Visiting Ignacio Gomez and Blanca Lopez’s home is like hopping onto one of those open-top Dubai sightseeing buses.
In one corner lies a drawing of the old-world Dubai Creek and its abras. Nearby, there’s the cutting-edge Burj Khalifa, in a living, breathing juxtaposition of old and new Dubai. Flamingos at Ras Al Khor, Deira’s Clock Tower, souqs and karak chai. There are drones, and roundabouts, and the Dubai Mall Human Fountain and Skydive and the Frame and flyboarding and flying taxis. There’re palm trees, and Palm Jumeirah. There’s even a hammour in a sketch taking shape.
It’s an inclusive, across-the-board view of the city. The sketches own the past, and they equally own the gleaming visions of the future.
‘But it’s not your old versus new debate,’ Ignacio is quick to interject, seizing on my vein of thought. ‘Everyone talks about keeping the old while looking into the future, quite forgetting what’s most important — the present.’
This attempt to focus on the in-between is what led the couple from Spain — Ignacio is an architect, Blanca an economist — to publish immersive colouring books based on the city that’s been their home since 2006. Colouring for Mindfulness — two books, one showcasing the past and the other the present and future — was launched earlier this year and it has all the well-thought-out, charming drawings that I have seen in their home, and scores of others telling the fascinating story of the city.
It’s their attempt to tell a different side to a story they feel is sometimes skewed. ‘This city is not a cultural desert as the narrative can quite often go,’ Blanca says. ‘Yes, there is culture here, there are so many things happening all the time.’
‘Al Serkal, Art Dubai, Sikka…’ Ignacio rattles off. He is design director for one of the largest architectural practices in the world, working on Dubai Metro stations. ‘Doesn’t really seem like there’s no cultural side!’
This endeavour to reclaim the narrative and bring equilibrium to an outlook that was askew is only part two of a publishing journey that started as soon as the couple landed here. Early into their stay, Ignacio and Blanca decided to come up with a Dubai encyclopedia in 2011. ‘When we arrived here, there were some products lacking that we thought were key to every city,’ Blanca says. ‘Barcelona has so many design books about the city, and we trawled Dubai trying to find similar books, and were left disappointed. So we decided to do it ourselves.’ The couple quickly set about researching everything that underlay all the glitz of Dubai, sketching everything from the different styles of the guthra to the camels, diving right into Bedouin life. ‘It was very successful, and sold out back then,’ Ignacio says.
The early victory was an immediate lesson to Ignacio and Blanca on how there was a demand for identifying and appreciating what Dubai offered. This instinctively led to the origin of the colouring books, which they also looked at as an opportunity at tackling cliched narrative number 2, one where ‘the Middle East region is now associated with conflict… Yemen, Qatar, Iran’, Ignacio says. ‘We think that is an unfair account, especially when here in Dubai it’s the Year of Tolerance, the Pope has just been here… So the idea was to show the truth about Dubai — and the welcoming, fun, authentic city it is.’
Unlike the first book, this time around they had little hands pitching in to help with the colouring books — their little boys, Pablo and Ignacio, 10 and 8. ‘We grew from two to four in this city,’ Ignacio smiles. ‘So we feel a very strong connection and affection for Dubai.’
The idea came about in 2015, at the time colouring books started flying off the shelves and proved to be the underdogs of the publishing world. ‘It might not be a popular trend anymore, but the Dubai version is still relevant, and necessary,’ Ignacio says. ‘Yes, print media might be in crisis, but there is still a lot of content that needs to be printed. Call us old-fashioned, but the democratisation of knowledge and the revolution that happened with the invention of the printing press needs to continue.’
So the first project they undertook as a family saw the four sit down for about two hours every day over three years, hunched over drawings in their home. The family would go on photography safaris around Dubai, trying to identify all the little bits that made up Dubai, researching it further, making a visual catalogue of sorts. ‘Not just iconic landmarks,’ Ignacio says. ‘But the little things that anyone would look at and immediately recognise as unique to the city. Like Vimto. Luqaimat. Or antennas on Satwa houses. Or the Clock Tower. Or the Sharjah Ferris wheel. Things that are difficult to explain to an outsider, but are so exceptional in their own ways.’
