Wielding a stylus pen on a computer screen, Emirati artist Abdulla Lutfi has a newfound passion for digital art.
With careful strokes, he brings to life men in kanduras seated near a campfire in the desert.
The 29-year-old artist, who is autistic, is well known in the UAE for sketching striking works using a black marker. His murals take a quirky look at life in the Emirates with Dubai landmarks as a backdrop.
The launch of his maiden NFT collection this week will broaden the reach of his distinctive black and white pieces to a wider audience across the world.
“For digital, I use a special pen, a special app. I do this in black and white with the iPad,” said Lufti, working in a studio space at Tashkeel in Dubai’s Al Fahidi district.
“That’s how I will become more famous in art.”
Redoing a piece is far easier on the screen. On canvas, he uses a pencil first for large artworks before adding the marker. Now, he goes straight in with his digital stylus — and if he makes a mistake, a quick hit of the erase tab is all it takes to rectify the error.
“I like doing digital,” said Lufti. “Digital art is the best thing that’s ever happened.”
Learning new techniques
Much like an original painting signed by Picasso or Monet is authenticated, crypto art can be verified using an NFT — non-fungible tokens that cannot be replaced, exchanged or replicated as each one is unique.
Lufti understands launching a collection on the NFT art marketplace will help him reach more people and credits his long-time art teacher, Gulshan Kavarana, for readying him to take on a new platform.
Ms Kavarana said moving from canvas to computer screen was not easy and Lufti learnt the finer techniques on how to edit and layer from Tashkeel's office administrator, Zahra Khumri.
“With Abdulla, when you first introduce him to something new, it’s a ‘no’,” she said.
“But once he got it, there was no turning back. He now says this is much easier than canvas and asks us to take only digital commissions.”
Lufti's art is in high demand, with small canvasses starting at $800, large canvasses with detailed work that can sell for $10,000 and commissions for companies fetching up to $35,000.
His collection of about 100 NFTs starts at about $400 per piece.
Working like a digital authenticity certificate, the NFT can be sold similar to physical art increasing its value over time.
Data is stored on a blockchain or massive database where transactions are made using cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin and Ethereum.
“Right now, he is the most sought-after artist, not because of his autism and not because he is Emirati but because he is talented,” said Ms Kavarana, who has worked with him for more than a decade.
He was among a group of artists with special needs at the Mawaheb studio, where Ms Kavarana worked before it closed during the pandemic.
She said she nudged him away from copying anime characters and encouraged him to forge his own style by capturing Emiratis in their traditional attire.
“He has created beautiful collections and people recognise the characters. It has been challenging but also amazing working with him," she said.
“He has a sense of humour. He is really, really funny, he picks up on idiosyncrasies of people and remembers it in drawings.”
Akshay Gupta, a Dubai businessman and volunteer, also supported Lufti’s journey into crypto space by studying NFTs and advising on the use of online marketplace OpenSea to launch the collection.
“Digital art can be tracked and that is a big advantage for the artist as it allows them to get a commission every time the art work is resold,” he said.
“You can see the current ownership, how many hands it has changed. It actually gives joy to the artist to know how many people have bought it.
“Abdulla is a very special artist and is the first Emirati autistic artist to go into the NFT digital world, for sure.”
There has been a surge in interest in the non-conventional art, with the first NFT-based work sold by Christie’s auction house last year setting a world record for a digital art piece at $69 million.
Word of Lufti's talent has spread and he is being invited to host workshops with enthusiasts keen to learn his style.
His new series shows fast cars tailgating on UAE motorways, boisterous children in parks and parents having meltdowns trying to discipline kids.
The title of his NFT collection, 'Khalli Walli', is drawn from colloquial speech.
Lufti explains the word is equivalent to ‘forget it’ or ‘drop it’.
Asked to use the term in a sentence, he said: “I would say khalli walli to people who don’t understand autism …. autistic people are the good guys.”
Tourists and residents can view and purchase Lufti's works at the Next Chapter in Tashkeel, open from Monday to Thursday from 9am to 2pm.
His NFT collection will open on Tuesday at the Time Out Market at Souq al Bahar in Dubai at 3pm and can be accessed on https://opensea.io/abdullalutfi