Expo 2020 Dubai, a highly anticipated global event, showcased the innovations and achievements of 192 nations and attracted an impressive 24.1 million visits. Through its People and Planet program, Expo 2020 Dubai brought together 20,000 changemakers who shared their ideas and insights. The event had a significant economic impact, with a total Gross Value Added (GVA) of 154.9 billion AED. The top three sectors contributing to this economic growth were events organization business (75.7 billion AED), construction (31.9 billion AED), and restaurants and hotels (23.1 billion AED). Expo 2020 Dubai supported over a million full-time employment opportunities and awarded 6.8 billion AED worth of contracts to small and medium enterprises (SMEs).
While Expo 2020 Dubai achieved remarkable figures, it’s crucial to consider the impact on regional artists and their benefits from this event. Expo 2020 Dubai actively engaged the local community through various initiatives such as workshops, competitions, mentorship programs, and volunteering opportunities. These efforts encouraged grassroots participation and active involvement, providing local artists with a platform to showcase their talents. The engagement of grassroots collectives and creatives at Expo 2020 has the potential to create a lasting impact and legacy, empowering local talents and inspiring future generations of creatives in the Arab Gulf.
A year after the astounding international mega-event, we reflect on the works of a few featured artists and collectives highlighting their contributions to the event and how it has impacted them.
Different paths, common goal
The participation of these artists in Expo 2020 Dubai exemplified the event's lasting impact on the regional art scene and the empowerment of local artists. By providing a global platform, the Expo enabled regional artists to gain exposure and recognition on an unprecedented scale. It facilitated the communication of their unique messages and showcased their diverse talents to a wide international audience. The event also encouraged artists to push boundaries, explore new mediums and multidisciplinary approaches, and think beyond their traditional career paths.
For Bahraini architect Jaffar Al Haddad, the opportunity to display his artworks, "Dilmun Trilogy", allowed him to communicate his interpretation of the old settlements of Dilmun to a global audience. In addition, his collaboration titled "Amplified" with TOFI (Noor Alwan and Abdulla Buhiji), invited visitors to engage with the pavilion in a dynamic and immersive manner leading to the pavilion. “The joy and enthusiasm we saw from the audience solidified and validated the impact of our art and reinforced our belief in its universal appeal,” expressed TOFI.
Consequently, In Narrative (Mishari Al Najjar and Sara Abdulla) collaborated with Qirtas Shop, a Bahrain-based stationery and concept store, for their participation at Expo 2020 Dubai. Together, they meticulously researched and designed a series of notebooks and cards for the Kingdom of Bahrain Pavilion. These designs captured the essence of Manama, a city rich in cultural traditions, modern dynamism, diversity, and innovation, all of which exceeded its geographical size. “Expo 2020 Dubai was an ideal platform to showcase this to the global audience, irrespective of their professional and academic backgrounds,” said In Narrative. Jaffar also expressed that “The fact that you can share your local perspective to a universal audience has a very rich message on the possibilities of where you can go and the impact you can create.” They successfully transcended the boundaries of targeting a predominantly Arab audience, creating works that effectively conveyed their message to a global audience.
Similarly, Faissal El-Malak seized the chance to participate in the Sabeel competition alongside an Emirati jewelry designer, Alia bin Omair, which led to the creation of a water fountain (Al Sabeel) displayed throughout the Expo grounds. “The project showed me that everything is possible, if you have an idea, just apply and don't be so attached to a label,” shared Faissal. This experience not only exposed his work to a vast international audience but also challenged him to think beyond his previous career as a fashion designer and explore a more multidisciplinary approach.
El Seed, a renowned artist, participated in the Women Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai. His artwork in the pavilion was a translation of a piece he had previously created in a Nepalese village that was rebuilt by women after the devastating earthquake of 2015. El Seed's artwork shed light on the struggles faced by these resilient women and also conveyed his deep belief in women empowerment and gender equality. “I was representing a cause and not a country, that was the important thing for me,” expressed El Seed.
Abu Dhabi’s 421, an arts space dedicated to fostering critical dialogue on relevant issues, had the opportunity to collaborate closely with the UAE Pavilion team at Expo 2020 Dubai. Together they curated an exhibition titled "On Foraging: Food Knowledge and Environmental Imaginaries in the UAE's Landscape." This thought-provoking exhibition featured the works of UAE-based artists who explored environmentalism through the lens of food histories and native foraging practices. “It underscored the significance of understanding and preserving foraging traditions that bring balance and harmony to the environment, showcasing a diverse range of artistic practices,” said Faisal Al-Hassan, the Head of 421.
Lastly, MENASA's debut at Dubai Expo 2020 offered a captivating journey into the world of Emirati crafts, where age-old traditions merge with cutting-edge design and innovation. Curated by Samer Yamani and titled "Craft Stories" at Dubai Expo 2020, this innovative showcase brought together a dynamic collaboration between local and international artisans and designers, offering a unique exploration of traditional Emirati crafts infused with contemporary creativity. Among the notable participants in MENASA is the accomplished artist and designer, Faissal El Malak, where he approached a contemporary interpretation of Palestinian embroidery and other Arab countries' traditions and turned them into a stunning collection of blankets.
Current impact, future aspirations
When reflecting on their participation in Expo 2020 Dubai, the creatives recognised the lasting impact of this momentous event on the regional art scene and the empowerment of local artists. The participation of artists and designers in Expo 2020 Dubai holds significant weight within their portfolios and adds to their body of work. Expo 2020 Dubai will be remembered as a transformative chapter in the journey of regional art, leaving a lasting imprint on the artists and the broader creative landscape.
Faissal El Malak hopes to witness more competitions and initiatives similar to Expo 2020 Dubai. The event served as a crucial stepping stone, allowing artists access to a broader audience beyond the confines of the art world. By being present in the public realm and among fellow artists and creatives, a sense of community was fostered. “I am hoping visitors will be inspired by the fact that public art will be part of development and to have art accessible to the public,” emphasized Faissal. El Seed also acknowledged that Expo 2020 Dubai allowed artists to present Dubai from a fresh artistic perspective. It provided a unique opportunity to showcase the city through a different lens, offering a truly transformative experience.
Jaffar believes that Expo 2020 Dubai played a pivotal role in showcasing the quality, narrative, and mediums of regional art to both local and international audiences. “You, as an artist, gain a lot of credibility when you showcase art in an international dialogue as much as you gain more information of world-class talents and their own practices," said Jaffar. By bringing worldwide talents to the attention of local and regional viewers, Expo 2020 Dubai elevated the regional art scene to a significant position in the global cultural conversation. In Narrative emphasized the significance of Expo 2020 Dubai as a robust gateway to showcase work on a global scale. The impact extended beyond regional art, challenging participants to convey the essence of their countries and their work through innovative mediums. “The impact was the experience in diversification of communicating the designer’s message, and how that will inform further projects,” expressed In Narrative.
For Faisal Al Hassan, the impact extended beyond the Expo itself. A year later, the exhibition was brought to 421's gallery spaces in Abu Dhabi, offering a wider audience the opportunity to engage with the showcased works. The exhibition expanded, featuring new research and commissions, reaffirmed the commitment to sustaining the dialogue on sustainability. “We firmly believe that this conversation should be an ongoing endeavor that is integrated into the programming of institutions like ourselves that serve as public spaces for collaboration, learning, experimentation, and dialogue,” said Faisal.
– Marsya Abdulghani
Images courtesy of Expo Dubai 2020, Jaffar El Haddad, and In Narrative