The Pakistan Pavilion – Architecture and Space as Locus of Dream, Desire and Longing
The Pakistan Pavilion – Architecture and Space as Locus of Dream, Desire and Longing

On October 1st 2021 the much awaited Expo 2020, hosted by Dubai opened its doors to visitors with great fanfare and a spectacular opening ceremony. The aim of the Expo was to promote “an exhibition of culture, technology and architecture under the banner Connecting Minds and Creating the Future.1Each country would have its own Pavilion. A whopping 192 countries participated in the event which was a monumental achievement in itself.

For the millions of people around the world who could not be there is person, they tuned in to view the Pavilions online, each one an embodiment of a nation’s cultural, social and technological achievements. Social media, V-logs, virtual tours, personalized accounts of visitors and YouTube videos all played an instrumental role in generating anticipation and debate regarding ‘the best Pavilions’.   Promotion of the Pakistan Pavilion on Instagram and Facebook had commenced much earlier and had already begun to generate a fair amount of hype and excitement. Shorts and videos of the making of its massive façade awash with Rashid Rana’s rippling, multi-hued panels began to circulate on various social media platforms while videos of principal curator of the Pakistan Pavilion Noorjehan Bilgrami introduced audiences to the theme and making of its various sections. Titled ‘Pakistan: The Hidden Treasure’ the interior was meant to showcase “the history, ethno-religious diversity, rich craft traditions, precious natural resources and cutting-edge industries like never before.” 2

The online social media space, particularly the ‘Comments’ section under the various videos and v-logs featuring the Pakistan Pavilion were awash with effusive praise. Pakistanis both at home and abroad began to transform this space for social interaction into a site for the display and expression of national pride, nostalgia and yearning for their roots and country of origin.

In the months that followed, the official Instagram account of the Pakistan Pavilion celebrated national days, national heroes, patriotic songs, folk songs, folk culture, history, tradition and even seminars that encouraged discourse about the country’s future potential on a global stage. So did the online space transform into a microcosm of Anderson’s “imagined community” where notwithstanding the absence of geographic boundaries3 it was still defined by “a deep horizontal comradeship”4 exemplified by the show of emotion and pride through comments on the Pakistan Pavilion Instagram page and through status updates and “Likes” featuring images of the Pakistan Pavilion? This was certainly demonstrated through the emotional response of Pakistanis residing in their home country as well as Pakistani diaspora. Could it then also align with Hobsbaum’s emphasis on recognizing that both old traditions and new rituals, such as ceremonies that celebrate national unity, national days etc., both help a modern nation state in developing a sense of continuity with the past?5 This particular aspect resonates with Pakistani diaspora and also serves to demonstrate that “communities are distinguished not by their falsity/genuineness but by the style in which they are imagined.”6 In this case this stylistic enactment of rituals and traditions, old and new, is unique because it is taking place in virtual space as well as in real time, both spaces attempt to celebrate the architectural marvel which is the Pakistan Pavilion .

As each Instagram and Facebook post racked up “Likes” for the grandiose spectacle that the Pakistan Pavilion represented and a barrage of memorable selfies of celebrities began to grace various social media platforms, one also began to consider the power and potency of   obsessive following, viewing and commenting on audio-visuals that regularly featured a constant demonstration of some form of ritual, tradition and patriotic emotion affiliated with homeland in an online space all of which was connected to a singular architectural manifestation of it all: the unique aesthetic of the Pakistan Pavilion. Revved up on this patriotic emotion and pride, viewers would then inevitably be compelled to hunt for tours of the spectacle on Youtube in particular where one could drink in the dazzling façade and interior of the architectural marvel itself, replete with slick video projections, music, sound and VR displays that celebrated Pakistan’s diversity, culture and landscape. So does cyberspace, characterized by the constant flow and transmission of information have the potential to occasionally transmute a proliferation of voices and a sometimes divisive online community of Pakistanis into one that can rally around an idyllic notion of an “imagined community” as defined by Benedict Anderson? How did an architectural achievement constructed in temporal space— a milestone of sorts for a developing nation exhibiting in a foreign country with over a hundred other nations competing at the same venue— viewed in atemporal space, collectively elicit a romanticized desire for unity, progress and modernity amongst Pakistanis in a digital space?

