Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 19 March 2018

Emirati artist's honest take on life in the Gulf set to make waves

Abdullah Lutfi studied art for years in a Dubai studio for adults with special needs

A quirky and insightful take on Dubai from camel beauty pageants to a love for high-end labels and social media will be on display at a unique exhibition by Emirati artist Abdullah Lutfi.

In his first solo event, thick black marker drawings capture the city’s skyline and snapshots of life in the Gulf.

“That’s how I see it. I saw it in my brain - the tiger. I saw Burj Khalifa also. I remember Chanel like a double C and two Gucci’s attached like a face,” said Mr Lutfi, who has autism and has been drawing since he was four years old.

Emirati artist Abdulla Lutfi, who is autistic, shows of some of his artwork ahead of his first solo exhibition. Christopher Pike / The National
Emirati artist Abdulla Lutfi, who is autistic, shows of some of his artwork ahead of his first solo exhibition. Christopher Pike / The National

Some of the striking illustrations are humorous showing preening camels looking on, bored, as thrilled owners celebrate their winnings. Others show sensitivity like a sketch portraying a maid thinking of her hometown while pushing a pram with a plump child dreaming of burgers and fries even as young women are immersed in Snapchat and designer handbags.

“I like black and white the best because it reminds me of comic books. I also put words into it like in the comic books,” said Mr Lutfi during an interview at Mawaheb art studio for adults with special needs, where he paints.

“I remember seeing a Filipino maid, maybe she was thinking of her family. I drew her pushing a fat boy who wants to eat chicken nuggets.”

Mr Lutfi’s distinctive take on life in the region drew the attention of the Cuadro gallery by pushing the boundaries of art work created by special needs groups.


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“He tells the story of Dubai from an inside perspective and tells it honestly so there is a real beauty. It’s funny, it can be biting but the humour is fair and clever. After having studied one of his compositions, you do feel like you are a bit closer to the city. It’s almost like an insider’s guide,” said Roberto Lopardo, director of Cuadro gallery, where Lutfi’s exhibition will open on Tuesday.

“I was approached in the context of whether we would like to assist with Mawaheb as a charity organisation. But when I looked at his work I was excited and thought we should not deal with it as charity but as an artist who is making really interesting work. It’s about representing a new artist.”

Mr Lopardo, who has worked with young and established artists globally, described Mr Lutfi as a rare talent.

“I have struggled when I go back home to the United States to explain the dynamic nature of this country to people,” he said.

“Not many artists are able to capture the soul and sprit of a city. It’s easy to take pictures of Burj Khalifa but it’s complicated to explain the nuances of how people live.”

Mr Lutfi’s art teachers said some ideas were sparked when students watched videos such as the camel beauty contest in the UAE and were encouraged to discuss it.

“As he watched the documentary he understood what goes on in a camel pageant and it was fun context,” said Gulshan Kavarana, Mr Lutfi’s teacher.

“He never uses a pencil or eraser, he directly uses a marker pen and has developed his own unusual style of depicting men and women. His work shows different walks of life and cultures mingling together. He is sharing through his art.”

Mr Lutfi’s passion was discovered and supported in the studio over the past six years. He now speaks at workshops and is commissioned to work on special pieces by companies.

His mother Amal Yousuf Baker said he would draw when he could not express himself as a child.

“When he was young, if he wanted an apple he would draw it,” she said.

“I knew from the beginning his paintings were something different but to have his own exhibition has amazed and astonished everyone.”

Abdullah Lutfi with his parents at Dubai International airport at the launch of DXB ART. Susanna Dahlstedt
Abdullah Lutfi with his parents at Dubai International airport at the launch of DXB ART. Susanna Dahlstedt

Therapists recommended he enrol in regular school. The challenge later was to find him a place after school ended.

The family saw change when he began learning at the Mawaheb studio.

“Even his behaviour changed a lot. Before he was okay with family but now he talks and can express his feelings with others also.”

Wemmy de Maaker, Mawaheb’s director said the recognition was important for Mr Lutfi who signs as A.L.

“When a gallery takes on an artist, they help develop his skills, find his niche, bring awareness of his talent. This is what we hope for Abdullah that people will hear about his work. The goal was to find his passion.”

Abdullah Lutfi’s first exhibition will run from Tuesday evening through October at the Cuadro gallery, Gate Village, DIFC, Dubai.