Abdulla Asma Gulshan Zahra-1663235982971
Asma and Abdulla with Gulshan Kavarna and Zahra in Washington DC while participating at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival Image Credit: Supplied

It was hot, far away from home, but what a trip to remember! I loved the malls, and the food! There were so many food trucks!” Abdulla’s excitement isn’t hidden. This young man clearly had a ball of a time in Washington, and it is evident that apart from art what pleases him the most is good food. A food lover, then, a food lover always.

Giggling next to him, Asma loved everything about Washington. Everything, except the heat and the fact that it wasn’t home. Thrilled to be back where she belongs, her eyes twinkle with the memories of two weeks of fun, frolic, lots of art and drawing, and plenty of walks around the historic town of Washington.

As for Victor he came back home with a golden opportunity – an offer to join one of the world’s most unique institutions, Gallaudet University to further pursue his artistic prowess.

The three artists are just back from a whirlwind trip in Washington where they were part of a historic participation at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. The trio were among 80 participants from the UAE to be part of this symbolic festival, the first time that the UAE has attended the 60-year-old festival. More specifically however, they were the only three people of determination to participate in the festival – in all its history.

Asma Baker, Abdulla Lutfi and Victor Sitali are artists par excellence. They may fall in certain spectrums of challenges but their abilities have taken them across seas, and continents to a platform that showcases some of the finest from around the globe.

On invitation by the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C., these three artistic stalwarts have captured an audience far and beyond their home, to the extent of now being on the radar of an international art-loving audience.

Abdulla, Asma and Victor were the only people of determination as part of the cultural ambassadors at the festival. During the two-week event, they conducted workshops on making art as well as gave talks on their artistic methodologies.

I have two sisters and three brothers and each one of us has our own gifts. Even though we’re different, we’re still a family and that’s exactly what the heart people in my stories are explaining.

- Asma Baker

The sailor of their ship and supporting them through their journey is their art mentor and creative coach, Gulshan Kavarana. An artist herself, Gulshan has known Victor for more than 15 years. She had mentored Abdullah 10 years ago, while her youngest student in the group is Asma who joined five years ago, beginning at an art studio for people of determination and continues at their own studios to this day.

“It is really inspiring to watch them come so far – it makes my heart burst with pride,” says Gulshan, who has been supporting people of determination develop and thrive through art.

Supporting the team in this journey to Washington was Zahra Khumri, who manages all the administration work. “To have accompanied the artists along with Gulshan was a momentous event in my life and an enriching experience as a person of determination. I am extremely proud of our team. Asma, Abdulla and Victor each have their own distinctive style in which they express their artistry. It was an honour to showcase their talent on an international forum,” she says.

Meet the stars

Those familiar with the art scene in the UAE are no strangers to the works of Abdulla, Asma and Victor. They are people of determination – determined to make a significant mark in the world through their art and spirits that many of us lesser determined people can learn and grow from.

The artists have rented out studios in Tashkeel Al Fahidi in Al Bastakiya where they spend four days in a week creating art. While Abdulla and Asma run a studio named Next Chapter, Victor has an independent studio where he paints and takes classes for children with special 
needs. Their artwork is stark, and stunning. Walking into the studio, what catches the eye are the nuances. Colours, shapes, stories – they all come washing over you gripping your attention like great art always does.

Abdulla is 29 and was born in the UAE. His greatest charm is his cheerfully blunt and innocently adorable manner of making sure that he has conveyed everything he feels, as well as gauge you in a conversation that can leave you smiling. As cheerful and quirky as his mannerisms, his artwork is a burst of curious activity.

He has been creating art since the age of four, when, being non-verbal, he would use his drawings to communicate with his parents. He was then diagnosed on the autism spectrum, but continued to develop his artistic prowess by himself. He has since come a long way, and today some of his artworks adorn the famed landmarks such as the Expo 2020 Dubai site, and the Terminal 3 at Dubai International Airport.

