With Expo 2020 Dubai readying to open its doors to the world on 1 October, four Emirati artists from different generations are finalising the installation of their permanent public artworks on the Expo site, as part of Expo 2020’s Public Art Programme.

The artworks by Emirati artists Afra Al Dhaheri, Abdallah Al Saadi, Asma Belhamar and Shaikha Al Mazrou will be exhibited alongside other works by leading colleagues from the region and the world, creating an unprecedented space for creativity across the Expo site, not only during the six-month duration of one of the world’s most anticipated events, but also for many years to come.

The Public Art Programme is curated by Tarek Abou El Fetouh and designed in alignment with the ambitious urban plans that will transform the Expo 2020 site into the future city of District 2020. The programme is curated as a platform for contemporary art in the neighbourhood, with 11 permanent substantial public artworks interwoven within its urban fabric and offering the possibility for many more artworks in the future.

Abdullah Al Saadi’s work, Terhal, is a permanent public intervention in a seating area, and embodies the result of his immersion in the unique natural surroundings of Wadi Tayyibah in the emirate of Fujairah. In this work, the artist’s map-like paintings are inspired by different orientations on stones from the Wadi Tayyibah region. The stones are organised according to his own symbolic code, in an invitation to discover a kind of poetic archaeological language.

The Plinth by Shaikha Al Mazrou embodies her aesthetic language, which diverts materiality and creates dynamic forms with an interplay of tension and balance, demonstrating the artist’s intuitive, keenly felt understanding of materials and their physical properties. The work conceptually and formally references plinths, and its form allows the possibility of other artists to create artworks that can be exhibited in relation to it. Al Mazrou intends the sculpture to function as a tool for future dialogue with other artists, whom she might not know or meet. 

A special part of the Public Art Programme is curated by Muneera Al Sayegh and Mohammed Al Olamaand includes two works that explore the role of monuments in the local landscape and their connection with memory, architecture and nature.

One work is a large-scale marble sculpture by artist Afra Al Dhaheri entitled Pillow Fort, which is inspired by the tikkay, traditional Emirati floor pillows, revisiting childhood moments of impromptu play when building a pillow tower or a fort with them. These childhood forts existed within our rooms within our homes, as a space within a space within a space. The viewer’s presence and interaction are essential in activating this work, which becomes a tool that connects society in a mass recollection of memory.

The other work titled Distorted Familiarities by artist Asma Belhamar confronts perspectives of nature and the built environment, marrying the two realities. Belhamar speaks to the visual distortion experienced when commuting from mountainscapes into cityscapes, where the change from landscape to architecture and from topography to iconography feels like a journey through shifting scales and times.

All 11 artworks are interwoven within the urban fabric of the city of Dubai, forming lasting landmarks along a path across the site of Expo 2020 Dubai that creates a narrative of concepts, ideas and aesthetics – a creative journey that sets the tone for the site of Expo 2020, encouraging innovative thinking and sparking the imagination of its visitors.

The conceptual framework of the Public Art Programme of Expo 2020 Dubai is inspired by the famous Arab mathematician, astronomer, and physicist Ibn al Haytham’s seminal work, Book of Optics (c. 11th century). The concept of the programme provides a prism to view contemporary artworks and a context that allows an exploration of the philosophical aspect of Ibn al-Haytham’s theories on visual perception, including his definitions of vision, recognition and the impossibility of envisioning a full picture of reality within oneself without the power of imagination.

Reflecting on the history of the arts and its complex and rich connection with science and philosophy in this region during the historical peak of trade and intercultural relations beginning in the 9th century might assist us in re-thinking concepts and ideas that are pertinent to explore in the world today. For the classical is not simply past, nor merely passed onto the present, but also comes to meet us in the future. Recalling Ibn al-Haytham today inspires us to understand the explanation of phenomena and the relation between the imagined and the perceived and to explore the commonality among humans while understanding cultural particulars. It may be that the only human capacity that helps us navigate diverse cultural particulars is the power of the imagination and the ability to grasp stories, however strange.

Expo 2020 will run from 1 October 2021 to 31 March 2022, inviting visitors from every corner of the globe to discover a wide range of cultural and artistic initiatives dedicated to broadening horizons and bringing people, communities and nations together.