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UAE artists hope Ramadan exhibits puts the focus on talent, not disabilities

DUBAI // Artists with special needs expressed their feelings about Ramadan through vivid art work that highlights how acceptance and respect are central to their lives.

Sketches, paintings, ideas and sculptures by 24 artists from Mawaheb, an art studio for adults with special needs, were reproduced in larger-than-life exhibits they hoped would make people focus on their talent ­instead of their disability.

“Ramadan is important. I stay in my room and read the Quran so I will not get distracted with food,” said Abdullah Lutfi, an Emirati artist who has autism.

His series of black-and-white line drawings dominate two shop windows depicting daily life during Ramadan, from sleeping and praying to eating from small bowls at the pre-dawn suhoor and stacks of food spread across a table at iftar.

Abdullah’s aunt Fakhria wept on seeing the display in Bloomingdale’s shop windows in Dubai Mall. “I was very emotional, it’s a big achievement and also ­encouragement for others,” Ms Lutfi said.

“When people look at this art, they don’t think special needs, they don’t think autism. This is important. What I wish for is that my country will pay more attention to help their future, their art or whatever they want to do … that UAE locals and residents like Abdullah can make a living like any other person.”

Nazeer Ali, another artist with autism, said he was speechless when he saw the window displays.

“Ramadan is a time for gifts but not only those [material] gifts,” he said. “It is gifts also like kindness, patience, caring, loving, honesty and giving.”

At the mall, visitors stopped to snap photographs of the unusual displays. In one window, a translucent fibreglass figure of a young girl hands over a red, heart-shaped balloon to a man in a wheelchair.

Thoughts penned by the artists cover the windows, simply saying: “People in wheelchairs should not be looked down upon” and “We are all one”.

Another window depicts rich, earth-toned mosaic work bordering large mirrors to convey reflection and contemplation during Ramadan.

A two-metre white vase spills over with flowers – from India, tulips from Holland and Canada’s maple leaf – sketched by the artists to signify people coming together.

Abstract colourful paintings called “squiggly wiggly” by the students cover light fittings inside the shop.

One window is filled with products, from brightly-painted cushion covers, coffee mugs and mosaic coasters to note pads made by the artists.

The work is a collaboration between artists with conditions ranging from Down syndrome, hearing impairment, muscular dystrophy and autism, supported by Mawaheb’s art teachers and volunteers and the Al Tayer Group’s creative services team.

“Our aim was simply to offer the students a 360-degree approach to showcase their talents,” said Matteo Magnanini, Al Tayer Group’s head of creative services.

The students were involved at every stage. They checked and altered colours as their paintings were converted into large graphic designs on the computer and went to the workshop to watch acrylic sheets and fibreboards being prepared to project their art.

“The challenge for our teachers was asking them to think out loud about what the holy month means because often we don’t listen to people with special needs,” said Wemmy de Maaker, Mawaheb’s director.

“Their work shows how they feel about acceptance, about giving your love, time and not just material gifts. For instance, the flowers have the theme of everybody coming together no matter who you are. Once people get to know their thoughts, they realise they are talented and intelligent.”

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(via The National)