This article was published by MediaGlobal News on April 11, 2012 but is no longer available on their website. It has been copied below.
DUBAI - Commercial art fairs typically conjure a mental image of collectors and other well-heeled ‘art-world’ affiliates meandering through a labyrinth of gallery stalls whilst sipping champagne. Art Dubai, while certainly conforming to this stereotype, also transcends it. Through the nonprofit START, they channel a great deal of the wealth and enthusiasm for art that descends upon the United Arab Emirates (UAE) during the fair each March to benefit disadvantaged children.
Inspired by the UN Human Rights Council’s Declaration of the Rights of the Child, START seeks to heal, educate, and enrich the skills and opportunities of children in the poorest areas of the Middle East through art. With arts education programs at refugee camps and orphanages throughout Jordan, Lebanon, and Palestine, as well as workshops for special needs children in the UAE, START actualizes Art Dubai’s commitment to give back to the region. They currently serve over 730 children per week and plan to reach more in the near future.
START came into being in 2006 when Art Dubai enlisted the collaboration of Al Madad Foundation, a Saudi Arabian charitable organization registered in the UK and dedicated to alleviating poverty and exclusion in the Middle East. The partnership developed naturally, START Director Tanaz Dizadji tells MediaGlobal, owing to “Al Madad’s founders’ longstanding appreciation for art and patronage of Art Dubai.”
In 2007, START began operating daily two-hour art workshops at Baqa’a refugee camp in Jordan for children between the ages of 11 and 16. Designed to complement school curriculum, which now lack arts education, workshops are led by local and international artists and supported by a certified teacher. “We try to give children a background in art history and technique etc., but the most important thing for us is really developing their creativity and confidence and giving them an avenue to express themselves,” Dizadji tells MediaGlobal.
The content of workshops varies according to the artist’s expertise. Typically artists come for month-long residencies during which they receive complementary accommodations at one of the two “START Houses” in Lebanon and Jordan. Although they receive no compensation, most laud it as an incredible experience. Word-of-mouth praise for the program sends many new artists knocking on START’s door wanting to participate, practically rendering START’s recruitment through collaborating galleries unnecessary. Notable participants include Farhad Moshiri (Iran), Zara Mahmood (Pakistan / UK), James Clar (USA), and Nadim Karam (Lebanon).
Sometimes, the emphasis is more on art therapy – using art to help kids express themselves and work through traumas – rather than on building painting or photography skills. In these cases, partnering universities lend their professors, behavior specialists, and other expertise.
This is especially true with START’s UAE program, which works exclusively with special needs children and young adults. Referring to their collaboration with the Dubai Autism Center, Dizadji explains, “It was a natural development once we saw how powerful art can be in transforming the kids’ lives.” She adds that art presents a language other than words that enables greater communication with them. In addition to running the center’s art program, START also funds autism therapy for children whose parents lack the means.
Financially independent, START relies on corporate sponsors and the generosity of art patrons for funding. This year, their annual gala held during Art Dubai greatly exceeded expectations, bringing in $900,000.. Expenses cover operating costs, including a permanent staff of 6, but the organization relies overwhelmingly on volunteers.
Listening to Dizadji speak about START’s staff, volunteers, and participants, a sense emerges that it is more like a family than an organization. For instance, curiosity drew many mothers in the camps to observe and sometimes even participate in the workshops. They enjoyed it so much that it precipitated a new initiative to train and hire them to lead their own subsidiary workshops. Meanwhile, many of the older teens stay involved as mentors to younger children. For a lucky few, START Scholarships enable them to pursue higher education in the arts.
Ceremoniously awarded at START’s annual gala at Art Dubai on the basis of artistic and academic merit, the annual Jordan scholarship covers university tuition fees, accommodation, and subsistence costs. This year, it went to 17-year old Narmeen Abu-Shashieh who grew up at Jabal el-Hussein camp in Jordan. She accepted the award with poise, thanking START and it’s supporters for the opportunity of a lifetime. She will begin studying architecture at the University of Jordan in the fall and dreams of one day becoming a leading architect. Her artwork will be on display at next year’s gala.
Plans for expanding START programs are underway, with workshops set to open in Dharavi, a slum outside Mumbai. Why India? According to Dizadji it makes sense because India is not only a “really interesting cultural hub” with a rich art scene, but also “a brother to the Middle East” and home to millions of disadvantaged children. She also notes that efforts to expand to other Arab countries have been on hold since the uprisings began last year.