She speaks through her hands

Nur Rabiatutadawiah Binte Mohamed Rafi (‘Rabia’) feeds a strip of yarn over the latch-hook, pushes it through the canvas backing to create a small, even loop. She pulls the string taut, brow furrowed in concentration. It’s a delicate process which requires steady hands and plenty of patience. Rabia repeats the process over and over again, until a bright yellow sunflower slowly forms. 

It’s Rabia’s first time trying out latch hooking – a new technique introduced to her by fiber artist Izziyana Bte Suhaimi. “I hope people feel happy when they see the colourful artwork,” says Rabia during one session at a bright and airy studio in Tai Seng. 

Animated gif: Illustrations of latch hooking process

Growing up, Rabia has always been drawn to art and craft in some form or another, be it building tiny Nanoblocks into elaborate models or painting the sunrise and scenes outside her window. The young cancer survivor is largely homebound and lives with her aunt as her mother is receiving cancer treatment as well. 

It’s hard to imagine how difficult her childhood must have been.

Rabia was seven when she was first diagnosed with medulloblastoma (a type of brain cancer) which left her with limited language skills, impaired vision and facial perception. 

At age 19, she was diagnosed with her second cancer meningioma, which is slow growing and is contributing to current and potential special needs.

She was later diagnosed with a second cancer in the brain at 19 years old, which left her with limited language skills, impaired vision and facial perception. 

Yenn Ang, her art therapist with the Children’s Cancer Foundation (CCF), first met Rabia in 2017 after her treatment.  She noticed that Rabia had amassed a huge collection of soft toys at home, ranging from Mickey Mouse, Elmo, Cookie Monster to Marvel characters like Iron Man and Captain America.

Hopeful that art could bridge the gap between Rabia and the outside world, the pair bonded over weekly art therapy sessions.

Despite being minimally verbal, Rabia has a gift with her hands and uses them to express her own unique way of looking at the world instead.

Over time, as Rabia’s capacity and confidence in her art-making abilities slowly grew, she moved from water pencils and collage-making to experimenting with watercolours and acrylic on canvas. 

Artwork Images: Rabia’s artworks

Rabia also joined other youth cancer survivors at an outing to the Singapore Zoo as part of CCF’s Photovoice programme.

The tiger, in particular, caught Rabia’s eye.  It was through these sessions that Rabia also learnt to develop her emotional and psychological skills, such as how to identify and verbalise emotions, socialise and be more independent.

In some way, Rabia meeting Izziyana has exposed her to a whole range of new experiences.

Photos: Rabia, Izzi, Yenn @ Gardens by the Bay

For the first time, Rabia spent the day out independently with Izziyana and Yenn at Gardens by the Bay in their first meeting. While exploring the Flower Dome, she enthusiastically snapped away, choosing to capture images of brightly coloured flowers – and her favourite, the sunflower. 

Besides helping to break the ice, these photographs gave a rich sense of Rabia’s likes and dislikes and functioned as a visual reference to guide the concept of her final latch hooking artwork, said Izziyana.

Initially, Izziyana was worried that latch hooking might pose a challenge for Rabia as she would need to focus for long periods of time and be tired out. However, Rabia was able to quickly catch on. By the second or third session, she had already covered most of the sunflower pattern and moved on to the surrounding red flowers.
Upon reflection, Izziyana said that she did not realise how fiddly the technique was and the level of multi-tasking was required, such as having to hold the latch hook tool steady in one hand.

“Things like these seem to come naturally to me, but I could see it was a struggle for her and it required a lot of patience to master the use of the tool,” she said. Still, she says she was hearted by the tenacity displayed by Rabia to see it through.

Through working with materials like yarn, Izziyana hopes that Rabia can find therapeutic elements in it.

“Growing up, we remember our mums, grandmothers sewing, so it’s that sense of childhood comfort and familiarity. It’s nice to see someone experiencing that same effect,” said Izziyani, who previously completed a weaving project as Facebook artist-in-residence.

Yenn compares Rabia’s experience to the sensory aspect of art-making for younger children at the hospital.

For instance, the children create their own fabric boards with glue or personalise calico dolls with fabric, such as creating mini capes and dresses for the dolls to wear. With soft materials, they get the direct affirmative feedback from the soft and nurturing touch.

“They get reminded of their own pillow or blanket at home, or it’s something they hug with them when they go to the hospital for treatment,” she says.

“In a way, it works as a safe object and the children have fun in the process too,” she added.
“We cannot take away the pain but we can add joy to their lives.”