Mural by Emirati artist Abdulla Lutfi captures Dubai's old and new

The artwork was installed at the Time Out Market Dubai and will be displayed for a year

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Abdulla Lutfi’s new mural at Time Out Market Dubai depicts the city’s dramatic transformation in mirthful and uplifting monochrome.

The artwork was recently installed across one wall at the upscale food court in Souk Al Bahar. It is an enlarged iteration of two canvases by the Emirati artist. The printed mural, which will stay up for a year, marks the second time Lutfi’s artworks have been featured at the venue, having also appeared at its opening in April 2021.

The left portion of the mural portrays nostalgic aspects of the Dubai of old. Wind towers, or barajeel, an important architectural feature of the city’s history, decorate the horizon with mudbrick forts and looming watchtowers. Children play cricket, musical chairs and hopscotch. Some are fishing or setting toy sailboats on the creek. Others still are embroiled in games of backgammon and tug of war, or asking their grandparents to tell them stories.

The right half of the mural shows more contemporary facets of the city. People stare at their phones and grin ear-to-ear for selfies. There are yacht and limousine parties, while people whizz about on go-karts and water jetpacks.

Speech bubbles with Lutfi’s idiosyncratic comedy are abundant throughout the mural. On the left panel, grandmothers disapprove of being called grandma, insisting on "jadda". On the right portion, they ask not to be called jadda, and to be called grandma instead. Jet skis soar upright in the water, and one person comments on what a lovely day it is for segwaying.

The two canvases, Lutfi says, were created years ago while he was working with Mawaheb, an art studio for people of determination over the age of 18. The canvas in tribute to Old Dubai has since been sold, but as Lutfi still had images of the artwork, it was possible for it to be incorporated into the mural.

“The artwork was done from my Mawaheb days. I was with Mawaheb for more than 10 years,” he says. “I decided to open my own studio in 2020. The studio is called The Next Chapter and it is in Tashkeel, in Al Fahidi.”

The canvas reflecting on contemporary Dubai is on display in Lutfi’s studio, alongside scores of physical and digital works the artist has drawn in his signature comic book style.

The right portion reflects on contemporary facets of the city. Photo: Mohammad Adel Rashid / ITP Images

“That’s the present,” Lutfi says, gesturing towards the work. “Where kids finally have technologies that let them chat on their phones, like Facebook and Instagram. The past shows kids sitting with their grandmothers, listening to their stories and having a good time with tea and coffee.”

Lutfi’s distinct monochrome style was developed as a direct response to his experiences as a person on the autism spectrum.

“I don’t usually use colours because they stress me a bit,” he says. “Black and white was my favourite style since way back. What I love about it is that it reminds me of a manga book and even some comics. Most people love my black-and-white art, and ask me to draw them on bottles, handbags, iPhone covers, everything really. It’s just blowing up. It makes me feel famous.”

The left half of the mural shows nostalgic aspects of Old Dubai. Photo: Mohammad Adel Rashid / ITP Images

Famous is right. For the past few years, Lutfi has been commissioned by a number of large corporations and brands, including Emirates Airlines, Crate & Barrel, Converse, Amazon UAE, HSBC, Colgate and the Special Olympics. His art is also exhibited at Dubai International Airport and was on display on World Autism Awareness Day at the Terra — the Sustainability Pavilion as part of Expo 2020 Dubai.

“My autism in the black-and-white artworks is positive,” he says. “Not positive as in Covid-19 positive, but positive as in like me as a good person, showing who I am.”

Lutfi is also releasing his own line of NFTs called Khalli Walli, a colloquial term roughly translating to "get lost" or "let it go". The collection features 100 digital NFTs, out of which 50 are digital as well as on canvas.

“They’re in black and white and have funny quotes with ‘khalli walli’ in them, like ‘khalli walli, I can play video games whenever I want’ or ‘khalli walli, I don’t want to throw it in the can’.”

Abdulla Lutfi is launching a collection of NFTs inspired by the colloquial term 'khalli walli', which roughly translates to 'get lost' or 'let it go'. Photo: Abdulla Lutfi

Lutfi credits Gulshan Kavarana with helping him develop and sustain his creative output. His art mentor since his days in Mawaheb, Kavarana says art has encouraged Lutfi to adopt certain life skills, going to business meetings and travelling the world to art events. Most recently, Lutfi travelled to Washington DC, the US, to take part in the Smithsonian Folklife Festival with more than 80 other artists from the UAE.

“The art is getting him to work on life skills,” Kavarana says. “Just like when we went to Washington, it was not just about going to Washington and doing the art there. He had to learn to travel by himself, use Ubers, go to the movies and so on. Now, he’s really become famous and there’s a lot of demand for his works.”

Kavarana has been working as an art mentor with Lutfi since 2010, when the artist joined Mawaheb as an 18-year-old.

“When he first came, he was just copying stuff, doing manga and didn’t want to change that,” she says. “I told him that would be plagiarism, and that he couldn’t keep doing that. I asked him to draw from his culture as an Emirati. His first drawing was the cutest Emirati figure that you can think of and then we started developing that.”

Lutfi will be launching 100 digital NFTs, with 50 on canvas, too. Photo: Abdulla Lutfi

Even after more than a decade of working with Lutfi, Kavarana says she is still constantly amazed and impressed by how Lutfi thinks and works.

“He doesn’t even realise just how talented he is,” she says. “He can draw anything under the sun and there’s no stopping him. Right now, he’s just famous in the UAE but the world will know him. It’s totally an honour to work alongside him.”

Sandy Hayek, co-chief executive officer of Time Out Market, says featuring Lutfi’s work as the mural for the venue was a no-brainer.

“Abdulla Lutfi is an outstanding UAE artist who we and many others greatly admire,” Hayek says. “He is incredibly talented, hard working and dedicated — literally nothing holds him back ― which is why he is now widely recognised and his art displayed all over the UAE.

“We are very proud to show his art at Time Out Market Dubai for the second time with this new mural being on display for a year. It’s a mural that really amazes visitors with its details, signifying the importance of Dubai’s roots, as well as how far it has come.”

The mural, Hayek adds, is part of Time Out Market’s initiative to highlight UAE talents. It is what gives the Dubai branch its edge, making it distinct from other Time Out Markets around the world.

“We change the mural wall yearly but we also have various other art pop-ups and cultural experiences in the market throughout the year,” she says.

Hayek says the work has been received positively by the market’s visitors, and has become an integral feature of the venue.

“His distinct, mesmerising black-and-white drawings attract viewers to take a closer look into the humorous glimpses of everyday Emirati life — it’s simply a very engaging piece or art. Locals visiting us have told us how much they enjoy looking at all the details of the mural that so beautifully reflect their home city and visitors coming to the city and our market have told us that it’s an exciting artwork to uncover the history of Dubai.”

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Updated: September 04, 2022, 4:35 AM