‘If you observe as the artists interact with the children you can just see it, there is definitely something powerful there,’ says Fathima Mohiuddin, visual arts and special projects manager at the Dubai Community Theatre and Arts Centre (Ductac). ‘You can feel the energy.’ Ductac, which is the first modern, non-profit, cross-community creative centre in the Gulf, recently assembled a team of six locally based artists for a very special project. The artists have started working with kids from the nearby Al Noor Centre for Special Needs to help them express themselves more freely through art.
The original idea was that the artists would work with the children over summer, before ending the season with an exhibition of their work in Ductac’s Gallery of Light. But those plans have since changed, simply because the programme is working so well. ‘The artists were starting to feel the pressure of having to make sure every session with the kids produced something, which was taking away from the interaction,’ explains Mohiuddin. ‘To be honest, I think the first time we [met the children it] was a bit overwhelming for some of the artists. Not a lot of them had been around special needs kids. But after a certain amount of time things have warmed up. The thing with special needs children is that you need to get to know their personalities and they need to learn to trust you, to welcome you into their space.’
Guillermo Munro, a painter and illustrator, agrees the project has produced a palpable bond between teachers and students. ‘I didn’t know what to expect to begin with,’ he admits. ‘And actually I think we [the artists] were more shy of them [the children] the first day,’ he laughs. ‘But very quickly it turned into something very beautiful. The next time we came they’d be happy, they would scream, they would come and hug us.’ A couple of weeks ago the artists were told they would have to miss a week, because there had been a change to the children’s schedule. ‘We really felt bad about not being there,’ Munro reveals. ‘We felt like we were letting them down. So something obviously is growing there. There’s definitely a connection.’
All six artists are from diverse disciplines, so the children are learning everything from painting to photography and ceramics. Munro encourages the kids to express their worlds by handing out plain white canvases and black paint. ‘Usually they might have had normal kids’ stuff where they have outlines and they colour inside,’ Munro says. ‘But giving them just a white piece of paper is more challenging. It’s cool to see what comes out. Sometimes it starts with something little and then they come back to it and it’s just like a very cool evolution.’
As a community art centre, Ductac is as much about showing how art can bring people together and open up communication as it is about exhibiting works and teaching classes. Mohiuddin stresses that this project is a beacon for art’s ability to touch people and help them. ‘In Dubai the art scene has developed more on a commercial level,’ she says. ‘I’m very keen to demonstrate the other values that art can have in society.’ She thinks this is good for the artists too: ‘It’s really easy as an artist to get caught up in trying to promote yourself, trying to sell your work. But when you step outside that and use your art for something completely different it can have a really strong and meaningful impact.’
Munro says the experience is changing him as a person. ‘Everybody wins in these situations because everybody changes, I think,’ he says. ‘It’s really affected how I am, because I did not know this world. Reaching out and really being a part of the community, it’s something bigger than a little painting – the whole process is a work of art itself.’
That process will continue for the foreseeable future, as neither the artists nor the children want it to end. Ductac is even looking for more artists to join the initiative, even if they can’t commit to it in the long-term. Mohiuddin is also planning on approaching more organisations in the community, such as those that work with cancer patients, to explore how an art programme might help. ‘Art can reach out to so many people,’ she says. ‘So that’s where we’re taking it. We’re just going to keep going.’
For more about Ductac call 04 341 4777 or visit www.ductac.org.