- Façade artist Rashid Rana and principal curator Noorjehan Bilgrami share the curatorial journey behind the Pavilion that has been named among the site’s most visited locations
DUBAI: 'Wow' was the first whisper as I stood before the Pakistan Pavilion in the Opportunity District at Expo 2020 Dubai. Passersby stopped in their tracks, with their eyes fixated on the structure that glistened in the afternoon, as the 24,000 individual panels that dress its façade changed colours and created a dance of light.
I took a closer look and noticed that these units are of varying sizes, but they somehow seamlessly meld together, as a nod to the ideals that form the groundwork of Pakistan – a place where there must be room for everybody and the only way to live is together in harmony.
There was an immediate sense of pride, as the Pavilion’s riveting façade and interior have earned it a spot among the most visited spaces out of the 192 participating countries at the Expo 2020 site. It’s a superb curatorial endeavour and a dream realised for its creative team, including artist Rashid Rana, who has designed the façade of the Pavilion, and multidisciplinary visual artist Noorjehan Bilgrami, who is the Principal Curator of its deeply contemplative ‘Inner Journey’.
The creatives were commissioned by the Trade Development Authority of Pakistan (TDAP), the executive agency behind the Pavilion. “The brief was to transform the standing structure into a unique work of art through intervention,” Rana says about the Pavilion, which reflects the collective efforts of a team including Shahid Abdulla, the Project Lead and a member of the Curatorial Review Committee.
Themed as ‘Unity of All That Appears’, the façade combines rhombus-shaped aluminum composite panels, with one half in reflective mirror finish and the other printed with UV technology.
“The goal was to integrate a material that breaks the solidity of the structure and creates an optical illusion that makes the mass appear lighter in weight. The strategic layering of these panels and their reflective material have introduced a multiplicity of views and added depth to the exterior mass,” explains Rana.
“The transition of colors takes after Pakistan’s many seasons and climatic and geographical variety. The artistic intervention is a celebration of this diversity, which ensures unity amongst different ethnic and racial groups in the country, each having the freedom to preserve and live according to their beliefs,” he notes.
As Principal Curator, Bilgrami has made room for big ideas and art. I stepped inside the Pavilion and saw the whole aesthetic vocabulary of Pakistan come to life. “The curatorial brief was to drive tourism and investment to the country,” shares Bilgrami. “We decided on the title, ‘Pakistan: The Hidden Treasure’, to illuminate the unique jewels unknown to many in and outside the country,” she adds. This theme rewrites the blinkered global narrative about Pakistan by highlighting the little-known aspects that rarely make the news cycle.
Through Bilgrami’s unique design language, the Pavilion not only encompasses electrifying contemporary gestures but also sumptuous traditional takes on what it means to live and breathe Pakistan. The inner journey is spread across eight sections: ‘Dawn of Civilization’, ‘Sheesh Mahal: Pathway of Mirrors’, ‘Haven of Natural Wonders’, ‘Sacred Spaces’ (spanning two areas), ‘Land of Opportunity’, ‘Mangroves at Korangi Creek, Karachi’, and ‘Craft Traditions of Pakistan’.
Bilgrami brought together a group of craftspeople, painters, sculptors, filmmakers, digital artists and sound composers to work on the ‘Inner Journey’. The Pavilion includes a wide range of crafts from all parts of the country – from hand-woven Pattu cloth from Chitral to handmade copper triangles from Afghan Metals Workshop in Peshawar.
I entered the Pavilion through a door adorned with hand-beaten copper triangles under a Kashi (tiled) ceiling, walking past earthenware pottery, jewelry and toys, which are replicas from the Indus Valley Civilization that flourished in the region around 5,000 years ago. To my left was a timeline that has been exquisitely hand-painted in miniature style and charts the historical eras of Pakistan.