The case study of the Pakistan Pavilion also represents a curious paradox laced with ambition; there is mediation between competing visions of Pakistan’s future which is spatially and architecturally represented. The shimmering exterior of the Pavilion posits the desire and aspiration for a technologically advanced and modern nation vis-à-vis the dimly interior that sanctifies and  memorializes the various pasts to evoke an ethnically and culturally diverse present that privileges labour, industry and technology in tandem with an eco-friendly vision. But then how does it reckon with its colonial past; perhaps its remnants extricated from those structures are reinterpreted in a new narration represented through display and curation of the Pavilion’s interior? What kind of complex “national” identity is then woven together and projected by the Pakistan Pavilion in an era of the post-national: is it then one that intersects with globalization, consumption and the “rebranding” of nations at grand international spectacles and events such as Expos, Olympics and other spectacles?

In the 1960s Pakistan had embraced the challenge of producing architecture that would embody universal trends characterized by international modernist architecture. Simultaneously it was decided that the aesthetics of such Modernist architecture would also have to embrace its religious identity; archetypes of Islamic architecture would have to be fused with modernist trends at the time. Post-independence, emphasis was laid on the building of an Islamic state that was aspirational, progressive and proud of its local heritage. Therefore these buildings contained a delicate balance of both these approaches. Mid-century Modern aesthetic prevailed; landmark architectural projects constructed at this time were characterized by simple, straight lines, geometric patterns, extensive use of white and in order to fulfill the Islamic quotient, the use of verandahs, courtyards and colonnades.7 In recent decades leading architectural firms of Pakistan have continued to experiment with but also progressively contested the boundaries of this aesthetic.

At the Dubai Expo the form and materiality of the Pakistan Pavilion’s architecture, particularly its façade, attempts to formulate a new dialogue with Pakistan’s identity on the global stage with a new tabula rasa, an artistic intervention that carries the hallmarks of a postmodernist aesthetic. Unlike the past which privileged a singular focus on forging a link with global Modernism and its rather severe aesthetics, there is a tectonic shift: the asymmetrical form of the architecture of the Pavilion becomes the site for engaging with a new and complex zeitgeist, particularly in the wake of an ongoing global pandemic and its resulting global economic and political/social turmoil. The shedding of and replacement of a modernist “skin” with a shifting postmodernist monumental theatricality in another corner of the world is carefully conceived and executed. Each rhombus shaped panel that adorns the façade of the building is fractionally different in size, colour and geometry from the adjacent panel.8 The organic asymmetrical shapes of the form of the Pavilion enable this unique ornamentation to be used as a strategy that “breaks down” the surface through light and reflection which allows the whole form to come to life i.e the structure appears to “move” as an amorphous form in flux. This trompe l’ oeil effect not only deceives the viewer but also allows it to be interpreted in a new way each time that it is viewed.

In his seminal work on postmodernist architecture titled ‘Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture’, Robert Venturi reflects affirms the rejection of Modern architecture in favour of “…inconsistent and equivocal rather than direct and clear.” He goes on to proclaim that “… I include the non sequitur and proclaim duality. I am for richness of meaning rather than clarity of meaning… I prefer “both-and” to “either-or”, black and white, and sometimes gray, to black or white…but an architecture of complexity and contradiction has a special obligation toward the whole: its truth must be in its totality or its implications of totality. It must embody the difficult unity of inclusion rather than the easy unity of exclusion. More is not less.”9

Interestingly this postmodernist spirit of Venturi and championing of ambiguity is equally embodied in the very title of Rashid Rana’s façade: ‘Unity of All that Appears’. Rana’s comments about the concept for the facade also carry a homage to Venturi’s embrace of “a difficult unity of inclusion”10, he comments on the concept of the façade stating that his work “emphasizes the need to acknowledge and cherish diversity, leading to unity.”11

The outer “shell” of the Pavilion contests simplistic, unilinear paths to understanding the complexity of Pakistan’s culture, history and people. In the wake of its turbulent history punctuated by conflicts that expose linguistic, ethnic and religious differences, Rana’s artistic call for acknowledgement of diversity and resolution for unity resonates, particularly with the younger generation. It simultaneously bolsters the spirit of the Pakistani public back home and diaspora settled all over the world, reminding them of commonalities rather than differences. Implicit in Rana’s spectacality is also a sort of clarion call that is directed towards the international community at large: essentialized interpretations and stereotyping of the country in the wake of 9/11 and the War on Terror had left the country isolated. The futuristic, shimmering façade visible from a great distance trumps expectations and calls attention to the potential and emergence of Pakistan in a global arena.

