Yafa Goawily began exploring forms of “living art” when she was seven, and was soon eager to share her passion with others.
“Fifteen years ago, I started painting myself. My idea was to create a painting that moves and is alive,” said the 35-year-old.
Born to a Palestinian mother and Egyptian father, Mrs Goawily started practising body painting with a group of friends who were "open to the idea” in Egypt. All that stopped when she later moved to Dubai — finding a community that wanted to take part in the Gulf was not an easy task.
But after finding some like-minded art lovers a little over a year ago and setting decency guidelines around acceptable clothing, she managed to put together a group "crazy enough to go on with my project”.
Through a series of workshops, retreats and performances in galleries, and even the desert of Liwa, the group has been attracting people from neighbouring countries as well.
They started to gather for body art workshops at the House of Om — a Dubai-based community centre — and then started to pitch the idea to galleries across Dubai.
“We also do it as a retreat and we can have up to 40 people. We bring people from different backgrounds, starting with a number of body language exercises and ending with body painting, which everybody comes away from feeling happy, like a child wearing face paint,” she said.
As the goal behind the activity is to connect, be mindful and happy, the sessions start with a few energy-clearing rituals.
“When we start any ceremony, we clear the energy around the area,” said Mrs Goawily, holding a burning sage leaf.
“I will cleanse you with sage, and then you will cleanse her, and then her me," she said to the group. "We send good energies through this purifying sage. You stand with open arms and this is how we open our heart."
Once everyone received “joy and peace” through the sage incense, the host and one of the founding members of the group, Laura Maciunaite, performed a cacao ceremony — she served everyone hot, raw cacao so attendees to the session could "indulge in its happy vibes".
The women then took part in a body language exercise where they had to mirror each other’s movements to understand their differences and learn to connect. Then each woman had to picture her partner as a sculpture and shape them into the pose.
Soon it was time for the body painting. Participants are free to make whatever choices they like, with one single rule: the person being painted is not allowed to object or comment on the painter’s choices.
“Look at your model, at their muscle formation, and draw a picture of what art can be performed with it in your head,” said Mrs Goawily.
“The body will tell you what it wants to be painted with."
The women began to paint, covering limbs and faces, and an hour later varied images had emerged: a garden with a chicken, the sun, waves, mermaids and tribal symbols.
“When you paint on canvas, it cannot move, but when you draw on the body and align people together, they can discover different kinds of shapes,” said Mrs Goawily.
“If I am [painted in] green and you are red, what will happen if we bring a third person with us? It doesn’t stop, you play with the painting of your body and others'.”
Tatiana Moreno, a finance manager from Colombia, said: “It is really about the connection that you have with people, and the different activities and exercises you do.”
“You can put your emotions or what you are going through on more than a canvas … You feel more connected because you are doing it simultaneously with the other person — it is a beautiful interaction.”