When visitors at Expo 2020 Dubai take a drink of water, they’ll also be getting a taste of local culture.
Each water fountain at the first world’s fair in the Middle East will nod to the nation’s vibrant history while offering a vision of the role the UAE envisages for itself.
In November, two UAE-based design teams were named the winners of a competition to recast the sabeel, the traditional drinking water fountain, to reflect the spirit of the UAE and the region’s cultural values. Fifty-three fountains by the UAE-based Architecture + Other Things and design team Faissal El-Malak and Alia Bin Omair will be adapted across the Expo 2020 site.
Creativity at work
“Everyone who drinks water at Expo 2020 will drink from designs that are incredibly imaginative and that reboot the drinking fountain for the future,” says Antonia Carver, Director at Art Jameel, which organised the contest along with the expo team and is now working on large-scale public artworks to coincide with the event.
“We’re thrilled that Expo 2020 has decided to place UAE creativity at its heart, and to really think how to combine local talent and design prowess with the practicalities of creating sustainable resources for a mass public,” explains Carver.
“Centres such as Jameel can add local context to the global nature of Expo 2020 and year-round provide visitors with a compelling, dynamic and informative gateway to the art worlds of the UAE and wider region.”
From London’s Great Exhibition of 1851, world’s fairs have left an indelible cultural impression on the world while propelling their host cities and countries to the forefront of the global conversation. The Eiffel Tower, built for the 1889 Universal Exposition in Paris, is now the world’s most photographed landmark, according to a Sony Mobile analysis of Instagram posts. An entire genre of music, ragtime, was created at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, which also inspired L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Although these global exhibitions have moved away from early themes of technological utopianism to focus on social and environmental issues — Expo 2020 will spotlight the very contemporary matters of opportunity, mobility and sustainability — their cultural impact resonates for years afterwards.
Beyond moving the conversation around its core themes forward, then, Expo 2020 Dubai will serve as a natural showcase for Emirati and expatriate talent from the UAE and around the world.
“Expo 2020 Dubai is bringing together renowned visionary artists from around the world and is providing a platform for visual artists, designers, singers, musicians and composers, inspiring millions of visitors to interact, engage, and share ideas, visions and narratives,” says Dr Hayat Shamsuddin, Senior Vice-President — Arts & Culture, Expo 2020 Dubai.
Three initiatives are part of the show’s programme: a visual arts programme, a design and crafts line-up, and the first Emirati opera, Al Wasl, composed by Mohammed Fairouz and Maha Gargash.
“The aim of these contemporary streams is to position Expo 2020 Dubai within the global artistic scene, while reflecting the leading role that the UAE is playing at a regional level,” Dr Shamsuddin says.
Taking place at a seminal moment in the nation’s history, the event provides the opportunity to stop and examine what it means to be Emirati, how far we’ve accumulated a national body of cultural expression — and what direction the conversation might take from here.
“With its proud seafaring and nomadic heritage, the UAE has become a home to more than 190 nationalities and emerged to become one of the most open societies in the world,” says Maha Al Mezaina, Head of Area2071, the future-focused start-up ecosystem.
Driven by a visionary leadership, she says, the nation’s culture has been shaped an openness and tolerance that has brought the world to its doors, whether through seminal events such as Pope Francis’ visit to the UAE, or a burgeoning film and arts scene that places the UAE at the heart of a global dialogue.
“In recent years, we’ve seen a notable shift in the Emirati mindset. With the global influence that programmes like the Dubai Future Accelerators foster, we’ve seen a more daring and ambitious approach from young, entrepreneurial Emiratis eager to make it a part of their nation’s cultural fabric to come up with solutions to tomorrow’s problems. In that sense, Expo 2020 will be an opportunity to display to the world this cultural shift in thinking and ambitions.”
Sharihan Al Mashary, the Emirati General Manager of the boutique hotel Manzil Downtown, sees the Expo themes dovetail with her own traditions. “If you dive into the roots of the themes, it gives you the perfect answer to how history repeats itself. The region was built on these pillars: mobility or the movement of people and trade for opportunities and to create opportunities for a sustainable future. History shows that by connecting minds, the future is created.” She already showcases local arts at her hotel, with regular Emirati poetry gatherings, the inclusion of Emirati dishes at breakfast, and events that spotlight the nation’s folklore. Like Carver, she hopes to be able to extend that further over the Expo period.
“Expo 2020 is a once in a lifetime opportunity,” agrees cultural and media personality Aida Al Busaidy. She believes present and future generations of Emiratis will learn a great deal from the landmark event. “As custodians of the torch that we call Emirati, we will be the ones to be at the forefront learning all that we can about everything the expo has to offer combined with what we already know and love about our culture and heritage and communicate that to the world.”
And there’s a lot to communicate, points out Jane Bristol-Rhys, Associate Professor of cultural anthropology at Zayed University, who takes issue with the facetious view that Emirati culture is lacking in depth. “There has always been an Emirati cultural scene,” she tells GN Focus via email. “Even in the pre-oil days, people had salons — or majlises — for discussing events, religious ideas and that sort of thing. The idea that there was no cultural scene here is an entirely foreign perspective because they didn’t encounter what constituted cultural in their societies.”
As that scene has grown and changed over the years, thanks to events such as Abu Dhabi Art, the Dubai International Film Festival and the Sharjah Biennial as well as because of the Emirates’ strengthened role as a hub for the international knowledge economy, it has absorbed what it likes and rejected what it doesn’t. “I don’t think the impact of Expo 2020 on Emiratis will be as heavily felt as it will be on the visitors who come to see it — they will be impressed as hell,” says Bristol-Rhys.