Dubai Expo 2020, the first world expo to be held in the Middle East, will have a strong arts component within it. Around 20 artists will create large-scale public art works – some of which will remain after the six-month Expo finishes, becoming permanent fixtures for the new neighbourhoods that will be developed from the Expo site.
The curator of this venture is Tarek Abou El Fetouh, the Cairo-born thinker whose work is familiar across the UAE. Looking at his career, Abou El Fetouh co-curated the 2009 Sharjah Biennial, and is one of the committee members organising the 2021 Sharjah Biennial that will continue the work of the late Okwui Enwezor. From 2013 to 2018, he developed the performance strand of Abu Dhabi Art, known as Durub Al Tawaya, and organised Home Works 6 in Beirut in 2013. He also put together a recent show of Chinese and international works at the Red Brick Art Museum in Beijing, among other exhibitions, and before that, founded Meeting Points, a festival for performance-based work in the Arab region.
And, as those who have followed his work know, he is unique: a curator whose frameworks are grounded in literary and philosophical concepts, far from the buzzwords of art speak. He tries to understand issues at their very core.
For Expo 2020, Abou El Fetouh has been thinking of the 11th century Arabic scholar Ibn Al Haytham. Al Haytham's Book of Optics made major steps in understanding the relationship between vision and cognition.
"Normally people think about Al Haytham as a scientist, not as a philosopher," Abou El Fetouh says. "Although his work came out of philosophical tradition of Basra and Baghdad in the 10th and 11th century."
Al Haytham's work was instrumental in understanding how we perceive the cosmos, Abou El Fetouh explains. His central discovery was that what we see is not the stars, but light hitting the stars. Al Haytham developed this insight both into a theory of how the eye works, and into a larger model for how the mind thinks of what it cannot see.
"He was working on the cognition of the full picture – that the recognition of the full picture only happens in the imagination," he says. "What are the elements that help humans build images in his or her imagination?"
However, this discussion on medieval Arab science finds its way back to Expo 2020 Dubai.
Abou El Fetouh pauses. “We are talking about an image of the world.”
That'swhat expos try to do. In addition to being the first expo sited in the region, Dubai Expo 2020 will be the first expo in which every participating country has a pavilion. Along with each national pavilion, supranational organisations such as the UN, the Arab League and the African Union will be represented, making the anticipated Dubai event a reflection of the political borders and cultures of the world, as well as its aspirations for globalism and fraternity. With his curatorial framework, Abou El Fetouh is trying to understand, philosophically, how such a vision of the entire world might be produced, or at least understood by its audience.
“You can always imagine a story,” he says. “You can listen to a story, even if the conditions are so strange around it. You can relate to a novel written in Japan, by a Japanese author, and it can be a novel that is very close to your heart – and there is another novel by your neighbour living next door that you can’t relate to.”
Cosmopolitanism and imagination will run throughout Abou El Fetouh's programme, for which he has commissioned artists largely from the Menasa region. The Expo site, near Jebel Ali, is divided into three districts and two parts, and the art work will mostly sit on the dividing lines between the different areas. As in Durub Al Tawaya, where Abou El Fetouh used the city of Abu Dhabi as the site for artworks and interventions, the artworks will be woven into the urban fabric, and here executed at a large scale.
The names of the artists will be officially announced in March, but you can read up on the Book of Optics — a title better translated, Abou El Fetouh wishes to flag, as the Book of Sceneries – in the meantime.
Expo 2020 Dubai will take place from October 20 to April 10, 2021