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Expo 2020 Dubai: The artistic universe of World Expo Dubai

Every year, crowds gather in droves at the site of the World Expo to stand at the leading edge of global technology, innovation, culture and design. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) will host the latest edition of this 170 year-old tradition at the Al Wasl Plaza, against the extravagant and ultramodern backdrop of Dubai. Expo 2020 Dubai has the honour of being the first Expo presented in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia area, opening its doors on October 1, 2021 and continuing through March 31, 2022. As the four corners of the world come together, LUXE turns its eye to the vibrant artistic tapestry inviting visitors to surrender their senses to the sights and sounds of today’s most creative minds.



Al Wasl Plaza is in itself a work of art with its “beating heart” at the centre of the venue: the Al Wasl Dome. Conceptualized by Chicago and Beijing-based firm, Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture, the Dome astounds by its sheer magnitude and display of engineering prowess. A lace-like trellis of interconnecting circles and arches artfully filters daylight, and moonlights as the world’s largest projection screen, with a surface area greater than of four football fields. Two hundred and fifty-two laser projectors bring to life a 360-degree immersive experience, in stunning 4K laser resolution.  


More than 90 pavilions surround the Dome, occupied by Expo partners, featured organizations and thematic installations. All the more impressive: each participating country counts its very own bespoke pavilion—an Expo first—to showcase elements of their unique cultural and aesthetic heritage, along with innovative constructions. The Bahrain pavilion, for example, explores the theme of opportunity through density, informed by its resilience in trade, entrepreneurship and innovation in spite of a limited yet highly populated geography. Its crumpled box-like exterior is pierced by a web of long fibrous structures darting across the interior from ceiling to floor and from wall to wall, forcing visitors to consider new ways of navigating the space. Live weaving stations echo the building’s ethos and offer a glimpse into the role that density plays in the practice of local fabric making.


© Tourisme Dubaï

© Tourisme Dubaï


Far from the look-but-don’t-touch paradigm of many contemporary art galleries, this year’s Expo gives guests permission to interact with much of the artwork on site.


British architect Asif Khan and Amsterdam-based Arabic typographer Lara Captan reimagined calligraphic Arabic text as a poetic series of 50 benches in seating areas for guests seeking rest and contemplation. From the choice of words to the materials used and, ultimately, to the way in which the furniture is placed and the mood it induces, no detail was left to chance. The designers called on the public to crowdsource words relating to both the UAE and to Expo’s thematic pillars: opportunity, mobility and sustainability. The chosen words put forth the curves and motion of Arabic lettering in the form of spectacular three-dimensional sculptures made to coax people to sit upright, to lounge or to engage in dynamic positions that encourage discussion. The Calligraphy benches are distributed throughout the venue, matching word meaning to the theme of their particular location at Expo.


Even fresh water delivery at Expo 2020 does not escape the hand of the contemporary artist. Through a collaboration between Expo 2020 and Art Jameel, visitors are introduced to the sabeel, or traditional drinking fountain, in a fresh new way. The simple act of hydration becomes an opportunity to consider cultural tradition and contemporary design. In particular, the UAE’s reputation for hospitality is highlighted as passersby pause to quench their thirst. 


The fountains feature two inspiring designs by the winners of a juried call for submissions. UAE-based studio Architecture + Other Things created Water in the Green as an ode to sustainability, while design duo Faissal El-Malak and Alia Bin Omair’s concept Nahel touches on the relationship between humanity, nature and technology. Two more artist-designed sabeel were created by invitation: Nasir Nasrallah’s Letter to Water and Dana Awartani’s The Well.


Also in the common areas are 11 commissioned public art installations by contemporary artists coming together to build a path influenced by the ideas and tenets of the 11th century Book of Optics by Arab mathematician and astronomer Ibn al Haytham. The Public Art Project is curated by Tarek Abou El Fetouh. The artwork will remain permanently as part of Dubai’s urban landscape.


© Shutterstock


Expo 2020 is meant for looking and listening, but especially for doing. Human connections are made and collective knowledge is transmitted through active engagement in the arts; dialogues are opened and ideas exchanged.


Storytelling is a particularly effective means of cultural osmosis, and features prominently in the programming: Dignified Storytelling, Storytelling in Immersive Environments, Live Illustrated Storytelling are but a few of the events honouring oral tradition and literary art.


Artisanal crafts are demonstrated through numerous workshops and initiatives including the MENASA design platform, implemented to connect the public to traditional Emirati crafts and lore. Tile painting, Brancusi-inspired charcoal drawing, and Painting for Peace are a few of the available hands-on activities.


From the Art and Cultural Initiatives Talks to the Digital Art Wall, from the Vietnam Arts Show to a summit asking “How will we Create?”, the possibilities for actively participating in and discussing the impact of the arts are far-reaching.



© Tourisme Dubaï

© Tourisme Dubaï


Text: Jennifer Laoun-Rubenstein

Cover: © Shutterstock

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