Colouring darkness: Visually impaired Hend Khalil on how art made her appreciate life differently

Mai Samih , Wednesday 7 Dec 2022

Hend Khalil, an English teacher who lost her sight a few years ago, turned her misfortune into an opportunity and began creating works of art.



Khalil was an English teacher who fell into misfortune when she lost her sight a few years ago. Instead of falling into depression, she decided to turn her misfortune into an opportunity.

She came up with the art of drawing with tactile objects like seeds and foam to enable those who also have sight impairment to see her drawings through their sense of touch. She organised her first exhibition at the Gayer Anderson Museum (Bayt El-Kretlea) in Cairo. 

Khalil narrates how it all started: “I graduated from the Faculty of Arts, psychology department. I worked as an English teacher for twenty years. Because I loved children I would always innovate in my lessons to teach them more efficiently, I would play with them and draw with them. Then we would resume our lessons,” she says, adding that she always had a passion for drawing.

It was drawing that saved her from all her grief, including over the death of her father and her mother. “I had a very difficult time adapting from the state of seeing everything to the state of darkness. It took me some time to overcome it. People suggested that I should try something different so I started playing with materials while I was drawing and started to add ribbons, for instance, to my drawings. So, I started to experiment with my drawings step by step, just like walking for the first time without seeing; I would trip once, bump into something another time until I started to know my way without anyone’s help,” she says adding that she would apply different materials to her drawings until she knew how to draw.

“My sight was gradually failing and I had also suffered from cancer, and it was after all that I went through that I started to draw. It took me some time until I could draw with things. However, art can cure us of any difficulties we suffer from,” she says. 

Khalil spoke about how some of her relatives inspired her. “My aunt, Aida Khalil, a known artist, suggested that I should try using materials in my drawing and she sent me some and told me to see what I could do with them. So, I started using materials. I would make ribbons and plats out of them for my drawings, for instance,” she says adding that she would constantly experiment with whatever objects she could get her hands on. 

It is during this experimental phase that Khalil discovered her abilities and saw a new path to education and self-knowledge. “I discovered a sense not everyone uses, the sense of touch and how it could open a path and a way for me to see without actually seeing,” she says, adding that this was a turning point in the types of drawings she drew and their themes.

Khalil says that her main themes include the internal conflict she had at the beginning of her ordeal. She points to a drawing she made of a girl with a face split in half, one side a skull and the other a beautiful girl.

“One of the girls would tell me ‘you can’t see and can’t do anything’ and the other would say 'you can try, you look like you can do it’. Little by little I was able to use my stick to walk through the streets and would consider using different types of material for my drawings,” says Khalil. “I express myself through these drawings. So, the painting of a face of a girl with two different halves, one encouraging me and the other discouraging me, is actually me and my internal conflict.”

Khalil would use any unwanted thing at home like seeds, straws, and match sticks. “Anything that could be touched could be transformed into art. This is a new approach to art, that people see drawings with their fingers, not their eyes,” she says, stressing that it is also a new approach to appreciating art.

Khalil did not join any art classes, but attended art therapy sessions where she learned how to use all her senses to create a piece of art.

“During art therapy camps they would ask us to listen to the sound of the sea waves and close our eyes then start drawing. So, we end up drawing what we feel. The aim of the game was to use all our senses except our eyes. So, I could listen, feel, smell, taste and draw. The drawings of the participants would be really good,” she says, adding that this was because they put all their senses to work on a piece of art.

She describes how she would make her drawings. “I am not totally blind. I could see a little from a very short distance. If I want to use a certain colour I would knock on the door of my neighbour and ask her which colour is which. I would also use foam and cut it into little pieces. This is easier because I use my hands to determine the gaps and fill them in. After experimenting with cloth, I would cut it and use it as pigtails or outlines for my drawings. I then started to use seeds and stick them on my drawings for my friends to see, they would see anything using their hands,” says Khalil. 

Khalil targets everyone with her exhibition, especially those with sight impairments. 

“My friends with visual impairments from Al Nour Wal Amal foundation (a government owned foundation) visited my exhibition and were able to see what was in my drawings and would even describe them for everyone who could see,” she adds. 

“I myself discovered the sense of touch after losing my sight. It is a very important sense for people to use,” she says, adding that there are many other senses people can use instead of sight. 

Khalil points to her favourite piece, the drawing of a bird, and explains why she likes it in particular. “It is my favourite because a bird can fly and this gives a sense of freedom, and in the dark sky of the night there is the light of the stars.”

This is a symbol of her life. “I used to fear darkness, as I started my life as a teacher and would come and go freely from school, and after my impairment I lost this freedom at first, but came to adapt to my new life and felt free again. So however dark life would be there will always be a source of light coming and a path will appear for you," she says. 

Khalil lists her problems. “Some people think that a blind person is useless or cannot do anything at all which is not true,” she says. For example, some people in the streets would ask why she was walking unaccompanied, but the truth is that she can walk and even travel alone, the same goes for those with other impairments. “Another problem is that the streets are very difficult for us to walk in. There are no pedestrian bridges and no traffic lights on most streets, especially highways,” she says.

“The most important solution for this state is that people should be taught how to deal with those with impairments, but most importantly they should learn to see us. Our voices should be heard so we could be able to do many things,” she says. 

Khalil has drawn about 25 drawings so far and displayed 15 of them in her first exhibition. 

Khalil is planning to organise another exhibition at El-Sawy Culture Wheel in January. She will also soon act in a play that promotes inclusion of those with impairments, and has also signed up for swimming classes. 

“I intend to organise more exhibitions and use even more different materials. I just want everyone to see us and see that we can do many things and that art is a path and a way for anyone," she says. 

“I wish that anyone facing any problem could be able to express himself through art, even without studying it. I did not study art, but I love it. It is not important what you draw, but that what you draw expresses what is inside you. I will still light the way for others through my paintings. I could see with my fingers instead of my eyes," Khalil concludes.


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