"I am an expat and so this is what I can observe and fully understand,” says Clare Napper Image Credit: Supplied photo

“Art and Design are integral to our joie de vivre, they create a visual landscape in which we play out our lives,” says Dubai-based artist, Clare Napper, as we’re going through her brightly coloured, joyous portfolio of posters — Highlife Dubai — at her Marina home-studio. “To me, art, design and architecture are not mutually exclusive for life informs them all.”

Her series is a stylised depiction of Dubai’s expatriate life, set against the backdrop of the Emirate’s many icons. Dubai Mall, Burj Khalifa, Burj Al Arab and of course our beach life and penchant for brunches and shopping are presented through Napper’s now very distinct creative language that borrows heavily from old vintage posters of the golden age of travel and tourism that she first came across in her design research during her four-year graphic design course at the University of the West of England, in Bristol, UK.

After a few years of working and living in London, the British advertising industry maven had had enough of barely scraping through. “Tax free earnings in the UAE beckoned. I planned to come for one year to earn some cash in the sun, away from the London grey skies and drizzle — that was almost nine years ago” she says.

In 2007 Napper moved to Dubai. A job as senior designer at one of the foremost creative agencies Saatchi and Saatchi and their beachside office were a dream come true, but by September 2013 she was done with the relentless, fast paced agency life. “After 7 years in advertising I was burnt out and needing a break,” she says of her decision to freelance. It was then that she began to explore the idea of her poster series. “I launched these pictures as a bit of fun to perhaps sell a few at markets but that was it at the time.”

It was in 2014, the first year of being her own boss that her personal life unravelled and she found herself heartbroken and single in March.

“It was probably the lowest point of my life,” she says. “It was then that I decided to distract myself from the pain I was going through by working avidly on my Highlife Dubai idea, something that had, till that point only been a hobby. I realise now why they say ‘a broken heart is good for the art’.” The healing phase allowed her time to focus on herself, reconnect with friends and slowly get back to her true self — spiritually, creatively and inspirationally.

Her life on the reset, she officially launched Highlife Dubai in November 2014. “Dubai offers a lifestyle that must be one of the best in the world, and as a designer I was keen to find a creative outlet for my eight years living the high-life here,” Napper explains her intent behind the series that have made her Dubai’s worst kept secret in the arts circuit. “I wanted to create some real souvenirs with a glimpse into life out here that expatriates can take away as fond memories; after all, many of us won’t be here forever.”

Last year, Napper sold over 6,000 prints, the project has become her main source of income and her unique take on life in Dubai has seen her nominated in HOT100 lists and women’s achievement awards.

Much as her work is tongue in cheek, Napper is acutely aware of her creative responsibilities.

“You would have noticed, all my art is a commentary purely on expat life. I am an expat and so this is what I can observe and fully understand,” she says. “I am respectful of local culture and tradition. I am very careful that my work does not offend anyone and presents Dubai at its glorious best. I am very lucky to work with a trusted group of Emirati and Kuwaiti friends who are my sounding board and I rely on their approval on everything I create.”

“There are still a few places I haven’t featured and have been requested to — Jumeirah, DIFC, the Creek etc and I have already started work on a series based on Abu Dhabi,” she says of her plans for the future. “After completing this last Highlife Dubai collection I am looking forward to exploring different ideas — perhaps all within this vintage ad style. I want to continue using type and image together and this format is the perfect solution.”

While she understands that having a presence at the region’s airports would bring more visibility and offer tourists and expatriates a new vocabulary of regionally inspired souvenirs, Napper’s dream project would be to work on special commissions for Dubai’s Department Of Tourism And Commerce Marketing.

“This city has given me so much, what better way to give back than to create new understanding about it.”

— Pratyush Sarup is design manager at one of the UAE’s premium interiors firms