Supporting one’s country means different things to different people. For Mom, at least this time around, supporting Indonesia on global stages mean physically being there. After some debate she finally put her foot down—so we hurriedly applied for visas, bought long-haul air tickets, paid for exhibition passes, and packed our bags.
Buon giorno, Milano!
There was much hullaballoo about the state of Indonesia pavilion when World’s Fair Expo Milano 2015 opened their massive gates in May. That it wasn’t well-designed, that it featured almost nothing, that it was quite a disgrace. A cabinet minister let out an outburst. Hush-hush chats went full-throttle after the sudden demise of distinguished actor Didi Petet, the head of our Milan Expo delegation, soon after the opening.
We saw differently recently. Having gone a redecoration by summer, I found Indonesia pavilion to be neatly designed, the displays to be aligned with our gleaming past of spice trade and our President’s vision of maritime glory, and the staff members to be well-versed in the exhibition and Indonesia. Milan was raining steadily that day, yet through a pretty garden and panels detailing our seven presidents, lines were snaking outside Indonesia pavilion’s entrance.
My favorite part, also loved by young visitors forming a separate line under the rain to the side entrance, was the oculus show—where you put on a visor to enjoy a 360-degree, 3D multimedia. My only criticism is that the multimedia was too fixated on Bali—it would’ve been a much more effective promotion had it showcased parts of Indonesia that weren’t so world renowned already. Marketing 101, peeps.
Another I also particularly liked was the wooden miniatures of Indonesian islands erected as vessels to hold various spices. These literal Spice Islands, drawing curious Europeans to touch and sniff to some sneezing effect, said a lot without having to say much. It might’ve also been why the food stands, both inside and outside our pavilion, were such a hit.
All in all, it wasn’t an embarrassment. Should Indonesia do better in the next World Expo? By golly, yes. Other pavilions relied much on technology to deliver messages and visuals; worked well to draw crowd while projecting a more current image of the country. Iran, for instance, while holding traditional giant puppet show in the afternoon, looped world-class films of their developments and exports on their 2-storey pavilion that people, including Dad and me, stood patiently watching while clutching our dripping umbrellas.
Then off we went to the next destination… guten morgen, Frankfurt! While Germany was inevitably chillier than Italy, it was heartwarming to see the enthusiasm of not only foreign visitors, but also the Indonesian diaspora who turned out in hordes, to fete Indonesia as Frankfurt Book Fair 2015’s guest of honor. I met middle-aged Indonesians married to Europeans proudly showing off the pavilion to their in-laws, a mom carrying her baby from a neighboring country for the baby’s first Indonesian gathering, and a group of delightful Indonesian students and white-collar workers eager to rediscover the homeland they’ve got a bit disconnected from.
Yet perhaps the most enchanted encounter was with a certain elderly German lady. She’d traveled to Bali and Java for 8 weeks in 1993, and the experience was so precious she took a friend on a train from their hometown, a few hours from Frankfurt, to catch a glimpse of Indonesia. She didn’t own a single book about Indonesia, but she just had to make the journey for another taste.
Yes, it was a book fair. Yes, our books were translated to German and our authors were celebrated. No, I don’t quite fathom why, with 50% of our population under the age of 30, we had to pick a political event that transpired 50 years ago as main theme instead of something more current that speaks about the long future ahead for our youth. But yes, unlike many, I actually understand and fully support the committee’s decision to give a large room for our culinary to shine.
Look, in any language, literary is one of the most elitist creative doors to crack open. I’m a columnist and not too proud to admit that classic literary can still leave me puzzled. To showcase a diverse country to a widely heterogeneous audience one would do better in offering an easier bridge to cross, like culinary or fashion, before one started serving up the depth of prose and poetry. And the throngs of multinational visitor queueing for our pavilion’s cantina and the stall set up in heritage area Römer, or teenage students flocking Indonesian baking class at the Book Fair’s culinary hall, was a solid proof of how the charm worked wondrously.
Also another gem to embolden Indonesia’s colors in Frankfurt is our prominent contemporary artists’ exhibition at the city’s upstanding art galleries. Through their installations Eko Nugroho and Jompet Kuswidananto cheekily hitting hard on the banality of post-1998 democracy, Ade Darmawan rather expectedly poking fun at the rising middleclass’ insatiable drive to get ahead, and Arahmaiani transcendently played on the sudden surge of religiosity in our society.
Indonesia has arrived in Milan and Frankfurt. And, seen through our family’s eyes, we’d say our country had quite a ball. Congratulations, everyone.