As we enter a newly opened art studio Next Chapter in Tashkeel, Al Bastakiya, we find two artists scribbling something on a sheet. Our presence does not deter their resolve to bring to life a world that exists in their imagination. It is world as Abdulla Lutfi and Asma Baker see it. Much like real life, it is populated with humour, grief, happiness, disappointment. The two artists of determination, who are also cousins, complement each other in the themes they represent. Abdulla is known for his lighter takes on the Emirati way of life, while Asma offers a deeper insight into human emotions. Theirs is a story that deserves telling — and retelling — not simply because it offers hope, but shows what self-assurance can achieve.
It was at the age of four that Abdulla was diagnosed with autism. It was around the same time that he discovered art. His mother Amal Baker, who is also present at the studio, tells us that he could not speak for the longest time and would instead point to things he wanted or drew them in a sheet of paper for her to understand. What began as a means of communication gave Abdulla a larger purpose — art. He began to etch out the details of the subjects he was drawing. Today, the 28-year-old artist’s intricately drawn Emirati figures have found a following in the local art scene; in fact, one of his artworks even features in Terminal 3 of Dubai International Airport. Working mostly in black and whites, one would imagine there is an artistic vision that informs his choice of medium. Far from it. “It’s quicker to sell… Also, it’s easy,” he says, while pointing to his new work that portrays the challenges thrown by Covid through an A-Z nomenclaturing. So, what did art change in him? “It changed his behaviour. Mostly, he would isolate himself from people. But art helped him communicate more,” says Amal.
On the other hand, it was only two years ago that Asma was diagnosed with autism. She remembers being shocked, but maintains nothing changed for her because having gone through bullying and teasing in her formative years in school, she had already got used to the clinical process of othering. It was in ninth grade that she began drawing “stick figures” and then progressed to etching out details. Today, Asma, 32, also writes scripts, short stories and poems, and hopes for her stories to be either published or made into films. Her artworks are underlined by a sense of loss, which Asma relates to a personal tragedy. “After my dad passed away eight years ago, I was in depression . I forgot everything around me. I shut myself from the world, I hid myself in a room and had my breakfast, lunch and dinner there. I blamed myself for my dad and grandmother’s death. That’s when I began to explore these emotions,” she says.
Both Asma and Abdulla have been trained by their art mentor Gulshan Kavarana, who has not only given direction to their art but has used it to teach them life skills. “When Abdulla came to me 10 years ago, he drew anime characters. I began to develop his caricatures and today he is known for that. Having autism, he uses that to his advantage because he sees the world differently,” says Gulshan. She adds that when Asma came to her four years ago, she didn’t speak at all. Gulshan had no choice but to be tough and get her to at least start spelling out her name. “And today, she has addressed 40,000 people at Special Olympics and also been featured in Humans of New York.”
Art can be alienating as one is immersed in fantasy. But Gulshan has been careful to teach them the business of art as well. “Earlier, Abdulla did not care if his artworks would be sold. Today, he calls up his clients to follow up on payments,” she says. From finding purpose to shining in what they do, Abdulla and Asma have had a phenomenal journey. Gulshan puts it down to a basic yet oft-overlooked principle — “When you believe in them, they will believe in themselves.”
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