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Past and Future in the Present

It was inaugurated to controversy in 1969. It almost ended in controversy in 1986. On its ruby anniversary in 2009, the Cultural Center of the Philippines a.k.a. Sentrong Pangkultura ng Pilipinas is caught in new controversy.

Everyday opens a window to past and future in the present if you choose. That’s how my Friday Sept. 18 moved to a high point in the exhibit opening at the CCP Main Gallery – DALOY, Tagalog for “flow” in “continuing vision for a center”. Many fond memories of the past 40 years collide with the present moment right there.

Center, it is – dead center, in fact, beginning with a first greeting just past the gallery door. Here a long CCP story’s daloy begins in a wall photo of a youthful José Rizál, winter overcoat slung on his Indio Bravo’s left arm, mesmerizing me from under an amusingly older Juan Nakpil looking far into the distance.

The long caption nailed my eye: “June 7, 1956 – President Ramon Magsaysay commissioned architect Nakpil to create plans for a National Theater. Magsaysay created the Rizál National Centennial Commission with a budget of P7 million to be set aside by Congress to develop Rizal Park…There was to be National Cultural Shrine dedicated to Rizál.”

This then, in Lolo Pepe’s shadow, was Magsaysay’s dream by Juan Nakpil’s designing, not Imelda Marcos’, no matter that she got most of the credit in her time and the flak after it. Nakpil sketched out a dream: a main theatre (seating 2500), a little theater (seating 615), a restaurant, a ballet studio; exhibit, projection, music, chorus, rehearsal and musical instrument storage rooms, maintenance areas.

That’s the CCP I just entered. It’s obviously seen better days at 40 – the original sheen of its elevators faded, the paint of some of its buttons chipped. Red carpets are frayed where they once sank luxuriously underfoot. I found windows stuck when I tried opening them for fresh air in long hours once spent here on a theater project. The CCP has lost the gleam of its birth and infancy under the Marcoses, like an ancestral home in love of the arts, now much more welcoming for having bowed to mortality in the limits of human beauty, wealth and power.

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An older CCP alive if not quite kicking looks back to a history of dicey moments in a dicey present. The first, of course, was with Meldy as First Lady at the peak of beauty, power and activism for the arts –materializing a dream in 1961 on 21 hectares of land reclaimed from Manila Bay by presidential decree. She was running against the current set off by Ninoy Aquino, Liberal Party gadfly in the Senate, decrying her “edifice complex” with sound bites a.k.a. newspaper quotes irresistible to the media.

Ninoy said the country could not afford the Marcoses’ vanity. Now the present intrudes into memory with a quip: “Hmmph. The arts in this nation of artists are far worthier of public money than do-nothing demagogues and pang-masa movie actors ridiculously playing senator, a Congress up to no good, police and military harassing artists who create value, immortal value. That Woman continues corrupting government offices with more of her Praetorian Guard serving her interests, sneaked into undeserved appointive positions.”

Dark thoughts disperse before the next wall and its sepia blow-up of a smiling Lucrecia Kasilag, (http://www.globalpinoy.com/ch/ch_nationalartists_sub.php?name=Lucrecia%20R.%20Kasilag&category=Music) sending warmth that outlives political regimes. Warmth turns to sadness with the writer/visual artist under Kasilag – Alfredo ‘Ding’ Roces, pensive beside the CCP logo. He designed this distinctive KKK– Katotohanan, Kagandahan, Kabutihan – Truth, Beauty and Goodness in baybayin, our Sanskrit-rooted pre-Conquest alphabet. Suddenly in vogue in the late ‘60s, it’s been resonating to this day among our artists growing like September’s silvery talahib in these islands.

Meanwhile Ding is regularly stricken with homesickness producing book upon enlightening book on Philippine art history. A recent oeuvre launched in Manila is on Juan Luna's tragedy - his wife and mother-in-law, the Pardo de Taveras, dead by his own crazed jealousy over the fair Paz. They were sister and mother to his own emigré intimate, Trinidad, an Indio Bravo like him, Marcelo del Pilar, Graciano Lopez-Jaena, Pepe Rizal. Juan Luna - lion of the art world hailed in Barcelona, Rome, Madrid, painter of the Spoliarium that won him a gold medal and maiden honor for Las Filipinas. Small, slight Indio Bravo frames gained an extra foot in height, except perhaps for the heavy-set Plaridel. Ding Roces’ close-ups of history from French and Spanish newspapers of the day recreate THE scandal of the art world over a century ago. How intimate is its passion to continuing drama at home.

Imelda Marcos’s husband declared martial law six years after they opened the CCP, with the Manileño visual artist David Medalla, enfant terrible fresh from Europe, leading a demo denouncing lavish spending full face to “Imelda’s mausoleum.” Ding Roces of the famous publishing clan chose self-exile with his family over his keen sense of losing art’s very breath - freedom of expression. This patriot who got away deepened his Filipino core Down Under in Oz all these years. There he continues to beam rays of the Land of the Morning with a working artist’s eye beyond country. (http://dingrocespo.blogspot.com/)

Back in Manila after Roces left, Jaime Zobel de Ayala, tycoon and visual artist born with an institution for a family name, (http://en.wikipilipinas.org/index.php?title=Zobel_de_Ayala_family) yielded his seat as first CCP president to Kasilag. Shining through her ever-twinkling eyes was a musical spirit who began decades at the CCP as Director of Theater, Tita King in a country of whimsical nicknames.

