THE universal exposition, or the “World’s Fair,” is an occasion for countries to exhibit their achievements, basically to “sell” the country to tourists and investors, to introduce our “brand” to the world. The first such international exhibition was started in London in 1851 by Albert, Prince Consort to Queen Victoria, and dubbed the “Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations.” In these expositions, the Philippines can showcase not just its products but also its great talents. Notable have been the Philippine pavilions for the 1964 New York World’s Fair by supervising architect Arturo Valenzuela, grandson of Katipunan patriot Pio Valenzuela; and for the Osaka World Expo 1970 by National Artist Leandro Locsin.
Last Monday, July 29, 2019, I was privileged to tag along with the secretariat of the National Quincentennial Committee headed by Ian Christopher Alfonso of the National Historical Commission of the Philippines to an interagency meeting in preparation for the Philippine Pavilion in the six-month Expo 2020 Dubai headed by Assistant Secretary Rosvi Gaetos of the Department of Trade and Industry.
I was surprised to see my friend, the cultural worker Marian Pastor Roces at the meeting. Apparently, she was curator to the past three Philippine Pavilions, and Dubai would be her fourth. During the meeting, she expressed disdain for generic jeepney aesthetics or Juana characterizations which only tend to privilege lowland Filipinos. After the meeting, we were reminded of the debate between Isabelo de los Reyes and José Rizal in the representation of the concept of “Filipino.” Rizal did not want to include indigenous peoples because of his concept of “modern” while de los Reyes identified himself as a “brother of the wild.”
Articulating her vision, Marian said she was conscious to present the Filipino identity as not merely based on tourist spots or one-town-one-product pegs but on scientific data newly fleshed out from the past half century by scientists, historians, archaeologists, anthropologists and linguists. It is our story not just written in documents but written in our blood. There is no one Filipino race. Although our brown features owed to our Austronesian ancestors who came from Taiwan 4,000 years ago, written in our DNA is also the blood of the peoples who were already here as far back as 67,000 years ago, black in appearance such as the recently discovered Homo luzonensis, who when the Austronesians came intermixed with them as well. We are connected with our Asian neighbors, and transformed and appropriated Europe and America as well. The Filipino identity is all that and is a continuous creative project of transformation and redefinition.
Historians have recently clarified that Philippine history is not about the division brought forth by being separated into islands and regions, it is about diversity united by our common Austronesian maritime roots. If in our blood we are connected to the other peoples of the world, in our culture we see our connectivity with our ancestors and our different peoples despite our uniqueness as a multi-ethnic nation.
And I remembered how for our ancestors, everything was actually connected. Art is not separated from daily life, our faith and world view is not separated from everyday life and maritime culture, and humanity is not separated from nature and other creatures. The country is among the 17 megadiversity countries in the world, there are tens of thousands of unique species of various creatures in the islands. As Joey Ayala sang, “Ang lahat ng bagay ay magkaugnay, magkaugnay ang lahat!”
So how would Marian brand such a complex people and country?
With cultural sustainability and connectivity as part of the thematic expressions, the country branding for the Expo 2020 for Dubai is the Philippines as a “creative and compassionate nation.” Tasked to make this vision a reality, DTI and Marian chose the design of architect Royal Pineda of Budji + Royal Architecture + Design for the Philippine Pavilion. The latter was then appointed Overall Artistic Director for the development of the pavilion which he and his group named “bangkóta” — an ancient Filipino term for coral reef, according to National Artist Virgilio Almario. In the pavilion, the Philippines is one whole coral reef, Filipinos are presented “as polyps that grow into colonies and spread all over the world, connected by travel, migration and technology.”
Asec Gaetos was conscious to bring the NQC to the table as Ian and I explained that the new theme for the national celebration of the 500 years of the circumnavigation of the world in 2021 would be “Freedom and Humanity.” We celebrate Mactan as an expression of freedom and culture the ancestors had before 1521 and our struggle to regain it, and also the humanity when the first Filipinos to spot the Magellan expedition gave them food as they were hungry from their 90-day ordeal wandering an open unexplored ocean.
Last Monday was more than an inter-agency government meeting; it was a meeting of the minds. Hopefully, more government projects will consider pegging their projects to history and culture.