The “inner shell” of the Pavilion on the other hand, consists of   a structured, thematic, museum style display that adopts linearity in its narrative, one that caters to a desire to establish a history that consciously “constructs” a smooth, unimpeded progress and continuity for an international audience. Does this serve as a counter narrative to the dominant terrorism narrative in order to encourage tourism and motivate Pakistanis at home and abroad? What kind of desires thrust the Pakistan Pavilion into the realm of what Homi Bhabha calls and defines as “loss turned into a language of metaphor?”12

Bhabha uses this phrase when he writes about the nineteenth century which was defined by colonial expansion and migration which ultimately ushered in the era of nations. The void left by the chaos of the creation of nations then had to be filled by “invented traditions”13 discussed by Hobsbaum. Bhabha points out the futility of the homogenizing experience of nationhood which is not based on location but is more temporal, in flux and characterized by other complexities such as migration. Reflecting on this one could argue that   desire and nostalgia informs Pakistani psyche both at home and abroad. Many overseas Pakistanis left their country decades ago owing to unemployment, and growing political/ economic instability. Paradoxically their memory of home in particular, is ensconced in an imagined past that was more peaceful and progressive than the one that has graced their screens on news channels after 9/11. Does the Pakistan Pavilion then become “a fetish for the lost object”14 or a metonym for this desire to be accepted as modern and progressive. Does the unique design and aesthetic construct a liminal space for the fashioning of a new identity on a global stage?

The layout and conception of ‘Pakistan: The Hidden Treasure’ seems to oscillate between a modern present devoted to Industry and an ancient timeless past that has flowed on unhindered thus deserves to be vaunted as a hitherto “undiscovered” tourist destination. It also aligns with the desire of Pakistanis to be perceived globally as both progressive but borne of old historical and civilizational lineage. Emphasizing nationhood, territorial pride and progress, this narrative is demonstrated in the exhibition of natural resources through technology: videos of various geographies and landscapes, cultural practices and rituals tied to land allow the past to be visually constructed and “transport” the viewer to this illusory world of moving images whilst still maintaining and emphasizing its ownership. Whether it is the northern areas of the country, rugged landscapes of the West or mangroves in the south on the coastal areas, the progress of the country is tied to an assertion of the bounties that lie within its defined geographic/cartographic boundaries.

In his seminal text ‘Imagined Communities’ Anderson uses the development of capitalism, the printing press and vernacular languages- culture and communication- to explain the formation of nationalism. In addition he states that social ties and politics help create an “imagined political community that is both politically and territorially limited and sovereign.”15 In other words it is human thinking and learning that has constituted the construction of a nation.16

Stuart Hall reflects on culture in a globalized world and says that culture is not produced in a vacuum but it is, according to Lundholm, commenting on Hall, “a terrain of practices representation, language, values, traditions and customs of a specific society or group.”17 Hall therefore concentrates on the construction of collective identity and symbolic borders in nationalism. The theme, concept and execution of the interior of the Pakistan Pavilion uses the ideas pertaining to nationalism and nationhood discussed by Hall and Anderson in that the interior of the Pavilion embodies and builds a culture based on “symbolic borders” such as a celebration of religious diversity, ethnicities and plurality of cultures regardless of where one resides in the world.

If the smartly packaged promotion and proliferation of images available on online social media platforms relating to the Pakistan Pavilion form a prelude to igniting patriotism and a “sense of place” attachment even amongst young Pakistanis who have never visited Pakistan then these desires are brought to fruition in the actual display with its contents and “artifacts” that transform the structure into a simulacrum of an imagined nation as defined by Baudrillard. ‘Pakistan: Land of Hidden Treasures’ enters the realm of the hyperreal; shorn of geographic boundaries and presented as a phantasmagorical mirage that reflects light and shifts constantly, it becomes a stand-in for an ideal nation that was first envisioned in the late nineteenth century when nations were first “invented”.

