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It is the kind of Monday afternoon that leaves you feeling drained, owing to the oppressive heat. Emirati artist Abdulla Lutfi appears just as exhausted as the wknd. team that’s visiting his studio The Next Chapter in Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood, but he is trying to keep his calm and focus on the interview. Though a man of few words, Abdulla seldom misses a chance to throw a witty one-liner here and there that will leave you in splits.
Today, the 29-year-old Abdulla is a household name in the UAE — from designing bespoke bags to promoting sustainability through his art to taking his work to the prestigious Smithsonian Institute to having his work featured in the Terminal 3 of Dubai International Airport to being featured in the Expo song to starting his own NFTs, there is never not a talking point around Abdulla. But what has made him a larger-than-life figure in the UAE’s social calendar is his ability to laugh — at himself as well as the world, and puncturing any attempt at political correctness with candour. Ask him why he only works in black and white, and instead of coming up with any profound answers, you’re likely to hear, “Because it is easy.”
Today, Abdulla speaks to the world with his art. But till the age of four, he could not speak at all. Mother Amal Baker did not really understand why. After all, three of her other children — all older to Abdulla — could do so with ease. Realising that something was different about her son, Amal took her son to a doctor while visiting UK. Upon close examination, it was deduced that Abdulla was on the autism spectrum. Amal hadn’t heard of the phrase, let alone know what the diagnosis meant. After a period of initial shock, she committed herself to ensuring that Abdulla finds his place in the world and lived a life that other neurotypical children would.
Today, Abdulla does not have vivid memories of this time. He only remembers being bullied for “being different” and “being fat”. His mentor Gulshan Kavarana, who is seated right beside him in the studio, says it’s not an experience that children of determination are able to get over anytime soon. “Children of determination already struggle to find friends, so when they find themselves being bullied, it cements their belief that they are stupid. Why can’t this bullying just stop?” asks Gulshan.
“Because children have no souls,” answers Abdulla, one of his many one-liners that demand we read between the lines.
The bullying Abdulla experienced early on in life pushed him inwards. His house became a “retirement home” where he would seek refuge from the judgments he was met with outside. And while his family continued to be supportive, he became abrasive, not as a means to hurt others, but protect himself from the hurt that others who weren’t part of his world would inflict on him. Drawing manga and anime, after immersing himself in them on television, became an escape.
Entering a retirement home in your head when you are just a child comes with its own share of challenges. For one, it makes you a loner. You begin to have little or no interest in others because somewhere there is deep-seated fear of being hurt. Consciously or unconsciously, you also build a wall around yourself that are impenetrable for others.
By the time he was 18, these walls had fortified deeply for Abdulla. Walls that would be ultimately broken by Gulshan Kavarana, renowned for her work with children of determination, who was sought by Amal to help Abdulla out with his art. In hindsight, Gulshan admits to being intimidated by him when she first met Abdulla. “His mother introduced me to him saying he is good at art. I took it with a pinch of salt because all parents were saying the same thing about their children. Then she said he is also very good with computer. So I asked him, ‘Do you know how to use a computer?’”
“Of course, what a stupid question!” Abdulla wasn’t amused.
Owing to his height, he was, quite literally, talking down on Gulshan. “I was afraid of him and hence maintaining my distance too,” she recalls.
Being on the autism spectrum, Abdulla also had a gift — the ability to see the world differently. And while his appearance — he is 6’2” tall and has a deep, baritone voice — may give you an impression that he means business, his art celebrates life. This, however, was not always the case. In the initial part of his training with Gulshan, who has studied art herself, Abdulla remembers drawing manga and anime, reproducing characters from his memory, but Gulshan wanted more. Sensing there was potential for original thinking, she asked him to make a drawing on Emiratis.
It was a time when metro was about to be introduced and everyone was wondering how it would change the social landscape of Dubai. “He drew a portrait of Emiratis celebrating on the metro. The colour of the sky was yellow,” recalls Gulshan. “Everyone loved it and he got so much attention.”
Above all, there was incredible joy in his sketch, something that has remained an underlying theme in all his works.
For those who are not part of his world, his life might seem deceptively simple. Every now and then, there is an Instagram story on a place he has visited or a work he is about to finish. But outside social media, Abdulla dreams of visiting Japan and going to his favourite restaurants. The former is a wish that has almost been granted as he is slated to visit the country to showcase his works on the occasion of their 51st National Day. As Gulshan says, “He is fascinated by everything Japanese.”
The mentor and the mentee relationship has deepened over the years. Gulshan knows that prior to any major milestone project, she will be met with a firm NO. And Abdulla knows that there’s only as much he can resist. Like, for instance, the time when the trio of Gulshan, Abdulla and his artist cousin Asma Baker were to go to Washington DC to showcase his works at the Smithsonian Institute. Abdulla said he wanted to go to New York instead because he thought there were too many Karens in Washington, but once he was there, the overwhelming response only made him happy. “Now that I have been working with him closely, I know how much I can push him. I know if I push him more, he will explode, which has happened many times. But he knows if he keeps saying no, I will push him more,” says Gulshan, adding that when she stood up to him all those years ago, from a “King Kong-kind of a guy” Abdulla turned into a “mouse”.
Today, she makes a greater effort to enter his world, watching anime with him whenever both get some time off. Abdulla’s family too has played a crucial role in him stepping out of his shell; they attend each and every exhibition he’s part of, his cousins closely examine his works; in fact, it was one of them who advised Abdulla to enter the world of NFTs.
For a man of few words, Abdulla can often be found talking to himself when he is working on a sketch, something Gulshan says is a form of stimming (repetitive actions) in autism.
Today, as he is celebrated at home and the world, what has really changed for Abdulla? “When he was featured in the Expo song and his characters came alive, I was in tears. But he said, ‘What is the big deal?’ He is quite unassuming and quickly moves on to the next thing,” says Gulshan.
Abdulla, on the other hand, says becoming famous has changed the way he looks at himself in the mirror. “I feel I am a famous artist,” he explains, thereby summing up his journey from being a shy boy to a self-assured man.
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