A brush with angels

  • Features
  • Friday, 10 Jan 2014

Abdoulaeva's acceptance of special needs children enables her to give them the freedom to express themselves through art.

An artist is giving special needs children the freedom and avenue to express themselves through art.

ARTIST Victoria Renaux Abdoulaeva conducts art sessions but she isn’t in the business of teaching children how to paint. She believes art is a medium for creative expression, and she is intent on giving special needs children the freedom and avenue to express themselves through painting, and not necessarily with a paintbrush.

“We always just have one mindset: you hold a brush, take on some colours and you paint. Some of my students cannot hold a brush, and I don’t ask them to. I give them the freedom, but it is freedom with love.

“They can be throwing colours, or painting with their hands and feet. If they want to hold onto a paint bottle and observe it quietly for one hour, I am there to quietly understand why it’s so interesting for them that way,” says the 47-year-old French-Russian artist who is currently based in Kuala Lumpur.

For over six months now, Abdoulaeva has been sharing her alternative art approaches, conducting one-on-one as well as group sessions at venues provided by MaTiC (Malaysia Tourism Centre) in Kuala Lumpur, Soroptimist International Malaysia in Petaling Jaya, Selangor, and at Tasputra Perkim in Kuala Lumpur, a daycare centre for children with special needs.

She charges nothing for her time, but parents pay for their children’s art materials.

Mother-of-four Wendy Goh, whose 10-year-old daughter Cassandra Goon has been attending Abdoulaeva’s sessions for several months, has been amazed by how her daughter has taken to art.

“During the first session, Cassandra held herself back. She didn’t dare put her hands in the paint. She kept telling me it was dirty. I realised then it was the programming I gave her: that it was ‘wrong’ to do something outside the norm. After a while I just told her to do whatever she wanted. But she was still conscious of my presence. One day, I just decided to ‘disappear’.

Rather than impose rules, Abdoulaeva prefers to sit back and silently observe the children as they create art in their own ways.
Angels at work: Rather than impose rules, Abdoulaeva prefers to sit back and silently observe the children as they create art.

“And Victoria told me that in that one hour, Cassandra was able to be herself. There was this transformation in her. Victoria basically allowed her to do as she pleased. If she wanted to, she could take the paint, mix it all up and splash it on the canvas. She could choose to apply colour by colour, or use her hands or a brush, or tilt the canvas. The art pieces that have come out are what I would describe as ‘magical’,” says the 44-year-old homemaker.

Goon, who has Down Syndrome, has since produced a series of paintings that have awed her mother.

“I remember the first painting she ever completed. On the right side of the canvas, there were figures that looked like souls lining up in single file. And right across the middle of the painting, Cassandra had made a line. Beyond this line, she had painted beautiful bright colours, as compared to the dark and gloomy mood where the souls were.

“To me, it showed enlightenment; crossing over to a better place. There’s a hidden message in every art piece and it’s always exciting to find them.

“I never doubted that Cassandra was capable of things. I just never expected the beauty she could bring out from the heart. I feel so blessed that she is in our lives. Through Victoria, I was able to realise there are possibilities. Anything is possible if you set your heart to it. If you look at things in a non-judgemental way and just appreciate what those things are, it could turn out to be really, really beautiful.”

Goh says what Abdoulaeva is sharing is really the power of love – it’s nothing else but pure love that brings out the best in these kids.

“It’s not about moulding them into what you want them to be, but allowing them to be themselves. And if you don’t set an expectation and just allow them to go freely, they will probably surprise you,” shares Goh.

Wendy Goh describes her 10-year-old daughter Cassandra Goon's paintings as
Wendy Goh thinks her 10-year-old daughter Cassandra Goon’s paintings are magical.

For Leong Yau Wen and her husband Ben Chong, Abdoulaeva’s art sessions have been a blessing, especially to their 10-year-old son Owen, who has dyspraxia.

“When we first brought Owen to Victoria’s sessions, we commented a lot on how he should act. I found myself telling him things like: ‘Owen, please don’t dirty your feet. Owen, careful! Owen, you should put more colours on this part of the canvas.’”

Abdoulaeva persuaded them to just take a step back.

“During these sessions, we didn’t just see the makings of an artist in our son, but we were also able to catch the expression on his face – the priceless look of pure enjoyment.

“When it comes to art, Owen is like a different person. We could see how focused he was. And we would have missed all these details if not for Victoria,” says Leong, 42.

Freedom of expression

It was just a little over a decade ago that Abdoulaeva quit her job as a public relations consultant and embarked on a spiritual path of self-discovery.