The internet and growth of platforms such as Youtube where one can “visit” multiple places through videos have helped accentuate the hyperreal and construct an atemporal notion of time that intensifies sensory experience. Castell writes that “the clock time of the Industrial age has been replaced by “timeless time”, a kind of time that occurs when in a given context, such as the network society, there is systematic perturbation in the sequential order of the social practices performed in this context.” It is also, he writes, “a particularly malleable technology, susceptible to being modified by its social practice, and leading to a whole range of social outcomes.”18 Owing to “timeless time” or the annihilation of sequential time through the internet, Pakistani viewers at home or abroad, whilst in their different time zones, can digitally “walk in” to the Pakistan Pavilion at any time of their preference and use various social media platforms to express their pride and joy in being Pakistani. Replaying the videos multiple times can even reinforce this feeling.

For Baudrillard “simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential thing, or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal.”19 The hyperreal is embedded in the conception and execution of the exterior of the Pavilion whereby the plain monotony of the surface is transformed into a dream-like spectacle that celebrates inclusion and unity. Fragmentation and opticality become the defining characteristics that allow the structure to take on an almost hallucinatory quality; as one’s eyes travel across its fragmented surface it resembles a shimmering mirage visible from a distance. Is the promise of unity a chimera then? Even if it is, Rana’s shimmering vision elicits a desire for such utopias. The Pavilion transforms into a receptacle for the unfulfilled dreams, desires, dreams and aspirations of uninterrupted modernity for Pakistanis at home and abroad. Viewing it in “timeless time” on social media platforms adds another illusory layer to our understanding the aspirations of ordinary Pakistanis.

Secondly the interior, with its impressive use of technology and the immersive experience it offers, accentuates the notion of an imagined and ideal nation. Display and presentation, documentation of folk culture and ritual are used to celebrate the constituents of this ideal nation. Replicas of historical and religious spaces are “reconstructed” through technology and the use of skilled craftsmanship. The duplication of the “real” through medium in such a sensory environment “replaces the real for the real”20: the imaginary representation of nation is far more magical and enticing.  Imperial history, culture, ecology and identity of Pakistan are all showcased in equal measure to construct an imagined idea, a utopian vision or Baudrillardian “referential” of the nation.

Thematically the Pavilion is approximately divided into eight spaces. The contribution of many young artists, film and documentary makers, craftsmen and entrepreneurs exhibiting in the Pavilion is noteworthy here. Hall 1 is titled “Dawn of Civilization and features a large bronze sculpture of an ancient Sun symbol, designed by Fahim Rao. The iconography of this solar symbol is found in various civilizations across the region and alludes to the shared and syncretic ancient heritage that has enriched the cultural past of the country.

Fig 1. Dawn of Civilization by Naveed Sadiq features a timeline depicting the ancient past of the region

It is followed by an illustrated timeline of Pakistan’s history, painstakingly painted by hand by Naveed Sadiq, a graduate of NCA. The ancient past is also represented through craft. Harappan pottery is recreated by a ceramist Allah Ditta who in the past has worked closely with American archaeologist Dr. Jonathan Mark Kenoyer to research and reconstruct pottery from the Indus Valley Civilization. The suspended ceiling created in Nassarpur Sindh by Ghulam Hyder Daudpota, features glazed tile work executed in turquoise geometric patterns, commonly known as Kashikari. A large horizontal screen facing the timeline features a video by Mazhar Zaidi that introduces viewers to miniature paintings of the region.

Hall 2 is impressive with its reconstruction of Aienakari (mirror work) panels that adorn the Sheesh Mahal (Hall of Mirrors) section at the Lahore Fort. They have been recreated by the Late Ustad Naqash Rafaqat Ali. (Fig. 3) Frescoes that decorate the Sheesh Mahal have been brought back to life by hand, they have been painted by miniature painter and visual artist Akif Suri, who is currently teaching at the National College of Arts, Lahore. (Fig. 2) Walking through that hall is an ethereal experience which is enhanced by projection mapping of the walls of the Sheesh Mahal executed by Abrar Ali Qazi a former graduate of NCA. Qazi runs ‘Art Bank Residency’ a firm that specializes in 2D and 3D Design, Interaction Design and Immersive experience. (Fig.3)

