Arts & CultureInterview

Art, anime and autism: Emirati artist Abdulla Lutfi on his blockbuster exhibitions

We meet the man who is injecting humour into the Arabic art scene.

Abdulla Lutfi is making us laugh. We are talking to one of the UAE’s most exciting homegrown artists and he has a fantastic sense of humour, which is reflected in his artwork. 

Abdulla is famous for his pun-tastic sketches, which are inspired by comic books and manga. The only difference is that they have Arab characters at their heart, who are changing stereotypes and making jokes about modern life. Take one piece that shows a woman in a hijab on her phone saying: “Looking for my mister (swipe) right.” 

The Dubai-based artist has a studio in Al Faahidi, and his work has popped up in prestigious places, from Dubai International Airport to Expo 2020 Dubai. Over the summer, you can view his giant mural at Time Out Market Dubai, which tells the story of the city. 

Abdulla is going global. He just returned from the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington DC, United States, where he conducted workshops and was part of panel discussions on being an autistic artist. In October, he is exhibiting in the UAE Embassy in Tokyo, Japan, and in April 2023, he returns to Washington DC for World Autism month. 

There’s no doubt Abdulla Lufti has a unique voice, one which he attributes to autism. “I look at the world so differently from everyone else,” he smiles. If you take one look at his work and meet the man, you’ll definitely agree. Here he chats to us about art, anime and autism.

Where do you draw inspiration?

Back in the day, when I was in my school, I used to love drawing. I read manga, anime and comic books. My favourite manga is One Piece, which is about a pirate who is a strong hero. Manga front covers are mostly in colour, but most of the pages with characters are in black and white. This inspired me to draw in black and white, but sometimes there is colour. In my work, some characters are talking with speech bubbles and some characters have thinking bubbles. 

Why is humour an important part of your work? 

I am a funny guy. Sometimes I do funny stuff in my art work. People love honesty and humour. Plus, I watched too many cartoons. In my black and white artwork, I usually draw myself. You’ll see me with two moles on my face. People will know it’s me, as I look so hilarious. 

How did it feel to have your work exhibited in Dubai International Airport and Expo 2020 Dubai?

People love to see my artwork in Dubai International Airport’s Terminal 3 concourse B and C. The big 46-metre-long art work was printed a long time ago but it’s still there. It makes me feel famous for my art work. 

Tell us about your new mural at Time Out Market Dubai. 

I was at the opening of the Time Out Market Dubai, and they asked me to do live drawings. I love the food there, too, especially Pickl. The big mural that I drew is printed, and it’s about the past and present. The left side is about the past, which shows when kids never had technology and they just played normally. Now, in the present, kids use more technology, they can chat on their phones and play video games. 

Which artists do you admire?

Well, there is the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. She loves to draw circles. I went to a museum in Washington and she had three exhibitions. One was a big gigantic pumpkin with a black dot, the second looked like mushrooms and the third room was a dark circle with a glowing rainbow dot. It was like floating in space and that was awesome.

How does autism influence your artwork? 

I want people to know that autism is a good thing and not a bad thing. I was bullied a lot at school. Tons of people are born with autism or a disability. It’s just that some people don’t understand people who are born differently. 

I see the world in a funny, cartoon way. When I watch TV, I see the world in black and white. When I look around, it gets stored in my head and makes me imagine stuff. When I pass the skyline, I know exactly how it looks. I memorise the buildings, break each part down and draw them just like that. I don’t need to do it in pencil first, I just draw directly.  

What advice do you have for schools, families and children with autism? 

People should stop bullying autistic kids and special needs kids. Please accept people with autism. I want parents to know that it’s okay to have a child with autism. I want autistic people to know that you can still live your life if you’re on the autism spectrum. 

My advice is to just go for it, as you have nothing to lose. Believe in yourself and the world will believe in you. You can have a job. And if you can’t find a job, you can always be an artist like me – you can sell your art and get a mortgage! 

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Kohinoor Sahota - Deputy Editor
A sucker for a good story, if you invite Kohinoor to a gallery, comedy night, new restaurant, hiking trip, cycle ride, pool day or just about any activity, preferably with the promise of wine, she’ll probably say yes – that is if she isn’t busy planning her next adventure.

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