United Arab Emirates Art Outreach: After the fun days of Ras Al Khaimah Fine Art Festival, my assignment in the UAE consisted of doing some art outreach programs. So, I was asked to work on art projects with the boys in two local schools. Specifically, these boys are a part of Hands-On Learning Program.
Hands-On Learning Program was brought to The Emirates from Australia by Al Qasimi Foundation. It is currently being tested in these two schools in Ras Al Khaimah, and may expand to other locations in the future if it proves successful. The program targets youth who may be at risk of dropping out of school and / or are not thriving in a traditional classroom setting – due to either behavioral issues, or lack of interest, or poor grades, or other difficulties. Boys who are assigned to be in the program, get to leave their regular class one day a week and work building various projects with their hands – such as furniture construction, landscaping, repair, etc. Such tasks allow them to stay connected to their local schools and communities while refining their work ethic and communication skills. A big part of the program also involves achieving fluency in English (which is the second language in UAE, after Arabic) – thus, only English is spoken during these class days. Caleb, who is American and teaches these classes, is very patient and awesome with the kids. Personally, I think this program is an excellent concept and should be adopted by every school.
It was decided that in each school’s art project will be a wall mural – not a simple task, considering that I was given only one school day in each location to oversee the entire thing from start to (hopefully) finish.
Boys worked on several sketches before my arrival of possible mural concepts. They were told to come up scenes that relates to the Emirates – their traditions, history, culture, or architecture. The walls for murals were chosen by each school’s administration.
In the first school, (Al Jazeerah Al Hamra), the mural design that boys chose was a semi-abstract decorative pattern. But, then, after looking through prints of my work that I brought in to show, and seeing an image of my Istanbul painting, they got inspired by a mosque and we decided to include it into out wall creation.
So how do you go from nothing to an (almost) full mural in about 4.5 hours? You paint fast! First, I sketched the design on a wall – a tricky task since I mostly eyeballed proportions.
Then, “the team” and I started with black outlines.
Then, we added in color and I showed the boys how to layer texture. The point of this project was to get all of them to paint, so my role here was more of a “mural manager”.
These kids’ English is not at a great level yet, and they were shy about answering my questions and picking up a paint brush at fist. They also have little painting experience, so initially their lines were sloppy and they were impatient about creating solid color coverage in each section. But as we continued with the mural, it was so nice to watch their transformation – they became less shy, more communicative, and seemed to really get into the project! Over the course of these few hours they started to care about quality of their work, and each of them even seemed to find his “niche” – so I deemed one kid to be my “designated cloud painter”.
Some onlookers gathered to watch through the classroom windows.
As a part of Hands On Learning program, boys were also in charge of making lunch – so they prepared a yummy salad and some “pizza”.
FIRST SCHOOL’S FINAL RESULT: mural mostly completed! Impressive, considering the brief amount of time we were given. I was also taken on a tour of the school and even got to meet the principal.
Second mural project was the next day, and took place in Saeed Bin Jubair Boys’ School.
Here, I was introduced to another group of kids, and another, much larger, blank wall.
The subject chosen for this mural was a landscape with a Emirati woman preparing bread – a folklore scene. In the background would be trees and mountains, on the left side – a house / shack constructed with mud and dried palm leaves, which is an older, traditional way of building in this region.
This wall was at least 3 times as large as previous day’s wall – so, this mural would be a multi-day project, but since I only had a day to work with the kids, I was eager to get as much done as possible.
The wall was in an open area of a school, so during breaks between classes, we were swarmed with boys watching us work. And you know what? They were teasing our group a little about painting, but I’m pretty sure they were actually a little envious of their friends in Hands On Learning who got to work on such a fun task.
This mural was also more difficult because instead of flat colors, every area of it was meant to be filled with texture. I showed boys what brushing techniques I use to paint grass, mountains, tree bark – and they tried their best to imitate.
The woman in the mural is wearing a traditional Emirati burqa (sometimes called Khaleeji burqa, or in other countries called Batula). This one is quite different from a burqa as Western world understands it – it covers a smaller portion of the woman’s face and is made of hard fabric with a metallic texture. These burqas are now mostly found in rural areas amongst the older generation, they look a bit like fighting armor, and were initially designed to mimic a falcon. Such burqas were worn to conceal a woman’s face, yes – but also served a purpose of decoration and protection from sand and sunburn.
When I finished painting the woman’s face, it was translated to me that boys said that I made her eyes look like a gazelle – I thought it was a bad thing, until they explained that it is how they give compliments to girls! Ha. The kid whose sketch we used for a mural took charge of painting her dress and rug – very colorful combination!
SECOND SCHOOL’S RESULT: In the end of the day, we ended up with this! Not too shabby for 4.5 hours of work. Boys will be finishing this mural on their own. I left this school with memories of another fantastic day.
That evening, we left Ras Al Khaimah and traveled over the mountain range to Fujairah, where I did a presentation and pencil drawing demo at women’s Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT). This is the only corner of UAE that has mountains, and, unlike most of the country, Fujairah coastline sits on Gulf of Oman, facing East.
Visiting a federal university here requires government clearance, and after submitting lots of paperwork through U.S. embassy weeks ago, I was finally given clearance the day before my visit! At HCT, I talked about being an artist, and then did a quick pencil demo on how to sketch, shade, and measure proportions of a face. Funny thing is, I did not know exactly what I was going to be doing at HCT – I only found out about the drawing demo on the day I received my clearance. I’m a painter, and have never even given a pencil drawing demo before – but my Ukrainian art preparatory school classes paid off here, and I was able to wing it! I showed these ladies how to alter the face and make it look old, young, happy, sad, neutral. I gave my drawn lady ears, but then covered her head to mimic the same type of hijab that all the women in front of me were wearing.
Typically, Emrati Muslim women prefer that photos of their faces are not shared by others on social media, so while they took photos with me for my personal enjoyment, they will not be posted here. But even though I can’t share their smiles, I must say that they were the sweetest. They seemed very interested in my stories, my demo, and even laughed at all of my cheesy jokes.
And with that, my art projects in UAE were completed. What an amazing experience! I loved every minute of it, and would do it again in a heartbeat.