Fig.2 Akif Suri and his team recreated the frescoes in the Sheesh Mahal of Lahore Fort
Fig. 3 The Ainakari of Sheesh Mahal in the foreground gives way to a projection mapping of the same experience carried out by Art Bank Residency

Hall 3 titled ‘Haven of Natural Wonders’ (Fig. 4) is defined by the presence of a massive traditional wooden carved boat carved by the Mohana tribe from Sukkur. The Mohanas are an ancient community of Sindh who have lived in house boats since the time of the Indus Valley Civilization. The screen behind the sculpture features a film by Nisar Malik who runs Walkabout Films and celebrates the landscape of Pakistan from its mountains in the north to its Deltas in the South.

Fig. 4 The house boat of the Mohanas is flanked by majestic views of Pakistan’s northern areas

Hall 4 and 5 titled “Sacred Spaces” is characterized by deep set shadows created by geometric, floral patterns and latticed screens.   These are interspersed with films by famed filmmaker Jami who uses the semiotics of colour, sound and image to explore the religious diversity and emotive quality inherent in practice and ritual in various parts of the country.

Visual artist Affan Baghpati’s massive series of sculptures titled Phooljal are impressive in scale (Fig. 5); their presence defines the space. Featuring seven emblems Baghpati draws inspiration from different religions and subcultures of Asia. The patterns of three emblems are derived from the surma daani or a kohl container. The container with its distinct shape and appearance along with its contents is charged with meaning; it is an integral part of South Asian material culture and carries cultural and religious significance. The remaining motifs feature emblems drawn from domes, minarets, mosques across the region of South Asia.

Fig. 5 Affan Baghpati’s massive series of sculptures titled Phooljal feature in the Sacred Spaces section

Hall 6 titled ‘Land of Opportunity’ is aimed at presenting the cutting-edge industry and natural resources that define Pakistan’s economy. Filmmaker Saadan Ahmad’s film uses text and image to promote and highlights these aspects but the defining feature was his interactive installation on the uses of Pakistan’s mineral rich pink salt. (Fig. 6) Enhanced by a holographic display where small rocks of pink salt appeared to be suspended midair in a glass case the immersive experience is impressive.

Fig. 6 A display showing the various categories of pink salt found in Pakistan

Hall 7 showcases ‘The Billion Tree Project’, it offers an interactive experience and explores the benefits of sustainable ecological practices. The ‘Ten Billion Tree Tsunami Project’ was launched in 2014 in response to tackling the challenge of global warming. To highlight the concentrated plantation efforts and the fragility of the eco system visual artist Irfan Naqi creates a dense canopy of bamboos suspended from the ceiling. Abrar Qazi and his team create a multisensory experience when each bamboo beams green laser lights towards the floor while viewers walk through them on a ramp. Contact with the beams also triggers the sounds of birds local to the region (Fig. 7). A film projection by Sohail Zuberi and Zarmeene Shah shows scenes of Pakistan’s mangrove forests while its accompanying soundtrack by Saif Samejo evokes the sounds of nature such as wind and rain that are interspersed with local folk instruments. Hall 8 titled ‘Craft Traditions of Pakistan’ feature a film by Jawad Sharif with music by Saif Samejo.

The display and presentation of the Pakistan Pavilion is a curious fusion of a trade fair exhibit and an ethnographic museum. In terms of display and content, does it form a threshold through which it tries to fashion a new post-colonial post-modern identity whilst attempting to distance itself from the darker colonial antecedents of museums and International Exhibitions?  The main characteristics of a museum are assembly/collecting material, preservation and finally interpretation of the contents of a museum. The grouping together of materials, their identification and interpretation is aided by docent tours and extensive labeling. Viewers then take away knowledge about the makers of the objects and their use.21 The European Renaissance, Enlightenment and The Age of Exploration fuelled the European obsession with collecting, cataloguing and categorizing collections that can be traced back to the ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ and princely collections of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.22

The understanding of the term “ethnography” and an ethnographic museum has therefore been shaped by “two strands- the other and the self-…” The former implies early collections that were a by-product of “imperialist, economic and colonial expansion”… they represented the “new and exotic” cultures of non-Western people. The latter has a history that is to do with “expressions of different aspects of folk culture associated with the awakening of nationalism.”23 This category of collection builds on strengthening genealogical and historical continuity. Interestingly such collections are found in local or national folk museums. The history and development of museums and their typologies prove that they emerge out of a unique historical experience that placed European nations at the center in terms of knowledge production and its colonies on the margins. Therefore, on the face of it neither of these schemas for museum displays seem appropriate when applied as is, to such institutions in post-colonial nations. Yet at The Pakistan Pavilion there is an attempt to extricate itself from this history but also use these familiar frameworks to reinvent and reconstitute an identity that intersects between a nationalist folk and a global metropolitan vision for a national and international audience.

