“Parrot!” “Panda!” “Dog” “Monkey!”
For nearly an hour, kids shouted out animals they wanted the artist seated in front of them to draw. Taking all their suggestions, she drew animals in heart-shaped form: a parrot, panda, dog, monkey, and many more. By the end of the Folklife Festival workshop, around twenty kids left with colorful pages decorated with heart-shaped animals that they eagerly showed their parents.
Asma Baker is a woman of many talents. She is a successful artist, motivational speaker, entrepreneur, and poet who lives in the United Arab Emirates. She is also on the autism spectrum. As a “person of determination”—which is how the Emirati government refers to individuals with disabilities—she demonstrates to the world that her diagnosis does not limit her ability to create art. The workshops she led at the Festival were her personalized take on “Heart People,” her signature style of art. These heart-shaped characters—whether in human or animal form—tell stories of hope and love.
The many, multifaceted roles that Baker now holds largely stem from what she says was a “huge personal loss” which left her in a depressive state. For the six years that followed, she did not speak a word. She confined herself to her room, afraid of stepping out into the world and sharing her life with others.
“It took me a while until I started to open up again, but once I began, it never stopped,” Baker writes on her website. During her six years of isolation, she turned to art as a means of coping with depression and reminding herself of the beauty that was still around her.
“Instead of listening to what people told me in the past, it was my heart that was talking. My heart showed me little paintings, and in a time where I was in despair and aching, it was my heart that showed me characters that I could interact with during my depression.”
From this mentality sprouted “The Little Heart People.”
“Every heart person has a story,” Baker explains. “Mostly it’s about families, love, interests, culture. It depends on what you want the heart person to do or what the heart person is to you.”
Many of her art pieces are inspired by stories that her father and grandmother shared with her in her childhood. Baker notes the importance of family in her artwork and as a primary form of support.
“We’re a big family. We’re a family of seven. I have two sisters and three brothers. Each one of us has our own gifts. Even though we’re different, we’re still a family. So that’s exactly what the heart people in my stories are explaining.” Like her family, each heart person is unique; they have their own personalities and experiences, and she encourages everyone to draw their own heart people according to their personal background and creative influences.
Baker also emphasizes that it doesn’t matter what background you come from; her artwork is for all. “It doesn’t matter what type of culture, whether it’s the UAE, or the U.S., or Japan. It depends on what you want the heart person to be.”
“I’m doing a collection of originals,” she adds. “I did an Arabic one and the U.S. is coming soon, and so is the one from Japan. So you could say that [my art] goes from one side [of the world] to the other.”
Although her visual art is primarily inspired by her family, Baker shares, “My poetry is a little different. It’s about a lot of different people. There’s trust. There’s fear. There’s joy.”
On her website, Baker explains how, like her illustrations, her written work is also inspired by listening to her heart. Doing so allows her to understand people on a personal level by engaging with them as if they are characters in their own stories.
“This allows me to be empathetic for all characters—happy or sad. Communicating with these characters makes me want to tell everyone to continue living their life, because there’ll always be at least one person who will be rooting for you, wherever you are.”
In contrast to the colorful artwork of her heart people, that is largely targeted toward children, Baker’s poems have a greater depth. They communicate her loneliness, her memories of her father, and her determination in the face of discrimination.
Baker had the opportunity to present a few of her poems in Abu Dhabi at the 2019 Special Olympics World Summer Games. One was dedicated to her father, and another was about hope and the future. She describes the excitement of coming together with fifty other artists with disabilities to create an opening ceremony for thousands of audience members from around the world.
These fifty creators were deemed Makers, and they directly organized the two-hour ceremony. From all different backgrounds, the Makers contributed their skills—whether it be dancing, singing, or speaking—to create a performance that would initiate the Flame of Hope, the lighting of a cauldron that would officially mark the beginning of the games.
During the ceremony, Baker recited her poems in front of a full stadium, while a choir of 500 sang in the background. Another 360 performers—all UAE students—danced on the stage below her in colorful uniforms. Lights flashed brilliantly across the stage as the Makers and the children readied the stage for the athletes. Baker describes this day with a smile.
“This was the first time I talked in front of 40,000 people. And it was nerve-wracking. I was the one who opened the Special Olympics, and it was an amazing experience, something I will never forget.”
After this opportunity, Baker was offered many other platforms on which to share her story of success and hope. She gave motivational speeches at multiple universities and advocated for the awareness and inclusion of people with disabilities at the Dubai International Airport and the World Conference on Creative Economy.
Promoting the inclusion of “people of determination” is especially pertinent in the UAE, where there are sometimes strong stigmas around those with disabilities. According to the UAE’s Government portal, the UAE Cabinet “approved a People of Determination Protection from Abuse Policy aiming at protecting the people with special needs from abuse while empowering them, their families and their coworkers to deal with cases of abuse.” However, particularly when it comes to identifying autism, the prevalence of the cases are largely unknown compared to in the West, primarily due to a lack of diagnosis or parents who are unable to accept that their child is neurodivergent.
Dr. Arun Sharma, medical director of Dubai’s Emirates Hospital Clinic, was quoted in Arab News: “Some parents still evince little inclination in acknowledging that their child may have an autistic issue. When told by a neurologist / psychiatrist, their first reaction is to erupt in an emotional rage, followed by a long duration of denial. This goes on to prove that the stigma around the condition is almost as pervasive as the disorder itself.”
Baker fights against such stigmas through finding community among other artists with disabilities. She encourages those around her to find strength through their artwork and communicates her own strength through heart people. Her drawings celebrate people’s differences and the unique beauty of individuals.
Baker wants those who are afraid of being judged or criticized because of their differences to know that they’re not alone. “I was just like them,” she says. “But they shouldn’t hide from the world because they each have a gift of their own. As long as you find someone who can understand you and who you are and treat you the way you want them to—who doesn’t differentiate between who you are and who they are—then you’ve got it.”
Ever since finding freedom from her fears and pursuing her dreams as an artist and poet, Baker has worked to vocalize such freedom to others. She does not believe that people should be hindered by their disabilities or by others’ perceptions of them.
“Always be yourself,” she advises. “Don’t be anyone different, because that won’t make you happy. Do what you want to do in the world.”
Asma Baker is a prime example of someone who is always herself. Through her multifaceted success, she has become a leading voice in empowering people of determination/disabled persons, not only in the UAE, but all around the world. Her artwork gives a clear and simple message: listen to your heart and tell your own story.
Gloria Koo is an intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a rising senior at Vanderbilt University. She is majoring in anthropology and English and minoring in cinema and media arts.