Walking through the pavilions at EXPO 22, one could see many carefully selected layers of identity: history, innovation, national resources and culture; all woven into a visitor experience that spoke of both a nation’s self- perception and the image it wanted to share with the world. Technology ran like a common thread as digital algorithms pushed visuals into the realm of the spectacular.
It all began with the exteriors, in the Opportunity Section of the EXPO 22, the pavilion of Lebanon was particularly provocative. Its windowless metal encased cube looked like a post- industrial dystopic site, an emblem of the ravages of a prolonged war. Columbia brought greenery to the desert with real and artificial plants to transport the visitor to their tropical land. For some pavilions traditional craft was integral, and Indonesia with its intricate wood carvings, did it with success. The Pakistan Pavilion with its undulating form, had invited artist Rashid Rana to animate the surface, the result was an optimistic play of pink and green on a surface embedded with reflective prisms.
In the ‘Opportunity’ section where I spent most of my time, the pavilions of Norway and Pakistan stood at the extreme end of the spectrum with regards to their narratives. The Norwegians chose to skip all cultural references and invited the visitor into a dimly lit space that simulated an under the sea experience. In fifteen-minute sessions they focused on a range of hyper-tech inventions that clean up the ocean. As a country with the longest coast, they felt maintaining the oceans was a primary responsibility and they wanted to share, as well as sell, their technology to the world. Except for the voice of the hosts there not a human in sight in the multiple projections that promised pollution free oceans. The experience, which was technical and centered on the machines left the visitor with mixed feelings. While ecology is a primary concern for all, the detailed information seemed more suited to an expo on marine technology, and failed to enthuse the general audience. If the hosts were looking at the theme of Opportunity as a place only for economic benefit, and their target audience were buyers, the hard- sell strategy somehow excluded the general visitor.
Pakistan’s pavilion on the other hand was a cultural immersion that appealed to all the senses— visual, sound and smell. With spectacular views of national beauty and ancient history, it showcased timeless artifacts to bring texture and depth. The well- executed and planned displays led the visitors through a path full of surprises. Many Pakistanis were overwhelmed, as the images connected them to a Pakistan they have been distanced from in the last three decades of tumultuous history. An entire generation that has grown up with limited access to scenic sites and a painful memory of ethnic and religious polarization, for them in particular, the official portrayal of a tolerant Pakistan celebrating diversity, gave hope. The pavilion also addressed the need to rehabilitate the country’s image by highlighting its multicultural legacy to a global population that has seen Pakistan only through the media lens of extremist conflict.
Once the elation settled, one could not help but feel that it was an incomplete story as references to individuals who have put Pakistan on the map— its Nobel Prize laureates, writers, sportspersons, performers, artists, entrepreneurs— would have completed it; and anchored it in the ‘now’. Contemporary Pakistan with its resilience and dynamism was missing.
To translate economic opportunity into reality, an equally impressive, information-based projection of Pakistani exports and professional services could have facilitated dialogue with new markets, as most other pavilions had taken into consideration.
There is no doubt that the Pakistan Pavilion was an important step forward. Noorjehan Bilgrami as the principal curator did what she does best, project culture— this is where her experience and research lies. To showcase an integrated and all-encompassing national narrative, a wider expertise is needed. Teams of social scientists, economists and creatives, among others, need to come together to project a productive, enterprising and professionally robust Pakistan that is ready to economically connect to the world.