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Rachel Gadsden back in Qatar for the Arts and Disability Festival / 25 March 2013

A group of women dressed in burkas and a man in white islamic head dress, sit painting with artist Rachel Gadsden outside an art gallery

Rachel runs an integrated family learning body mapping workshop at Katara Cultural Village, as part of the Arts and Disability Festival, Doha, Qatar. Photo by Tim Hayton

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On the evening of our third day in Bahrain, Rachel creates a live and interactive painting outside the Al Riwak art gallery. At intervals Rachel pauses to talk directly to the audience about her artistic motivations and practice. The event is a huge success, with many attending; and people also stopping in their cars in the road outside the gallery to see what the fuss is all about; and many people from both the local and the ex-pat communities wishing to contribute to the four large 5 foot by 4 foot canvases which Rachel covers with her depictition of a paralympic and dance interaction.

We have a short but late flight back to Qatar, and the following day attend the formal opening of the Arts and Disability Festival at Katara Culture Village. The opening is marked on the evening of 20th March by a speech from Martin Hope director of British Council Qatar, preceded by an expressionistic and energetic live-painting by Rachel for the invited audience, and followed by a lively discussion and debate chaired by Carol McFadden, British Council Unlimited co-ordinator UK, and with panel members made up of Rachel, Claire Cunningham and Sheikha Hissa Khalifa bin Ahmed al-Thani (Qatar) who was appointed the Special Rapporteur on Disability by the United Nations (2003 -2005).

It becomes much more apparent to us now that the issue of disability is in sharp and extended focus here in Qatar, with not only Sheikha Hissa, but other substantial organisations actively addressing the perennial issues of accessibility and inclusivity.  Several of the TV networks attend the event and subsequently it is covered on Qatar TV.  The opening event was tremendously rewarding in terms of cross-fertilization; and the reassuring realization that Qatar is keen to share its experiences in the field of disability. The opening event makes the pages of The Gulf Times and Rachel’s exhibition, this Breathing World, whose themes reflect the subject at a contemplative level, is explored as the subject of a magazine programme by Qatar TV. It is a comprehensive interview with Lana Kayed, project manager for British Council, Qatar, about the Festival. Most of the programme takes place in Rachel’s exhibition and also includes other elements of the Festival at Katara Cultural Village.

We are back now in Katara for the rest of our stay in the Middle East, and on the evening of 21st March conduct a family learning art workshop beneath the portico of the small square where the various artists studios are located. From 4.30pm onwards a steady stream of families from all walks of life stop by to create their own version of a body-map.  Katara is in a beautiful location on the edge of the Gulf and attracts locals and holiday-makers alike. It was wonderful to see so many families all wanting to work together to create a painting. Contrary to what we had imagined from our experience of running body-map workshops in the UK, it was surprising that invariably the fathers wished to be an active part of the process.

On the evening of the Friday 22nd March we attend the first performance of Claire Cunningham’s Menage-a-Trois, renamed Three, which is shown at the thoroughly beautiful deco-influenced Katar Culture Village theatre space. The performance takes place as a result of the collaboration between British Council and the National Theatre of Scotland.  There were some hold-ups with the set at customs, but we hear that this has not unduly effected the pre-show preparations; and having seen Three last summer at the Southbank Centre it is evident that the high quality of the performance is just as expected.

The performance is attended by Stephen Stenning, British Council Arts Regional Director, Middle East, who is based in Cairo; Martin Hope, Director British Council, Qatar; Rayyah Fathalla, Arts Project Manager British Council, who has flown in from the Bahrain office; any number of representatives from local Qatari organisations and activists concerning thmselves with disability; and is also well-attended by a family oriented audience.

We are curious to ascertain whether a Qatari audience accepts the subject-matter of Three as a theatre/movement piece in any way differently from our own peculiarly British perceptions; but it appears to raise no eyebrows – and why should it – other than perhaps that naturally enough this sort of theatre performance is less commonly seen here in the middle east.

Apart from the obvious benefits of airing this subject-matter to a wider audience, perhaps another important result is that Three leads the way for more to be done.

Rachel is looking forward now to Sunday, the beginning of the week here in Qatar, when she embarks on the last of her outreach programmes, a series of four painting workshops specifically targetted at young disabled people and their families. Bearing in mind the seeming willingness of Qatari families as a whole to involve themselves, mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers alike, the workshops should turn out to be a pleasure.

Keywords: painting,unlimited,visual arts,workshops,young disabled people