This perspective was contributed by Omar Al Tabakha, New Tactics MENA Program Manager.
In early 2020, COVID hit the world hard and everyone was feeling unsure. Airports were closed, gatherings were called off, and the entire world was taken by surprise. As the New Tactics MENA Training Manager, my work changed drastically. In a matter of days, our in-person work training human rights defenders had to pivot to an online format. I went from going into the office daily and holding in-person training meetings to feeling quite isolated at home and a little unsure about where we were headed in the future. However, I’ve always believed that we as humans are capable of turning negative situations into positive experiences. I was adamant about finding that spark of hope in me. In fact, I never thought the time would come for me to write a blog about how I became an artist – but here I go.
So there I was with plenty of time on my hands, sitting in my newly designed apartment where the walls were empty and plain. I had one big wall in the living room painted pitch black. It was screaming for some color. For the first time at the age of 39, I decided to put my artistic mind into practice because it’s never too late, right?!
I started exploring abstract art in order to fill those empty walls. Getting started wasn’t easy. Since the internet was the only place I could go whilst on lockdown, I had to teach myself step-by-step processes through online courses and YouTube.
Just like in activism, I quickly learned that in art, you have to find what really tickles your feelings and inspires you to create and be the true version of your artist-self. As human rights activists, we explore and implement different tactics in order to achieve our advocacy goals and tend to refine them as we go through our journey of change. Along the way, we face new challenges and obstacles, and we celebrate the small successes. Similarly, with painting, after so many trials and failures and so many paintings thrown in the rubbish bin, I had the guts to actually post some of my paintings on my personal Instagram page. That was when I received beautiful, heartfelt and encouraging comments, which was the fuel to get me going.
I went from scribbling and doodling on small pieces of papers to creating vibrant abstract art paintings using acrylic colors, modeling pastes and knife-pallets on REAL canvases. I continued sharing my artwork on my social media pages and people started noticing my art even more.
After a short time, my painting images on social media reached more people. People started requesting paintings for their own houses or to give to their loved ones. My art became an unexpected source of income while I was at home during the difficult times of COVID. Not only that, but on a more personal note, I became calmer and enjoyed my time at home more when I spent my time coloring, experimenting and creating. From experience, I cannot stress enough on how important it is for all of us, but especially those of us who work in heavy areas such as humanitarian and human rights work, to find a creative outlet that allows us to experience this enjoyment.
My work was noticed by the media in Jordan, so I was invited to interview on local TV channels and in the newspaper. I began to share publicly about my journey with art and how I was able to turn the uncertainty of the pandemic into a positive outlet for creativity.
As things started returning to “normal,” I continued doing art. Perhaps one of the most wonderful experiences I have had is when I was asked by the New Tactics in Human Rights Program to give an art class during a regional training that was conducted in the Dead Sea area of Jordan. This training for 24 participants had a special focus on resilience and self-care. Participants were ecstatic about learning how to hold a brush and create an abstract painting to take home. More importantly, I was able to share my passion for creative work and the power it has to impact our own mental health.
No one can deny that life is full of challenges, but it is also full of opportunities! I am proud that I was able to remain optimistic and muster the courage to try something completely new for me. Through painting, I am able to add colors to my own life and the lives of others, turning a stark black wall into something beautiful, and with every brushstroke, move one step ahead towards positive change. Equally, with activism, every small action we take can make a big difference on our journey to success. I will always be grateful for all the people who nurtured resilience in me throughout my journey as both an artist and an activist.