The urge to excite and awaken nationalism through folk culture seems to partially define the sections on display at the Pakistan Pavilion. Whether it is the magnificently carved boat of the Mohanas or the videos of Jami that celebrate religious and cultural practices, emphasis is laid upon strengthening folk culture that can be genealogically traced back to an ancient past. There is also an emphasis on showcasing objects and works that are crafted by hand and are exemplified by the creation of pattern and colour; whether it is the glazed tile work of Sindh or phooljal patterns of kohl containers, they underscore the presence and development of skilled labour and practices that have been passed down for generations. This privileging of pattern over other aspects in particular is partially embedded in a colonial understanding of its history. In a post-colonial scenario, is a new tertiary level of meaning being added to this understanding at The Pakistan Pavilion?

Historically, the emergence of “Indian design” and this fascination with pattern and ornament can be traced back to the Indian Court section at ‘The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations’ held at The Crystal Palace, in 1851. The Exhibition was mean to showcase an international exhibition of manufactured products from around the world.  The Indian Court section received “glowing reviews”24

and Indian artisanal goods were praised for two things: “colour and ornament…what made those designs essentially Indian- was the decoration on the boxes and vases.”25  At the time, these rave reviews were meant to raise awareness about a crisis in British Industrial design: British exhibits were ranked far behind the French and Italian displays in aesthetic terms and a need was felt to seek inspiration from what a rather limiting, paternalistic imperial British vision perceived as being “Indian” design. Exhibitions held in the nineteenth century educated British audiences but also produced Victorians who were either “cultural snobs” i.e so long as their own superiority was not threatened they would enjoy being entertained by foreign cultures  as “kaleidoscopes”26 of entertainment. Others took scholarly interest in the displays while some incorporated “exotic and Asian wares in their Victorian parlours.”27

In the wake of the dissolution of Empires every nation now has agency; they choose to fashion and represent themselves in accordance with their national interests at International Exhibitions. Audience reception has also evolved since then. In such a dynamic setting The Pakistan Pavilion culls certain colonial tropes from museum displays but then resists and tempers them for a new post-colonial vision so that they emerge as distinct, essential and inextricably linked to the fashioning of a new image for a global platform: the development of a modern national Pakistani identity that traces itself back to a long illustrious, historic past, is tolerant and abundant with talent.

The hand painted historical timeline, handmade replicas of frescoes at the Lahore Fort that celebrate Imperial Mughal grandeur, the calculated displays that celebrate pattern and craft fashioned by hand that dot the display in various sections all build a genealogical and historical timeline that acknowledge the contemporary visual artist and the craftsman alike.

The presence of and performance of folk singers at the Pakistan Pavilion in Dubai such as Taj Mastani, Faheem, Allan Faqeer, Sindhi instrumental groups, Akhtar Channal Zehri, Mai Dhai and many other cultural troupes also fosters ownership and appreciation of ethnic identities. This is not the first time that Sufi and the folk genre has been used as tropes to attract tourism. In a poster from the 1960s (Fig. 8) commissioned by The Ministry of Commerce, an elderly folk musician clad in traditional costume is shown playing his instrument in the backdrop of the glittering modern metropolis of Karachi. Set against a night sky the poster is effective in casting the modern against the rural/folk and transcendent where the musician becomes a metaphor for the timeless presence of culture and its continuity. An attempt is made to recalibrate these simplistic binaries at the Expo Pavilion.