She started painting in Paris, France, where she grew up.

“Up until then, I had never really been serious in art. As my old life faded away, I started to be more in-tune with my spiritual self. I started sensing this energy within humans; these beautiful waves and that got me started on the drawing. My friends began asking me to draw for them and from there, I started painting.”

After a chance meeting with a group of special needs children, Abdoulaeva began using her new-found passion in arts to reach out to them.

During Abdoulaeva's art sessions, children are given the absolute freedom to express themselves through canvas and paint, and not necessarily with a paintbrush. Shown here is 10-year-old Owen Chong.
Children are given absolute freedom to express themselves through paint at Abdoulaeva’s sessions . . . and it’s not always with a paintbrush, as 10-year-old Owen Chong demonstrates.

“The first time I saw them, the word ‘angels’ popped into my head. Once I spent a full day with them at the circus and when they left after eight hours, my face was hurting – I’d been smiling for eight hours non-stop,” recalls Abdoulaeva, who soon started volunteering in hospitals and orphanages.

From Paris, Abdoulaeva travelled to India to continue her work with the disabled.

“I gave everything away to my friends and I just left for India. I felt that I needed to share something with the world and I could do my part to help. That was it. I came from a happy life and I just decided to make it even happier.”

Abdoulaeva spent the next 10 years in India and Indonesia, sharing her love for “creating art that speaks from the heart” with the children in the villages while supporting herself by selling her artwork.

“I lived a quiet and simple life. In India, I travelled from Kerala to New Delhi, and to the Northern Himalayas. After that I spent five years in Bali before moving to Lake Toba.”

Her filmmaker-photographer brother Vadim Abdulajev came to visit her, intending to stay for a week. He was immediately captivated by his sister’s selfless vision, and the 29-year-old Lithuanian has since made Abdoulaeva’s work a part of his own too, assisting with the documentation of images during the art sessions.

Art from the heart

In December 2012, the siblings came to Kuala Lumpur, with the mission to conduct art sessions for special needs children here.

“We started from zero. We went from meeting to meeting to present our project ideas. Finally, one person opened her heart to us, and everything else just fell into place,” Abdoulaeva says.

Cassandra Goon has thrived in Abdoulaeva's art sessions.
Cassandra and her work of art.

The project, entitled “Power of Love: A Charity Multimedia Art Project With Special Children”, has since garnered the support of the local expat community as well as Deutsche Bank Malaysia, MaTiC, Pelita Hati Art Gallery, Tasputra Perkim, Gold Foundation Sunway, Taman Megah orphanage, Rotary Diraja Kl Club, Kiwanis Malaysia and Soroptimist International Malaysia.

Since then, Abdoulaeva and her brother Abdulajev has worked with over 60 children.

“We believe that success can be found anywhere, if you live through your heart. Our vision now, after all our experiences, is to support parents who truly care about their children. We want to help them see their children as who they really are. At times, they need only your silence, tolerance and respect. They want to communicate. But if you keep telling them what they should or should not do, you’re only creating a blockage and that may stress the child further.

“Everyone tries to make them ‘normal’ but they are already beautiful as they are.”

Abdoulaeva recounted how a pair of 10-year-old autistic twins who attended their workshop in Jakarta did nothing but added paint to a pot of water. For five months, they just quietly mixed colours for an hour.

“One day, my brother happened to take a photo of what was happening inside the pot of water and we were shocked!

“There were beautiful paintings in the water, and the girls were just stirring them calmly. It was a miracle that my brother and I understood, but we needed to show proof to the people. So from the pot of water, I threw all the colours onto the canvas and made a lake.

“I gave the twins more paint and they just starting adding colours, spreading them with their fingers and the whole thing became beautiful flowers. They were the most beautiful paintings ever.

Abdoulaeva says she is helping children express their inner beauty.

“I want to bring this message across through their paintings. People might say, wow, they have this alien energy, but I don’t want to speak about these extraordinary things.

“I want to focus on the simple things – how the children can reach within their hearts to produce something so beautiful, with graceful lines and a positive energy. I’ve worked with the children for over 10 years and all I see are these amazing human beings.

“You can only pray to have somebody like that beside you.”

> Victoria Renaux Abdoulaeva will be organising her first “Power of Love” exhibition (Feb 3-28) at the MaTiC Art Gallery in Jalan Ampang, showcasing over 40 paintings made by 60 special needs children. For more details e-mail avatar352@gmail.com

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