Playing on a large screen was a short film named ‘Dawn of Civilization’, which offers scintillating insight into representations of the region. A narrow passage took me through the ‘Sheesh Mahal: Pathway of Mirrors’ – a mesmerizing journey of light and shadow that’s inspired by the eponymous Mughal-era marvel in Lahore.
Master craftsmen were engaged to create ayina-kari panels of motifs lifted from the Sheesh Mahal on a scale that has never been done before. An artist recreated the frescoes of the palace on a large scale, and high-tech digital projections of footage captured from the palace showcase the seamless blend of the past and present.
I was then led to the ‘Haven of Natural Wonders’ section, which features breathtaking images and films that showcase the majesty of Pakistan’s landscapes and the diversity of its wildlife. Here, the ancient Kalasha community is honoured through an installation that features their unique cowrie shell head-dresses and distinct black costumes.
Among the centerpieces of the experience is a 22-feet-long Mohana Boat, constructed by fourth-generation boat makers of the Mohana community.
“During the time I was in the early stages of developing the ‘Inner Journey’ design, I was going through my archives and came across a few photographs of an intricately carved traditional Mohana houseboat floating on the River Indus, which I had taken during one of my trips to Sukkur around 30 years ago,” shares Bilgrami.
“At that moment, I decided that the Pavilion must feature a Mohana boat, so the world could appreciate the culture and craftsmanship of the ancient community that has been sustained by the River Indus since the time of the Indus Valley Civilization,” she adds. “This turned out to be a challenging undertaking, as the Mohana boats have vanished from the river over the last three decades.”
For Bilgrami, the first task was to search for master craftspeople who knew the method of building the complex houseboat. “Friends who live in Sukkur managed to find the wonderful team of craftsmen, led by Ustad Muhammad Hussain Mughal and Mohammad Rahib Mirani. They constructed the boat from kail (ash wood) and sheesham (rosewood) amid immense excitement in Sukkur, as a boat like this hadn’t been constructed in around 55 years,” noted Bilgrami.
After encountering this treasure trove of history, I walked through a dark passage to the section where Pakistan’s ‘Sacred Spaces’ are celebrated. Here, I watched films that capture the spirit of coexistence in mosques, shrines, temples, gurudwaras and churches across the country. Light filtered through the carved wooden jaali and Naaqashi (fresco) panels on the wall, painted by master craftsmen and inspired by the Wazir Khan Mosque in Lahore.
Next, I relished the Pakistan that I know as the ‘Land of Opportunity’, which is depicted through footage that projects the country as an economic gateway and spotlights the achievements of women and the youth. A high-tech installation here celebrates the country’s pink rock salt Khewra Mines.
Then, I descended on a ramp to experience the ‘Mangroves at Korangi Creek, Karachi’ section, which highlights Pakistan’s efforts in climate action. The multisensory installation of LED lights creates a haunting natural environment, giving visitors the illusion of being on a hand-rowed boat that’s sailing through a dense mangrove forest. The experiential ‘Inner Journey’ concluded with films being showcased on six parallel screens, which depict the vibrant ‘Craft Traditions of Pakistan’ – a key curatorial hook of the Pavilion.
Among the greatest feats of the Pakistan Pavilion is that it has solidified the country’s position as a soft power before the global community. “It’s a cheerful invitation to explore the hidden treasures of our country and its façade is the perfect example of visual language transcending barriers. This project is also a reminder to improve the status of artists and art in the society through the media and national policies,” states Rana.
“When we started working on the Pakistan Pavilion, there was no way for us to know what response we’d get, but what we’ve experienced since the opening has been beyond our expectations,” says Bilgrami. “This demonstrates that there’s a real appetite both within the country and abroad to have a different global conversation about Pakistan.”
As I stepped outside the Pavilion after relishing its vibrant Bazaar and restaurants, Dhaaba and Dawat, I found myself piecing together the multistrand narrative that an entire creative community has woven. It conveys a fuller sense of the enigma that’s Pakistan – one that I hope tourists and investors will continue exploring at the Pavilion until Expo 2020 closes its doors in March next year.