Art for mind's sake: UAE artist on the healing power of art

Somya Mehta

Last updated on April 1, 2021 at 6.57 pm

Human emotions can be complex. And the onset of the pandemic, albeit a tough taskmaster, has taught us the importance of slowing down and reconnecting with ourselves — checking in on not only those around us, but also ourselves, re-establishing a connection, which had probably been lost somewhere amidst the regimented routines and jam-packed calendars. Similar to the pandemic being viral in nature, many are also battling a mental health 'pandemic', of sorts, demonstrated by a stark rise in issues, such as depression and anxiety.

Rubab Zahra, a Dubai-based Calligraphy and abstract artist, found solace in art back in 2017, after going through a difficult phase of feeling lost and disconnected with herself. In her quest to overcome an ongoing void and feeling of lack of individuality or a driving force, Rubab turned to Arabic calligraphy and painting abstract figuratives, harnessing the therapeutic abilities of being immersed in the process of creation and expressing her individuality through the medium. “I studied biotechnology at university. Right after finishing my graduation, I got married and relocated to Dubai. I couldn’t find suitable jobs in my profession, which put an end to my academic journey,” recalls Rubab. A top performer throughout her academic years, Rubab always identified herself as someone who was very career-driven.

After her move to Dubai, her circumstances led her to become a homemaker, putting a break to her ambitions. “While staying at home became a way of life, something about it didn’t satisfy me. The way people looked at me was as though I was just sitting at home and doing nothing, and that made me very upset. Unfortunately, in our society, homemakers, despite their laborious efforts, don’t get the respect they deserve for the multitude of tasks they undertake.” While being completely satisfied with her married life, the desire to regain her lost self pushed her to find new ways to express her individuality. “I felt like I had no identity beyond being a wife and mother and that I wasn’t good enough to achieve anything in life. This led me to feeling depressed over time.”

Recollecting the intricacies of going through the emotional turmoil, the self-taught artist underlined a central feeling of disconnect with everything around her, “You’re doing everything, but your heart is not there,” adds Rubab. “It’s not just me, I see many women around me too, who have dedicated many years of their lives to education and career aspirations but once they get married, all of that takes a backseat. They stop living for themselves. And most women don’t even know or acknowledge it as depression. It was only when I started feeling better, I realised that I was in a state which wasn’t normal and should not be normalised.”

When one goes down the rabbit hole of experiencing a deteriorating sense of self, along with other negative emotions, it becomes imperative to see the light at the end of the tunnel, to fall back in love with life and look forward to its moments — big or small. And in times like these, people around us can play a role in offering support to pull us out of a dark space. Rubab, too, mentioned how her family played a crucial role in being her support system throughout her journey, enabling her to regain the excitement and zest for life. “My husband has been very encouraging. He always knew that I had a passion for art but I never acted on it. So, when he sensed my depression, he suggested that I should take the plunge and try my hand at painting,” says the artist.

Once she set her mind to it, it didn’t take a professional degree for Rubab to deep-dive into the world of fine arts — all it took was prompt action. “I went to a store, bought professional equipment and started creating random art, trying different mediums like landscape, abstract, realism, and finally, calligraphy.” From trial and error, Rubab found her space amidst the endless possibilities of art, practising traditional forms of Arabic calligraphy, adapting it to contemporary styles, and combining it with modern abstract figuratives, to represent the changing times. “I always say that art found me. Somehow, it was in my destiny and when I tried it out, I instantly connected to it. Back in the day, in traditional Asian families, if the child was good at studies, it was automatically assumed that they’d take up sciences. So, studying art was not even an option for me. But it’s different now. I often wonder why I ever took up science and technology, when this had been my calling all along.”

Taking up art in 2017, the artist admits that her life transformed completely — through it, she was able to feel like herself again. “Art was therapeutic. Especially, practising an art form like Arabic calligraphy was very meditative. It acted as a form of therapy and an antidepressant, all in one. It was something that made me feel alive again. I started feeling energetic and excited. I set goals for myself and started looking forward to the feeling of accomplishment,” explains Rubab.

In her recent art exhibition Assent, Rubab addressed some of the many ways in which people can overcome emotional issues like depression with the central themes revolving around the importance of finding individuality, respect and acknowledgement in our partnerships. The artist was clear on not wanting to portray the problem, but instead, amplify the solutions through her artwork. “I can’t stress enough how important it is for a woman to feel acknowledged. Especially the homemakers, who are often made to feel invisible, be it through the pressure of social media platforms or family situations,” says Rubab.

“Respect, even more than love, is a foundation of any relationship. And that paves the way for the need for personal space, to grow, thrive and flourish as an individual. If women are empowered, the whole family reaps the benefits.”

With her moniker styles of painting being abstract art as well as traditional Arabic calligraphy, and contemporary Arabic calligraphy, the artist uses bright and warm colours to depict her personal learnings through her artworks, with the hope to motivate others to take charge of their lives and steer it in a direction they truly want. “I believe everyone has some talent. It’s all about nurturing it and rechannelling our energies,” says Rubab.

While the pandemic impacted everyone to varying degrees, it has also been recognised as a time when people, whilst being locked at home, got to embark on a unique journey — inwards. “Even though it was a grave time, Covid-19 also gave us something positive. It gave us time. Time that we never had before, to follow our passions. I saw so many women turning to creating and selling products online and through social media,” says Rubab. “I took last year to put together my artworks that I recently got a chance to exhibit. I also worked on several commissioned projects. Last year taught me that so much can be done from home, you don’t need to step out. And when you love what you do, nothing can stop you. You find ways to keep doing what you do.”

Having sold several art pieces and hosted solo art exhibitions as well as workshops for aspiring artists and calligraphers, all across the UAE, Rubab strongly believes that following one’s passion pays back in unfathomable ways. Her passion projects have not only translated into a platform for expressing her identity and combating depression but also enabled her to achieve and fulfill her financial goals. “When I first started, I never thought that I would reach here in a period of just two to three years. But it has instilled an unwavering faith in me that going the extra mile for your passion is completely worth it and rewarding in so many ways. It’s never too late to start over or redirect the path of your career or life. It’s always worth a try!”

The artist organises and conducts regular workshops for people who want to try their hand at art, with no prior experience necessary, at venues like Alserkal Avenue, and will be seen exhibiting her artworks in a number of upcoming exhibitions, including Pullman at Dubai Creek City Centre.

In a world, where stress and anxiety are deemed as ‘normal’, perhaps, the coping mechanisms, too, should be normalised. Be it cooking, singing, dancing, painting or drawing, therapy can come in many ways — it’s about taking out the time to do what makes you the happiest!