cultures

The studios at the National Theatre in Abu Dhabi are a hive of activity, and are filled with a mix of styles and cultures.

ABU DHABI // For Afraa Ahmed al Muhairi, one of the best things about being a mother of seven is that when the summer holidays come around, her children help to look after each other.

"They play together and the older ones are good with the younger ones. It means I still have time to myself." Despite her large brood, Mrs al Muhairi can be found most mornings, and some afternoons, at the National Theatre, making the most of one of the many art classes or workshops hosted by the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (Adach). The high ceilings and the natural light make the airy studios of the Art Workshop at the back of the theatre the perfect environment to practise art, Mrs al Muhairi said. She recommends it to anyone looking to escape the heat of the summer and grab a couple of hours away from the children.

"Everyone has a different reason to come," she said. "But they will all find something about themselves when they come. For me, my soul is here." The Art Workshop offers a weekly timetable of classes including photography, Arabic calligraphy, painting, design and ceramics. It was established in 1983 by Adach at the Cultural Foundation. Although it began at a small level it now hosts regular exhibitions and art fairs, and has succeeded in building a core of artists who have established themselves as professionals.

Mrs al Muhairi joined a weekly drawing class five years ago and began practising with oil paints and watercolours the following year. When the workshop moved to the National Theatre in 2008, she was one of the first to sign up. She now takes painting class on Sundays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, one of 10 subjects offered for an average of Dh400 per month. Her instructor, Jack Lee, is a Chinese artist whose work has won first prize for the past two years at the Abu Dhabi International Hunting and Equestrian Exhibition for heritage paintings.

As an Emirati, Mrs al Muhairi particularly enjoys portraying the heritage of her homeland in her work. "I use different materials like gold and cloth, and I include calligraphy, which is all part of our Arabic history. When I am painting I feel so happy, it is what I was born to do." The large painting of two horses hanging in the foyer of the theatre was one her proudest achievements, she said. It was a collaboration with Mohammed Mandi, the calligrapher in residence.

Meeting and working with people from different nationalities and with different artistic styles was one of the best reasons to come to the workshop, said Nawal Saaed al Ameri, its administrator. "We have all sorts of people coming here, women and men of all ages and from many countries. They are all different but they all have the same reaction," she said. "They never want to leave." As the classes had grown in popularity, the subjects available had also expanded, said Mrs al Ameri. Naida Akaeva, a Russian jewellery maker, who has designed a Dh2 million three-colour diamond and emerald necklace for a sheikha, and who used to work for Damas, took over jewellery designing workshops in November last year.

The class was always at its capacity of 10 students, said Mrs al Ameri. Many westerners also attended the calligraphy class with Mr Mandi, she said. "It is amazing to watch them, because they have no idea what the word means but they take great care over the letters as art. "It's one of the best things about this place - cultures mix and everyone learns from each other."