Fig. 8 A poster from the 60s featuring a folk musician set against a view of Karachi as a modern metropolis

Rather than casting folk and ethnic identity as just another embodiment of the otherworldly “mystic other” immersed in a trance-like state or as a lone ranger absolved of participation in worldly affairs as this vintage poster suggests, the organizers of the Expo attempt to bridge this gap and distance themselves from these stereotypes and binaries. For the Expo, performers were brought to Dubai which is not only a metropolis that connects various trade and travel routes but is also home to a large diasporic South Asian population. At these performances the Pakistan Pavilion and its illuminated backdrop become a site for the enactment of the “glocal” where a more symbiotic relationship is demonstrated between various identities. These concerts engender a sense of place even when viewed as multisensory online experience in the form of short video clips on online platforms such as Instagram.

Video projections, virtual reality displays and multisensory art installations in the interior of the Pavilion work in tandem and reveal the emergence of the contemporary visual artist who engages with new technology and industry to highlight matters pertaining to ecology and traditional folk culture. Local tradition and contemporary needs are showcased simultaneously to the world so that both visions of art and technology intersect rather than clash.

In the wake of two Biennials held in Lahore, Pakistan respectively and now the Expo, groundbreaking precedents have been set that will hopefully encourage future collaborations between contemporary artists, craftsmen, designers and the State; they underscore the need to create opportunities in accordance with these disciplines.

An international jury has awarded Pakistan with the Best Pavilion Exterior Design. Out of 192 Pavilions at Expo 2020 it has won the Silver Award for Interior Design. As Rashid Rana and Noorjehan Bilgrami bask in the success and Pakistanis celebrate, it is also important to reflect upon the significance of this landmark moment.

Does the Pakistan Pavilion unequivocally succeed in unshackling itself from colonial museum typologies? Well partially, in that it does not place its “primitive” past completely outside the history of progress and provides an impressive and almost overwhelming immersive experience that colours and reorients Pakistan’s trajectory with a more buoyant spirit.

It also paves the way for critical thinking. Is there a need to commence a deeper reckoning with the past by engaging with alternate/difficult histories and decentralization of certain narratives in future displays and exhibitions? The discourse on decolonization of museums should align with initiating a discussion on the above mentioned self-reflexive dialogue. There is also a need to initiate engagement with representation and tourist practices that resist the familiar tropes that border on styling and selling a nation as an exotic, mysterious “other.”

Sites and monumental projects such as The Pakistan Pavilion serve as rich models for interpretation of and understanding nationhood in a post national scenario. Rather than binaries and dichotomies it is the overlaps and imbrications that are worth unpacking and examining within the ambit of culture and nationhood in an age of social media.

The Dubai Expo opened on 1st October 2021 and remained on display till March 31st 2022.

The Principal Curator of The Pakistan Pavilion was Noorjehan Bilgrami. The curatorial team consisted of Noor Ahmed and Zoha Bin Zubair. Assistant curators included Amean J, Fatima Mullick and Irfan Naqi. Design of the Dhaaba and Bazaar was done by Naheed Mashooqullah and her team including Neha Kajani.

The project was overseen by Trade Development Authority of Pakistan ( TDAP) under the Ministry of Commerce and Investment, headed by Mr. Abdul Razak Dawood.

Title image: Fig. 7 The immersive installation highlights the fragility of the eco system that sustains mangroves in the coastal belt of Pakistan.


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Anwer, Zoya. “The Visual Appeal Of The Pakistan Pavilion”. Aurora Magazine, 2021.

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Cornwell, Alexander, and Davide Barbuscia. “Middle East’s First Expo To Open In Dubai Under Shadow Of Pandemic”. Reuters, 2021.

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“Pakistan Pavilion – Dubai Expo 2020”. Azeem English Magazine, 2021.

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Image References:

Fig. 1 Sadiq, Naveed. Dawn of Civilization, 2021. Image courtesy of Noor Ahmed.

Fig. 2 Akif Suri and his team who worked on the Sheesh Mahal frescoes. 2021. Image courtesy of Akif Suri.

Fig. 3 Sheesh Mahal featuring the recreated Ainakari and VR projection by Art Bank Residency. Image courtesy of Noor Ahmed.

Fig. 4 Hall of Natural Wonders featuring house boat by Mohanas. Image courtesy of Noor Ahmed.

Fig. 5 Baghpati, Affan. Phooljal, Sacred Spaces. 2021.

