THE much-awaited Expo 2020 in Dubai, which the organisers promised to be the “greatest show on Earth”, finally kicked off on October 1 — a year late due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but from the first look it is definitely worth the wait. Much to the organisers’ delight, Pakistan’s pavilion is receiving resounding attention from the moment it was opened.
One of Pakistan’s leading visual artists, Rashid Rana, is the visionary behind the game-changing design of the façade that has taken both the Expo organisers and visitors by storm. Its popularity can be garnered from the fact that in less than a week since its opening, the pavilion has received over 30,000 visitors and media outlets are flocking to have a look.
Rana’s design draws inspiration from the diversity that Pakistan has to offer. “Our country is one of the most diverse regions on the planet; geographically, climatically, culturally, racially, and ethnically and I wanted that reflected in the design,” he says.
This ‘artistic intervention’ titled “Unity of All that Appears” comprises 24,000 seemingly identical but all, in fact, unique pieces, fractionally different from each other in size and colour but welded together in harmony. “The transition between seasons and the unity among characteristic groups within the country are the driving force behind the design,” he adds.
The construction of the pavilion and its internal displays was funded by a trust, which was formed to raise the required finances through private donations. The exterior is the first point of contact and Rana’s design has truly succeeded in drawing in the crowd who leave the pavilion mesmerised after an engaging, multi-sensory inner journey, principally curated by Noorjehan Bilgrami, a noted multi-disciplinary artist, curator and educationist best known for her tireless work in reviving traditional crafts of Pakistan.
The internal exhibits tie in very well with the exterior of the pavilion. “Without forcing a connection intentionally, the exterior and the interior do happen to have the theme of our country’s diversity common between them,” explains Rana.
Bilgrami says the premise was to showcase Pakistan’s hidden treasures through the diversity of its landscape, its people, its colours and the different religions being practised there. Despite having a limited, privately funded budget, she and her team worked as best as they could to illustrate the country’s history and future opportunities. “We made our financial limitation work to our advantage,” she explains.
Both Rana and Bilgrami say that despite being notable in their respective fields of art and craft, the acclaim that the pavilion is bringing them is unexpected and extraordinary. “We knew what we were trying to do was a decent effort but at no point did we expect the kind of attention and rave reviews that we are receiving.”
An excellent team of artists, filmmakers and craftsmen was engaged to bring Bilgrami and her curatorial team’s vision to life. Master craftsman Allah Ditta in Harappa, under the guidance of specialist archaeologists, replicated ancient Harrapan pottery that is on display. A timeline of Pakistan’s history from the Neolithic Age till 1947 has been meticulously painted directly on a wall by miniature artist Naveed Sadiq, which is accompanied by visuals in a short film by Mateela Films, bringing the history to life.
An astounding exhibit inside the pavilion is the aayina-kari, a replica of Sheesh Mahal in Lahore Fort by master craftsman Ustad Rafaqat Ali, who revived the art of creating concave mirrors especially for this exhibit. This Sheesh Mahal walkway is accompanied by fresco art from the same period by artist Aakif Suri as well as a projection of the actual Sheesh Mahal.
Titled “Havens of Natural Wonders”, Walkabout Films has created awe-inspiring videography, displayed on giant screens and showcasing the expanse of the country’s landscape, from the desert to the mountains and the mighty Indus. Nestled in these landscapes, two ancient communities are depicted, the Mohanas of Sindh are represented by an installation of a typical houseboat used by their ancestors, and the Kalasha, the ancient community of the Hindukush Mountains, by their unique textiles.
Bilgrami says the one brief that her team received from Prime Minister Imran Khan was to highlight the different religions that co-exist in the country. Under the theme of ‘Sacred Spaces’, Islam, Christianity, Hinduism and Zoroastrianism have been represented by a site-specific installation displaying metallic emblems of these religions, created by artist Affan Baghpati, as an ode to unanimity.
Pink Salt Rock installation highlights the ownership and economic opportunity under the theme of ‘Land of Opportunity’.
Pakistan’s efforts to combat climate change through the billion tree project has been represented by a stunning installation by digital technologist, Abrar Qazi, who is also the brain behind the Sheesh Mahal walkway. This soundscape and sensory experience, again created as a walkway, takes the visitor through a virtual forest with ingeniously created laser light rays that give the feeling of walking through rain. With the sound of wildlife in the background to give the experience of reconnecting with nature, it is a nod to the country’s billion tree project.
The free rein given to some of Pakistan’s world-class artists, designers and curators in the design of the pavilion has been instrumental in making it a resounding success. It can safely be said that Rana’s stunning masterpiece façade and Bilgrami and her team’s curatorial genius have, even in the short time since the pavilion’s opening, achieved for Pakistan what public diplomacy endeavours worth millions of dollars may not have been able to.
Published in Dawn, October 10th, 2021