Countless tourists have attempted to cram the iconic Burj Al Arab into the perfect snapshot since it appeared on the Dubai skyline 15 years ago.
That seemingly mandatory photographic moment in front of the self-proclaimed “most luxurious hotel in the world” hasn’t gone unnoticed by British artist Clare Napper.
The Dubai vacation ritual is among several aspects of life in the United Arab Emirates celebrated by her irreverent collection of pop art.
The former Saatchi & Saatchi graphic designer has turned a satirical spotlight on everything from Dubai’s bottomless appetite for shopping to the perils of playing golf at the height of the country’s staggeringly hot summers.
The result is a colorful series that draws on the vintage style of classic London Underground posters for Kew Gardens and London Zoo and the collectible postwar tourism images of French artist Roger Broders.
“I wanted to do something about my time here,” says Napper, who moved to Dubai eight years ago.
“For a lot of my arty friends, Dubai is the last place they want to go. So maybe I have a chip on my shoulder where I show people, my friends, myself that this is a real city with so much more to it than you might read in the papers or might perceive from miles away.”
The 36-year-old says her “Highlife Dubai” collection is a celebration of one of the world’s most dynamic and cosmopolitan cities — and beyond.
The notion of creating vintage-style artwork evolved while Napper was working on potential designs for Dubai’s Metro and water taxi services.
“I thought it would be nice because Dubai is a new city and there are none of these old commercial printed ads,” she says.
“The style is from the ’30s and ’40s — when the commercial airlines really took off — from travel and tourism ads. There was none of that over here, so I thought it would be fun to go to a space that wasn’t inhabited.”
While her designs didn’t materialize in an advertising campaign, the aspiration extended into a hobby when she became a freelance designer and artist.
Now the images are a huge hit among residents and tourists.
Among the pieces is that Burj Al Arab image, which gives the super-modern building a nostalgic feel with the message “Making Dubai Holiday Snaps Since 1999.”
“Most people can’t afford to stay in the Burj Al Arab so they have their photo taken by it.
“There are so many photos in existence with that in — it is the cliched Dubai photo as it’s one of the best-known landmarks. And it looks futuristic so I love the juxtaposition of it presented in that vintage style.”
London-born Napper was previously a graphic designer in the English capital, before moving to New York to do voluntary work with inner city projects.
She soon found herself swiftly soaking up the luxury lifestyle of the most ambitious city in the Middle East on moving to Dubai, however, and also noticing how the habits of others altered on arrival.
Cheeky postcards from a temporary life
Now her work touches on the idea of people “living the dream” of day trips to other emirates (for visa runs, among other things), looking glam on Dubai’s famous Jumeirah Beach Residence shoreline and the UAE’s prolific demand for domestic help in the form of nannies and maids.
The result is fun, bright and occasionally thought provoking — like elaborate, cheeky postcards from a temporary life in the sunshine.
“I wanted to mix it up with social commentary,” she says while standing beside her earliest effort, “Maids,” on the wall of her current exhibition, ending March 7, at The Scene (4th Floor, Pier 7, Dubai Marina, Dubai; +971 4 4222 328), a Dubai Marina bar and restaurant set up by UK celebrity chef Simon Rimmer.
“I think it is quite amusing this whole idea of the maid, the way the word is used. They’re called maids but really they’re cleaners. It’s affordable help.
“I wanted ‘Maids’ to be like a souvenir for expats; when we get back to the UK most of us aren’t going to be able to afford cleaners twice a week.”
“Tuesday Night” touches on the “bizarre” UAE concept of boozy ladies’ nights and “Poverty Sucks” hints at the social and fashion “rat race” in the emirates.
Napper says her pictures are partly holding a mirror to show how expats change their habits on arrival in Dubai, in contrast to home where they probably wouldn’t hang around five-star hotels.
“As an artist I like to throw up ideas. Maybe people see me as being a bit cynical toward the lifestyle, but I love the life here.
“So I would say it is satire, but I don’t want this collection to be seen as in any way negative about Dubai. I guess it is making people question or laugh at ourselves.
“We should celebrate this lifestyle in the same way that when those travel and tourism posters came out it was postwar and there was a real sense of excitement, of living the good life. I want to reflect that because we are living the good life here.”
“It’s ridiculously lavish, there’s a lot of opportunity, there are cranes everywhere, it’s booming,” she says.
Napper, who lives in The Torch — the apartment tower that made international news when it caught fire in February — admits she changed her behavior when she stepped off the plane in Dubai.
“I totally have.
“You’re in a consumer-led city. There’s a lot of advertising.
“In summer sometimes the mall is the only place to go. That’s something people get quite sucked into.
“Everyone calls Dubai glamorous and people do dress up more here, perhaps because the places we go to are five-star hotels.
“I live in Dubai Marina and a lot of people I know are single, unmarried and without children, earning disposable income, living the ‘Dubai Dream’ or whatever you call it.
“Maybe a lot of us have run away from our responsibilities.”
Napper says the response to her work has been overwhelming since she began selling and exhibiting last autumn.
She’s planning to have some images translated into Arabic, following requests from UAE nationals, and is amassing inspiration for her next collection.
“People come up and tell me strange stories, so there are lots of things I have been told about that I didn’t know,” says the artist, who now has enough experience to decide which subjects are prime targets and which should remain out of bounds.
“That is understanding I’ve got from being here eight years.
“I think I’m a good judge of what is OK and what will make people laugh. And I’m confident of finding the right balance.
“I’m very careful and think about that side a lot; being sensitive to cultures, what can be said, what can’t. I also want to push things, though, to be a little controversial, but in a playful way.
“I get my enjoyment from playing on those controversies a little bit.”
David Dunn is a freelance writer and photographer, currently based in Dubai from where he covers travel and the arts. He was born in the UK where he worked for regional titles in news and features roles, including writing extensively about music, theater and travel.