Dubai: Called the ‘water tower of West Africa’, Guinea has been a consistent participant of the World Expos since Hannover in 2000. Expo 2020 Dubai is yet another global venue on its channel, except, for the first time ever, the country gets to tell its full story in a standalone pavilion. Gabriel Curtis, Minister of Investments and Public-Private Partnerships and Commissioner General of the Guinea Pavilion, told Gulf News in an interview that it was a novelty not to exhibit in a kiosk as they had done before.
Expo 2020 Dubai is different because Guinea will have its own pavilion, which is a novelty for us to be able to fully tell our own story.
Guinea’s most abundant resource, water, is this Expo’s central theme. Though it holds more than 1,200 water bodies and has one of the wettest capital cities in the world (Conakry gets an annual rainfall of 4,000mm), the country is faced with the challenge of sustainably, efficiently navigating this natural resource.
“We are the source of a lot of the major rivers in West Africa, particularly the Niger River, which is the third largest on the continent after the Nile and Congo rivers,” Curtis said. “Our President of the Republic, Alpha Condé, has made three major objectives part of his governance: women’s autonomy, youth employment and training, and preserving the environment.”
The triple agenda will reflect in the country’s participation at Expo 2020 Dubai, along with other exciting cultural exhibits awaiting visitors.
Deposit water solutions in the co-creation hub
Based in the Sustainability District, the Guinea Pavilion will invite visitors to share their water solutions towards the end of their journey. You can have an active role in redirecting billions of cubic metres of surface and underground water to the people and improving their access to it.
“We do not want people to just go and look at pictures or videos; we also want their feedback,” said Curtis. “[The lab] will show us what people think, and we will use their ideas to seek solutions for sustainability, especially when it comes to water.”
All ideas received in the co-creation hub will be answers to a set of problem questions for visitors to solve on digital screens. Integrating the Expo’s theme of ‘Connecting Minds, Creating the Future’, the interactive space allows for the timely opportunity to brainstorm together as one.
A warm welcome by deity D’mba, Picasso’s muse
Before stepping through the pavilion doors, visitors are greeted by two sculptures characteristic of Guinean art adorning the entrance: deity of fertility, D’mba (or Nimba), and a tribal chief’s throne.
“No other country has it – [D’mba] is typical of Guinea,” said Curtis.
More specifically, the wooden artwork belongs to certain subgroups of the Baga people, an ethnic group in the country, who wear the massive four-feet-long headdress when performing rituals. D’mba is hailed as a universal mother figure, but the unique artistry that gives birth to her famous exaggerated form is what left various 20th-century Western artists awestruck – including Henri Matisse, Alberto Giacometti and Pablo Picasso. “It’s one of the sculptures that inspired Picasso during the 1900 World Expo in France,” he added.
True enough, a D’mba headdress was displayed at the Paris Exposition Universelle, after which it found home in the Ethnographic Museum of the Trocadéro in 1902. It was in this museum that the Spanish artist chanced upon the wooden sculpture that critics claim most likely founded the Cubist movement. Soon, Picasso was collecting a number of Baga objects and depicting African art in his jagged, fragmented compositions.
Curtis said that visitors will be encouraged to snap photos in the chief’s throne or next to the D’mba before beginning their pavilion journey.
Tread along the Guinean river path
A fluorescent turquoise path on the pavilion floor will guide the audience through the exhibition, flanked by informational plaques and visual media fixed to the walls. Using the latest technology, glowing lights create an impression of a meandering Guinea river underneath the feet.
“The pavilion is not huge,” said Curtis. “So, what we had to do was make the experience as intense as possible so that people can get a feel of what it is to be in Guinea.”
Other landscape features include a replica of an existing mountain in the country, and when asked which, the Commissioner General remained tight-lipped on the particularities as with the glowing river installation.
“You will see,” he said, laughing.
Walls of the pavilion are clad in a collage of textile patterns such as the leppi, forêt sacrée or sacred forest and kindeli, which is unique to the Guinean city of Kindia. These fabrics will be up for grabs in a small market place inside the pavilion. A bigger kiosk, Curtis pointed out, will be located adjacent to the Al Wasl Plaza, also featuring artefacts and the superfood whole grain fonio.
Here’s trivia to keep in mind for when you come across the many video stands in the pavilion: the base is a wooden sculpture of the Baga snake ‘Bansonyi’ standing upright. The serpent is a protective spirit believed to bring rain and wealth among the Baga people.
Experience modern-day Guinea in a musical
A day not to be missed is the Expo-allotted Guinea national day falling on February 13, 2022. Cultural activities and performances galore, the special day will be for reintroducing old and contemporary Guinea to global visitors at the exposition site.
In the morning, an opening performance titled the ‘Postal Cards of Guinea’ will take people on a four-act fiesta throughout the distinct regions of the country – starting with forests rivalling that of the Amazonia, then the savannahs of the Upper Guinea, moving to the middle region of mountains and finally concluding with beaches in the lower coastal area.
“We will be taking you through different cultures, dances and rhythms of these four regions of Guinea,” added Curtis.
When the day winds down, there will be the musical ‘Wontanara’ (meaning ‘we are united’) awaiting visitors in the evening, performed and sung by a specially curated ensemble in a blend of French and native tongues.
“It’s a show that will mainly present the youth and women in the form of a musical. We will give you an insight into how modern Guineans are living and what their aspirations are now and in the future,” he said. “We assembled the best troupes in the country to create a specific show just for the Expo.”
[The show 'Wontanara'] will mainly present the youth and women in the form of a musical. We will give you an insight into how modern Guineans are living and what their aspirations are now and in the future. We assembled the best troupes in the country to create a specific show just for the Expo.
On its national day, the pavilion is also expecting to receive President Alpha Condé among other significant delegates.
The Guinea Pavilion will have a strong presence in four of the 10 Theme Weeks, namely Urban and Rural Development Week; Travel and Connectivity Week; Food, Agriculture and Livelihood Week; and Water Week. Participation is slated for business-focused events such as the Global Business Forum (GBF) on Africa in October 13 and 14, and the Guinea Investment Forum in February 2022.
Connecting UAE and Guinea students in a pandemic
Preparations for the pavilion organisers certainly took a hit with the onset of the pandemic, but Curtis said that the challenges only served to ignite their creativity and helped them think out of the box.
“We’ve been able to collaborate extremely well with the Expo team here in Dubai and find creative ways to continue to achieve what we set out to do,” he added.
One such remote initiative born of the global crisis will be putting Guinean school children in touch with UAE-based students at the Expo.
“Two classes [from across the border] will be able to interact with each other. We’re still working out the details, but the [gist is that] the students from the UAE will be invited to our pavilion to converse with a class in Guinea.”
For those back home missing out on all the festivities, the Commissioner General said that pavilion is going to get its own temporary exhibition in Conakry after Expo 2020 wraps up in March 2022.
“We want to make sure that people have a real sense of where Guinea is,” said Curtis.
- The writer is an intern with Gulf News.