Past or future, nothing was out of bounds for their book. If a structure was still in progress, like the striking space-age-style, calligraphy-based Museum of the Future coming up near the Emirates Towers on Shaikh Zayed Road, Ignacio would visualise and etch out a completed look. Some would take mere minutes, the others, like the Diving Men fountain, weeks. It was a lot of trial and error, Ignacio says. ‘The amount of detail needed to be sufficient to colour in for days, but not too much that it frustrates people.’
Drawing together as a family came easily to them, with Ignacio and Blanca having instilled an early love for art in the kids, just as Ignacio had started drawing when he was still a toddler. ‘Art allows you to have another view of the world,’ Blanca says. ‘Away from computers and screens, it gives you a feeling of time. So even when we travel, from India to Venice and Oman, we always carried drawing books with us, and the kids would just sit down in front of something they would find interesting and sketch away. We think it helped them see the minute details of things in a world that’s so fast, it’s impossible to retain much.’
And all the efforts to showcase Dubai in a new light had another end result — that of bringing the family closer. ‘If not for these colouring books, Blanca and I would probably come back from work and sit on our phones and complain about our lives, the kids would be in different rooms doing their own thing, and we’d just co-exist. But drawing was key to the mindfulness, and the strong bond we share. It lessened all our stress and anxiety — for a few hours it was just us and those scratchings on paper.’
It also taught the kids more about the city they were in. ‘Living in the Arabian Ranches we probably wouldn’t have seen much of old Dubai, but on a recent walk in Al Seef to do the drawings the kids pointed out the wind towers they’d spent hours working on. Now they love going to different bookstores, finding the colouring books and insisting it gets placed at the front! In 20 years we can’t wait for them to proudly say they did a book on Dubai.’
Ignacio says the kids often needed a push to draw. ‘Unfortunately it’s not as addictive as technology. But if we don’t try, we won’t know… we didn’t buy them Playstation or game console and they complain about it from time to time, but we prefer to keep those out of the house. There is too much tech anyway, and it’s only when you make an effort to go out that you realise how beautiful the world is.’
But they have been intent on not demonising social media. ‘Kids need to understand it,’ Blanca says. So the parents set up Instagram accounts for the boys, where they filmed them drawing and colouring — ‘inherent lesson being that what’s vital is making your art and creativity the subject, rather than themselves.’
Have the weekends spent drawing, scanning, arguing over different covers, numerous visits to the printers, Media Council approvals and everything that comes with self publishing, been worth it?
Ignacio says chronicling Dubai is crucial. ‘There’s not a lot of documentation of the process of Dubai — the city has been growing so much. Take the construction of Burj Khalifa — there’s not so many archives on it as they have in the West.’
The colouring books are for both tourists and residents — long-standing and fresh-off-the-flight ones. Residents get to discover Dubai all over again, and get inspired to visit landmarks they might not have seen in a while, and tourists get to ‘go back home and experience Dubai for a further month or so colouring,’ Ignacio says.
It’s tempting to just present the gravity-defying, super-sized collection of skyscrapers, but these aren’t books with just traces of the past, but pages bursting with them. Ignacio says while you can buy the old Dubai and new Dubai book separately, they should go together. ‘That’s important, because Dubai is about new and old working together. We could have published only either one, but decided they had to balance each other. The old is selling much better than the new; we think people who are here for long engage with the old more.’
There’s no profit motive here — ‘you don’t make money with these kinds of books, which is probably why you don’t have many of these books here, but we feel thankful to Dubai, and it’s our way of giving back, with soft power.’
Next on the pipeline of unearthing the real treasures of Dubai is a cookbook. ‘Emirati cooking explained to the Western world,’ Ignacio says. ‘I love Emirati food but how do I learn about it when the TV channels are in Arabic? So we aim to fill a book with beautiful pictures and recipes from Emirati grandmas. There’s so many food stories there, and I’m afraid it’s not being passed on.’
I remember the sketch of the hammour I saw earlier had wings. Ignacio smiles. ‘It’s a city that gives you so many opportunities if you just look — wherever you start from, we see the city as one that helps you take flight, and soar quite high.’
The colouring books are priced at Dh90 each and are available at Jashanmal Bookstore, Kinokuniya, and soon in Borders, Magrudys, ArtJameel Center and Lighthouse in D3.