Mawaheb from Beautiful People art studio gives us a peek into the creativity and hidden talent from adults with special needs
“Where are the adults with special needs?” was the first question Danish-national Wemmy De Maaker, nurse and founder of Mawaheb from Beautiful People art studio, asked herself when she arrived in Dubai 15 years ago. “They weren’t on the streets or shopping malls, so it was a bit of a shock, especially being a nurse working with people who had special needs,” she tells us. Immediately, ideas sprung to mind and Wemmy saw herself drawing up a business plan. “I became a volunteer at one of the special needs schools and loved it. Most parents were worried about their grown-up children as they didn’t know what to do next and when the child turned 18, because there is a cut-off age here. That was when I realised there is a need for studio,” she says.
Al Fahidi Historical neighbourhood, one of Dubai’s oldest districts, is brimming with art, tourists and quaint Arabian coffee shops bursting with culture. The Mawaheb art studio is tucked alongside an alleyway within the Al Bastakiya grounds. Adopting the idea from concepts in Netherlands, where Wemmy frequented and worked, was perhaps the easiest part of the journey. The toughest? Finding a venue, the licensing and bringing it to fruition. “It took me two years to launch, as the idea didn’t fit into the system at that point,” she tells us. After working with HRH Princess Haya bint Al Hussein for an Awareness Campaign, Wemmy approached the team, this time for a premise to host students from. “Months later they told me they found a villa in Al Fahidi neighbourhood and it was a dream come true. I love this area as it’s an art hub and tourist spot. We opened our doors here two years ago and it has been amazing so far,” says Wemmy.
The studio picked up pace quickly and Wemmy was surprised to have over 30 volunteers, as everyone wanted to give back but didn’t know how? They now have 26 students enrolled, with each and every individual growing and developing daily. “People who step into the studio love the energy as it’s calm and homely,” Guests are welcome to walk in on weekdays (between 9-3pm), mingle, sip coffee served by special needs students in the courtyard and admire their paintings and sculptures. “We have a unique approach for them to connect to the outside world and focus on mainstream art. Painting, yoga, dance, sculptures and mosaic are some of the activities the students partake in.”
As we chat about Wemmy’s journey till date, we’re greeted by Abdulla Lutfi, an Emirati student with autism, who takes our coffee and cake order. Abdullah first arrived at the studio five years ago and want to get involved with any activity. Soon he began painting, making friends, and now helps at the in-house café to develop his social skills. The cheerful student is even working on his solo exhibit, and will be showcasing at the UAE embassy in Washington.
Abdulla isn’t the only student showing remarkable progress. Wemmy and her volunteers have noticed tremendous change in many students, especially a young girl named Asma Baker, who joined the studio to develop her social skills. Mawaheb has been the ideal building platform for the students, taking them to exhibitions in Netherlands, Singapore and on a cruise. “I was quite nervous but very grateful with the support from the parents, because they always trust what we’re doing without even questioning us. We made sure each student was taken through the airport and check-in process beforehand, since they couldn’t rely on their parents.” The students spend most of their time painting, creating sculptures and watching Frida. “We did a Frida Kahlo exhibition and the students are hoping they get the opportunity to go to Mexico. They love her!” she tells us.
At Mawaheb, Wemmy and her team look at the person, not the disability. Students are treated just like any other adult, with no room for tantrums. It’s easy for people to treat them differently, however, it’s important to make them members of the society. “I remember a student from Zambia whose mom called and said she couldn’t drop her son to the studio anymore as she had a job. When I suggested he take the metro because he was only deaf, she mentioned the thought never crossed her mind. I was surprised.” The student now has his driver’s license, graduated in graphic design last year and has become a solo artist.
Students at the studio are as young as 18 and old as 60. Since joining Mawaheb, they have become independent, commute by metro and catch up for a movie or coffee over the weekend. Some of the students have become motivational speakers, talking about anti-bullying at company conferences and meetings. To develop their skills, Wemmy encourages them to volunteer in the art shop and café. “They are learning skills to converse, take orders and do simple tasks such as balancing a trey. We give them the responsibility and trust them with every task.”
Additionally, the studio also hosts corporate clients such as HSBC, Home Centre, Giordano, and DP World, to name a few. “They do a three-hour workshop at the studio as part of their CSR activity, mingle with students and unwind at yoga, dance and art classes. We do around two to three a month,” she tells us. In order to finance and sustain the studio, Wemmy replies on
Art enthusiasts will love the colourful art pieces, Van Gogh-like espresso cup and saucer gift sets and home décor pieces, from cushions to lamps, sold in the art shop.
Photos by Susanna Dahlstedt