Abdulla, whose artistic signature is A.L, sees and interprets the world in a ‘unique nonconventional’ way. His caricatures represent his imagination of the world and its complexities in black and white. A notable charm about his drawings is the ‘exaggerated humour of everyday Emirati life’. He has collaborated with a number of brands over time, including All Saints, Crate & Barrel, Emirates Airline, Converse, Amazon, and Timeout Market.

Asma is 33 and was born in the UAE. It was five years ago when she was diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum. She has always been a mistress of the written language, and is a warrior who’s fought the shadows of depression using the power of words through her poetry and drawings.

More than 10 years ago, Asma dealt with a huge personal loss that jeopardised her mental well-being, clamming into herself and her own world of misery. Not only did she withdraw into a shell, for six years she stopped talking. During this low phase however, she gained her greatest strength, her heart and the stories in them, especially those she fondly remembers narrated by her grandmother and father. The outcome of this dark period was the creation of “The Little Heart People” – characters she built was a ‘way she would interact with herself and the fictional world around her.’

“I have two sisters and three brothers and each one of us has our own gifts. Even though we’re different, we’re still a family and that’s exactly what the heart people in my stories are explaining,” she elaborated to her audience at the festival. She believes that her artwork is for everyone and encourages people to their own heart people based on their cultural and geographical influences. At the festival, Asma produced an original collection of little heart people based in the UAE, while she is working on a collection for the US and one featuring Japan.

Special needs Artists from UAE
Asma and Abdulla with Gulshan Kavarna and Zahra in Washington DC while participating at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival Image Credit: Supplied

As well as her visual artwork, she has also written poems, where she writes about different people, fears, and also discrimination. Most fascinating feather in her cap of achievements is that Asma is a motivational speaker. Far, far away from the girl who stopped talking for several years, today she has stood proud and spoken on platforms addressing scores of people.

“For me, to be a motivational speaker is to inspire the students in schools and colleges, to tell them about how our community is slowly changing and accepting people of determination as part of this world. I want to show them that people of determination are amazing and fun people to know, and the world can learn so much from them,” she says.

Asma opened the Special Olympics World Games 2019 Abu Dhabi at Zayed Sports City in front of more than 40,000 people. She was also in “The Makers Team” to orchestrate the ceremony, where the ‘Makers’ showed that people of determination have a powerful voice and are great leaders, teachers and champions for inclusion.

Victor was born in Zambia, and has been living in Dubai since 2006. At the age of three he began experiencing impairment in his hearing and by time he was 10, he had lost his hearing completely. Yet, what his ears can’t capture his eyes make up on canvas. “My voice is heard by work of my hands,” he confirms.

His oil paintings have the raw beauty that is Africa; so rich in texture, soul and emotion. His work focuses on portraits of people, birds, eyes and landscapes using different mediums such as oil paints, acrylics, water colours, pastels and charcoal; and is most inspired by Lionel Smit, a South African artist.

Fascinated by his artwork and talent, Victor was offered a place in the reputed Gallaudet University, the world’s first university for the people with hearing impairment. “The trip to Washington has been a beautiful and amazing experience!” he exclaims.

Victor has been mentored by UK-based artist Trevor Waugh, as well as through Mawaheb from Beautiful People in Dubai, under the guidance of Gulshan. As well as traditional art, he is also trained in graphic designing and has freelanced as a photographer for art and fashion events in the region since 2012.

In March 2013, Victor won the ‘Best Artist’ and ‘Highly Recommended’ awards at the First Annual Ras al Khaimah (RAK) Fine Arts Festival, and has received an honorable mention among 1,700 artists worldwide for the International Emerging Artists Award (IEAA) in 2012 - 2013. In October 2019, he was selected by the International Selection Committee at the 12th Florence Biennale to participate in the forthcoming edition of the contemporary art exhibition. Victor is also one of the first people of determination to be awarded the UAE Golden Visa.

The artists can be seen at work from Monday to Thursday, from 9am to 2pm, at their studios in Tashkeel Al Fahidi, House 10, Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood, Dubai.

To connect with these artists, check their Instagram handles: @asmabaker_, @abdullalutfi; and, @vsitali90