Fig. 6 Display of various kinds of Rock Salt, Land of Opportunity, 2021. Image courtesy of Noor Ahmed.

Fig. 7 Immersive installation on the Billion Tree Project, Naqi, Irfan. Qazi, Abrar and others, 2021. Image courtesy of Noor Ahmed.

Fig. 8 Vintage poster promoting tourism in Pakistan from the 60s.


  1. Alexander Cornwell and Davide Barbuscia, “Middle East’s First Expo To Open In Dubai Under Shadow Of Pandemic”, Reuters, 2021,
  2. “Pakistan Pavilion – Dubai Expo 2020”, Azeem English Magazine, 2021.
  3. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities Reflections On The Origin And Spread Of Nationalism, ebook (repr., London: Verso, 2006),  5-7.
  4. Ibid, 7.
  5. Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, The Invention Of Tradition, ebook (repr., New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 10-12.
  6. Ibid, 6.
  7. Quratulain Asghar, Fatima Javeed and Zille Ali, Influences And Approaches Regarding The Architectural Roots Of Pakistan An Analysis Of The Works Of US-Based Architects In Pakistan After Partition, ebook, accessed 22 May 2022.
  8. Zoya Anwer, “The Visual Appeal Of The Pakistan Pavilion”, Aurora Magazine, 2021,
  9. Robert Venturi, Complexity And Contradiction In Modern Architecture, ebook (repr., New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1992), 16.
  10. Ibid, 16.
  11. Zoya Anwer, “The Visual Appeal Of The Pakistan Pavilion”, Aurora Magazine, 2021,
  12. Homi Bhabha, The Location Of Culture, ebook (repr., London: Routledge, 1994), 139.
  13. Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, The Invention Of Tradition, ebook (repr., New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 10-12.
  14. Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra And Simulation, ebook (repr., Michigan: University of Michigan, 1995), 128.
  15. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities Reflections On The Origin And Spread Of Nationalism, ebook (repr., London: Verso, 2006),  5-7.
  16. Magdalania Lundholm, Re-Branding A Nation Online Discourses On Polish Nationalism And Patriotism, ebook (repr., Sweden: Uppsala Universitet, 2012), 28.
  17. Ibid, 28.
  18. Manuel Castells, The Rise Of The Network Society, ebook (repr., Singapore: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), xli
  19. Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra And Simulation, ebook (repr., Michigan: University of Michigan, 1995), 1.
  20. Ibid, 108.
  21. Annette B. Fromm, “Ethnographic Museums And Intangible Cultural Heritage Return To Our Roots”, Journal Of Marine And Island Cultures 5, no. 2 (2016): 89-90, doi:10.1016/j.imic.2016.10.001.
  22. Wendy Shaw, Possessors And Possessed Museums, Archaeology, And The Visualization Of History In The Late Ottoman Empire, ebook (repr., London: University of the California Press, 2003), 28.
  23. Annette B. Fromm, “Ethnographic Museums And Intangible Cultural Heritage Return To Our Roots”, Journal Of Marine And Island Cultures 5, no. 2 (2016): 89-90, doi:10.1016/j.imic.2016.10.001.
  24. Abigail S. McGowan, “‘All That Is Rare, Characteristic Or Beautiful’”, Journal Of Material Culture 10, no. 3 (2005): 266-267, doi:10.1177/1359183505057152.
  25. Ibid, 266-267.
  26. Paul Tenkotte, “Kaleidoscopes Of The World: International Exhibitions And The Concept Of Culture-Place, 1851-1915”, American Studies 28, no. 1 (1987).
  27. Ibid, 12.

Zohreen Murtaza is currently a Lecturer in the Cultural Studies Department at The National College of Arts, Lahore. She completed both her BFA and MA (Hons.) Visual Art from NCA, where she majored in miniature painting and visual art. Since then, she has branched into teaching and writing extensively on contemporary Pakistani art, her writings have been featured in various publications and daily newspapers. Zohreen has diverse research interests that revolve around feminism, post colonialism, globalisation and its impact on material and visual cultures. She has taught Art History courses both at NCA and Kinnaird College for Women as well as History of South Asian Design courses at the Undergraduate level in NCA. In addition, she has also taught South Asian Visual Culture at the M Phil level in the Cultural Studies Department at NCA.

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