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Rachel Gadsden produces painting workshops in schools in Bahrain / 22 March 2013

the artist Rachel Gadsden and a visually-impaired child are dressed in white t-shirts, posing in front of a painting mural

Rachel Gadsden runs a painting workshop at the Saudi-Bahraini Institute for the Blind

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Our stay in Qatar is punctuated temporarily after the Royal opening of This Breathing World exhibition, by a trip to Bahrain, which is a half hour plane-ride away, along the Gulf.

We are here for five days for Rachel to deliver four bodymapping visual art workshops to disabled and non-disabled young people on behalf of British Council Bahrain; and subsequently to conduct a live painting event outside the Al Riwaq art gallery in one of the many busy restaurant districts of the island kingdom.

Our main contact in Bahrain is the resourceful Rayyah Fathalla who is the arts project manager for British Council and delivers programmes of art engagement and cultural activity here in Bahrain. Two of the schools we visit rely mainly or solely upon private fees and sponsorship and two are part of the state system (for want of a better description), and therefore represent a fair cross-section, you could say.

In terms of per capita GDP, Bahrain (I understand) is the fourth wealthiest of the Gulf States, and since the Bahraini Government has a stated remit to provide support in the field of disability it comes as no surprise that the schools we visit are well resourced.

Schools such as these are relatively demanding environments to work within, and tend generally to be run by visionary and dedicated staff. The first centre we visit is RIA, founded by Dr. Emad Al Attar and his wife Christine Gordon (originally from London) in response to the needs of their autistic son; and which has now evolved into an inclusive educational environment - recognising the need to work toward the goal of inclusivity. (It is located in a converted Bahraini villa – which unfortunately is likely soon to be repossessed by its owner.) The last, at the opposite end of the spectrum, is the Saudi-Bahraini Institute for the Blind, catering for children with a range of visual impairment – but who may in addition have physical or learning disabilities.

In the context of these establishments, Rachel is delivering a two to three hour session, and her starting-point naturally enough in the timescale provided is to assess the needs and likely abilities of the children taking part and choose from a range of devised exercises and artistic activities, but particularly without preconceptions as to the limitations of the young people.

She is conscious of the fact that in providing a ‘fresh eye’ to any educational establishment this is something that is in some senses can be easier to achieve: to judge without preconceptions the reactions and responses of the young people; and to offer opportunities to participate without preconceptions as to ability. To an extent also, it is also true to say that the programmes she devises are by definition intensive and requiring a high level of supervision - something that tends to be much more difficult to achieve by full-time staff on a continuing daily basis.

All four of the establishments we visit are conscious of the obvious benefits that can manifest from the fresh and intensive approach; and give Rachel free rein – despite the fact that a side-effect tends to be paint getting everywhere on the walls, floor, clothes and young people themselves.

Particularly affecting to me, is the group of partially-sighted and blind young people whom we work with at the Institute, whose ages range from five to fifteen, who need a high level of support. Rachel has devised a workshop, which includes a guessing game with small obscure objects hidden inside small silk pouches – and therefore not initially visible to teachers or students alike, and moves on to a running race and introduction to paralympic sports, and concludes with a ‘supervised’ painting free-for-all based around body-mapping processes.

The object of every artistic session is fun and the active engagement of teachers and students alike; and the joy of the whole process is uncovering and witnessing the participants’ latent talents emerge.  It is a moving experience for all involved.