WRITER: Govind Dhar
Mansoor Bhatti is a collector, not of things, but of people and their ideas rather. Via his Dubai-based creative agency Thingsbypeople, he’s been accumulating a roster of international visual artists and challenging them in the fields of photography, fashion, illustration, graffiti art and advertising.
Some examples of the work created by Manbutte, otherwise known as Mansoor A. Bhatti, a creative director, photographer and designer based out of Dubai. He says his “style centres on images that are funky, young, quirky, styled and conceptual.”
When Dubai made its quantum leap from the dune-laden transit lounge of the nomadic Bedouin to the cosmopolis of business and luxury it is today, the softer features of its culture quotient took a while to catch up to its new global image. Its homegrown film and art were too young to tell how the city thought or what its embedded culture looked like. However, telltale signs of Dubai’s newbie credentials on the world stage were starkly visible in its advertising language – that younger sibling to high art and style.
Several years ago for example, a large stand-alone billboard on the Dubai-Sharjah motorway featured one of the Emirates’ leading water brands. It showed a chicken’s egg sitting beside a bottle of water. The unhatched chick inside the egg was so desperate to get to the water, it had appropriated a straw and made it emerge from the top of its slightly cracked shell to land neatly inside the water bottle.
“People are using mathematics to make an ad,” says Mansoor Bhatti, founder and owner of Thingsbypeople.com. “Mathematics doesn’t create an ad, it creates shit.” Bhatti’s slick website is a newly established artist representation agency of photographers, graffiti artists, fashion directors and illustrators from São Paulo to Berlin, Madrid to Tokyo. Thingsbypeople even represents a design agency from Sweden. “SNASK is one of the best in the world,” says Bhatti.
The aim of his agency is to congregate cutting-edge visual artists in order to inject some global design panache into Dubai’s advertising scene. “People come to us to save their campaigns,” he says. “Agencies overthink and over-analyse how a consumer views an ad. There are just two rules to advertising: keep it simple and make it beautiful.”
In the six months that Bhatti and his partner, Faisal Shah, sprang their artist agency on the world, they’ve already done work for Jaguar, Axe, Bloomingdale’s, Max Factor and Van Cleef & Arpels. “We didn’t realise we’d get this busy so quickly,” he says, having returned this Friday morning at 3am from a shoot in Beirut. Several other companies, including some local magazines (Emirates Man), a Saudi retail fashion chain and a successful furniture group, are also in the bag. But Bhatti feels like he’s just revving up. “It’s not like we get emails everyday for work, but they’re coming in. I’m either consulting as a fashion photographer or a creative director, so I get busy. But we’re not chasing money at this point. I care about life. It’s short, and you only get a few chances to do really good work.” Taste is a word that comes up repeatedly in Bhatti’s story. He stayed on at agencies because of it and quit others for a lack of it. “I have a big problem with taste in Dubai,” he says. “Dubai doesn’t have great taste but it’s getting better – I want to help with that.”
When asked to create the identity for Scandinavia’s largest festival, SNASK, a Swedish brand, design and film agency, literally thought big with giant props put into place by cranes.
Bhatti is all too aware of the kind of advertising that comes out of overworked agencies. Having held a couple of creative director roles at Lowe and Living Room Communication, Bhatti got tired of brands he didn’t believe in and “celebrating mum with shampoo!” His travels had taken him to Italy, Scandinavia, Germany and the wider Middle East and as his blackbook of artists, stylists, models and designers got ever larger, he wondered what it would be like to curate specific people for projects and unleash them on Dubai. “I noticed people were working as islands. I love people, and wanted to bring different sorts together, to break things up. Now when my artists meet, they’re surprised they had never actually worked together.”
Scan their website and it becomes clear that Bhatti’s people, and the things they make, are of the calibre you’d find punctuating the skyline or fashion magazines of the world’s design capitals. From the disturbed reality and childlike wonder of Sungwon’s illustrations to Samuli Karala’s hyper-stark fashion photography, to the crystalline symmetry of Tuomas Uusheimo’s architectural photographs, Thingsbypeople showcases a host of seriously talented people with the kind of clientele, portfolios and awards that raises eyebrows.
In his avatar as a fashion photographer, Manbutte, (‘man-boot’ and not ‘man-butt’), Bhatti takes charge of fashion shoots and the look of campaigns. He first clapped eyes on the original supermodels in Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar in the 1990s, in a second-hand store outside his school in Pakistan. “I started collecting fashion magazines, pulling sheets out, and keeping beautiful pictures that I really loved – Kate Moss and Drew Barrymore in the beginning. It wasn’t a dirty thing, I was just curious about beauty. I remember a Guess photo shoot called ‘Men at Work’. That’s still in my head today. A lot of my work resembles the work from those days.”
You can tell a lot about Bhatti from his accent. The Pakistani has lived in Dubai for a while but has resisted the urge to fully adopt the American twang that many Middle Eastern expats appropriate when they arrive in the UAE’s pearly business districts. His is reassuringly Pakistani, but he rolls the odd ‘r’ and stretches a’s out of reflex.
“I’m a village boy,” he says of his time growing up in the village of Khairpur in Sindh, Pakistan. “We lived in a forest for 15 years because my father worked in wildlife, I’d never seen a girl. At 17, my mother thought it was a good idea for me to get out and see the world.” He laughs heartily when he says this, but he talks with a conviction that belies his own escape from the wilderness as a fait accompli.
Anorexia was a 2013 press campaign by Nixon Freire for which he was awarded a Golden Lion in Cannes.
After rejections from the notable art colleges of Pakistan, Bhatti turned to a local college to study Information Systems. He learned web design and went on to work for a couple of web and news agencies in Pakistan. A chance run-in with the CEO of Lowe in Dubai got him his first shot at advertising. At the time, Bhatti hadn’t thought of photography but took it up as a hobby after his advertising career took off. “I started with a low-end Canon 400D. I stopped people in the street and asked to take their photograph. I kept taking portraits of people. Then I bought my own lights and went from there.” Today, he uses vintage and modern cameras for the serious photography – Hasselblads and Rolleiflexes and jets around the world to shoot his own fashion spreads. “I finally came back to the magazines. Now when I open them, I see my pictures. It’s crazy. I don’t know how I got here.”
Bhatti’s Thingsbypeople will continue to evolve he says but his move to throw it all in to start his own business is about investing in the future of the place he now calls home. “People get tired of people, of styles. We need to keep refreshing the artists you see on the site. Where will I be in ten years? God only knows. Ten years is a long time!”
Sungwon is a female illustrator from Seoul who is known for creating fantasy worlds with sharp lines and dashes of colour.
Tuomas Uusheimo is a Finland-based photographer specialising in documentary, editorial and architectural photography.