Dubai’s Mawaheb artists want community to reconnect with hidden gem studio

A popular art space invites people to view striking work created by people with special needs

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Amid the drab warehouses in Dubai’s industrial Al Quoz area, a vibrant art studio stands out with an open invitation to visitors to come in and meet some outstanding homegrown artists.

A riot of colour and thumping music greets those who walk in to Mawaheb, where striking canvasses are displayed on the walls of a high-ceilinged space with large windows and long, sloping rafters.

It has been almost a year since the popular studio reopened in February in its new location in central Dubai.

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We want to bring awareness that this hidden gem is here in Al Quoz and open to all
Wemmy de Maaker, Mawaheb director

The decade-old studio caters for people with disabilities aged 18 and above and had its original home in the city’s historic Bastaikya area.

Mawaheb, which is Arabic for talent, shut down during the coronavirus pandemic for more than a year from October 2020.

The much-loved studio is keen to reconnect with the larger UAE community, engage with people who want to meet artists with special needs, view and purchase their work.

The artists have a range of conditions from Down syndrome and autism to developmental disabilities.

Paint to music

Mawaheb’s current batch of 20 artists seems likely to grow. Many were part of the original group that has benefited from life skills courses taught alongside the art classes.

Verano Field, 29, from the UK, confidently chats with visitors about her abstract art propped against the wall.

“I did it on my own. I did it by myself with music, with my feet,” she said.

“I did the blue and pink one and mixed it up.”

Verano is among students who has gained the self-assurance and skill to teach enthusiasts how to move and paint with music when they sign up for corporate social responsibility events .

She intently listens to the melody and depending on whether it is a soulful tune or a lively rhythm, swirls in time to the beat and paints with her feet and body and wields the brush on large canvasses laid across the floor.

Sean McLennan stands proudly in front of a collage that brings together several of his works with carefully detailed geometric motifs.

In one distinctive work after a visit to the Dubai Safari, the 25-year-old Scottish artist painted perfectly proportionate animals in earthy tones that stare out from the canvas.

Rekha Kirpalani, the oldest student at 66, spent six months drawing tightly spaced small flowers that resemble intricate embroidery.

The elaborate painting of the Indian artist has been printed across a water bottle, among many items on sale in the studio’s café.

Marwan Al Khaja, a 22-year-old Emirati, waits patiently near an easel for the bold black and blue strokes on a canvas to dry before adding gold leaves.

Namrata Pagarani, 31, takes visitors to each of her paintings and explains how a few are inspired by Picasso.

“I am the artist of this painting but this one is from Picasso,” she said.

“In this, I painted flowers, bluebells, yellow buttercups and tulips from Holland.

“It is fantastic to paint.”

Connect with the artists

During workshops it is the students who lead the programmes, teach painting, yoga, sketching sessions, playing games and teaching sign language.

“When you come to Mawaheb you can see the talent and the capabilities of people,” said Wemmy de Maaker, the non-profit studio’s director.

“We want to invite everyone to connect with people of determination.

“Let’s be honest ― where can you meet people of determination if you are not in the field.

Sean McLennan, an artist with special needs, with his collage at the Mawaheb studio in Al Quoz in Dubai. Pawan Singh / The National

“In the cafe on Saturday, we have inclusive dancing, book readings and board games, all in a relaxed environment.

“Our students learn to present themselves to people they have never met.

“It’s a learning for visitors because they realise you can have a conversation with people of determination and that they are talented people.”

The sessions include collaborating on art with the students.

“So the corporate organisation goes home with a beautiful big painting that they created with the students,” she said

“It becomes a talking point because they hang it in the office and it becomes a reminder of the event. When guests come in and see the artwork, they tell the story.

“This has an impact and it helps build a lot of awareness.”

Co-working cafe space

Ms de Maaker aims to grow the number of students, promote the cafe and the weekend interactions.

“We want to bring awareness that this hidden gem is here in Al Quoz and open to all,” she said.

“The cafe is a co-working space, so people can sit here, have lunch, coffee and also meet people of determination.

Inside the Mawaheb cafe in Al Quoz in Dubai. Pawan Singh / The National

“We want to build this community, with everyone working with and for people of determination.

“We want to collaborate with institutes, schools, individuals and bring in the mainstream.”

The studio has two levels with students seated around tables or working on easels on the ground floor and space for workshops or corporate events on the upper floor.

The cafe has stacks of products, from cushions to T-shirts, bottles, mugs and date boxes for Ramadan decorated with art produced by students

“All the canvasses reflect the students and the way they see life around them,” said art teacher Clizia Zepparalli.

“Mawaheb is really unique because we try to give students a different way to grow, feed their skills, their dream.

“We use each one’s uniqueness to create art.

“The goal is to create beautiful art but it’s also the medium through which they can grow.”

Angelina Lawless, one of Mawaheb’s artists nods as she listens to her mentors.

“People will get to know us,” the 35-year-old said.

“I have sold four paintings. I like talking to people. I like singing, dancing and karaoke.”

The studio is collaborating with students from New York University Abu Dhabi to present an inclusive exhibition on January 28-29 that is part of the Quoz Arts Fest.

Details about Mawaheb’s weekend programmes and the upcoming exhibitions are available on its Facebook and Instagram pages.

Updated: January 31, 2023, 12:08 PM
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