I could never figure out how she did it - compose avant garde ethnic music fused early on with Western postmodern, meanwhile networking with the international arts world through Foreign Affairs. She was letting the world know that world-class Filipino artists existed; meanwhile global names were flying to Manila, the likes of Marcel Marceau, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Ravi Shankar, the Vienna Boys Choir, Monserrat Caballe, Margot Fonteyn, Rudolph Nureyev, the Bolshoi Ballet, Alvin Ailey and Martha Graham dance companies.

They were feasts, but brilliant artistic moments trumpeted by an all-crony media could not dim the painful bare fact – martial law locking up, torturing the most courageous anti-Marcos leaders beyond the physical, including rape of subversive females in the hands of subhuman military jailers. The arts under Mrs. Marcos’ wing, no matter their graces, could not wash off the stains of un-freedom and bestiality under Mr. Marcos. Flowers and fruits of artistic native genius at the CCP were poisoned by encircling silent resentment unto hatred of Filipino artists collaborating, no other word for it, against their own.

To fellow-artists who chose watchful silence over cooptation by a direct anti-thesis of self-expression in martial law, the CCP and all its branches run by Madame’s favorites were spoofs of the CCP’s own logo. Even Rolando Tinio’s masterful translations of Shakespearean plays into Tagalog for Teatro Filipino as CCP resident company were not spared belittling: “Truth, Beauty and Goodness indeed. Artists, born harbingers of the new, turned lapdogs. Pweh.”

Interminable as that agonized and antagonized era seemed, it passed - leaving behind the spine of People Power, large chunks of it more Left-leaning and organized than an irreverent, gentle people would have been if Marcos and Joma Sison had not been such a match on history’s chessboard. Oh, the lives our generation lost, the brilliant flowers crushed! With the ascent of a political martyr’s widow as President Cory – “the exact opposite of Marcos” – the first Palace reflex came in one Tristan Macampan, OIC sent to dismantle the CCP as an egregious remnant of the collapsed Marcos regime.

Was a replay of Ninoy denouncing the CCP at the Senate behind the Palace instruction? Presidential Spokesman Teddyboy Locsin’s famous foot-in-mouth sound bite of the time: “Culture is the least of our priorities.” Subtext: There simply isn’t enough money left in the coffers after Marcos. Far more was involved than money, however.

World-famed film directors Lino Brocka and Ishmael Bernal led the Concerned Artists of the Philippines, yellow with clear streaks of red, in protest at the newly won gates of Malacañang. Supported by peers in the powerful media and entertainment worlds who helped create the Cory presidency with song and humor much loved by Filipinos, their message: Imelda is Imelda. The arts are not Imelda.

The point was quickly made in a season when the country did not need any more anti-Cory rallies than the ones Marcos Loyalists were amply providing in low comedy. The day was saved by the appointment of Teresa Roxas (Tita Bing, mellifluous like Tita King) as CCP president, her artistic director Prof. Nicanor Tiongson, the institution-minded new chair of CAP’s coalition that just flowed like quicksilver in the streets.

Be it said over two decades later: What CAP and the Yellow Army found (in close company though never really one in style and vision) was not the expected world of black and white in the CCP. Instead there was a bureaucracy trained in reverence, in some cases outright love for the arts housed in a cavernous building. As part of that Yellow Army's first team to enter the CCP Board room for a first dialogue with its incumbents, I felt suspiciously at home. I must be honest. The Marcos years, too, had vision, if human, all too human. Let him who has no dreams for country cast the first stone – an irreverent bon mot, in the Pinoy’s case.

At birth, this building was touted as a statement of daring by one Leandro ‘Lindy’ Locsin, Silaynon, a fine pianist and future National Artist for Architecture, drawing “elements of Filipino culture” to the upward sweep of “a wave rising from the sea.” Yes, but it looks and feels so massive, too solid for a feeling of any sort of wave except in words and perhaps, straining the imagination, from a great distance.

Yellow power overwhelmed Marcos Loyalist red in the late 80s, but not more arguments on what a Sentrong Pangkultura ng Pilipinas really is for. It’s way past time for a very close look – on the ground, outside an enclosed, air-conditioned presence in granite, concrete and marble on the boulevard running down historic Manila Bay. One must be honest. How else open its windows to fresh winds of new vision? Such vision need not be a replacement, only an approach towards more embracing perfection.

Eyes opened to both perils and illusions in military power married to the otherworldly power of true art (It has many facsimiles. Mme. Marcos, for one, could not tell the difference in the visual arts, relying on society artists and wise gnomes.). Yet, more forays of “presidential prerogative” into the CCP's core vision have loomed over it, are looming now. The Palace, long after the Filipino people won it back with President Cory – let it not be forgotten - has so little understood a founding dream over half a century old.

This brings a distinct feeling of nostalgia, a longing remembrance of true home. Inside the CCP, you miss gentle breezes blowing from the shimmering bay of a large island called Luzon, one of the 7,107 that make the Philippines really more water than solid earth, lovely as it is (or was, before That Woman's mad mining in dangerously rich mineral country). With the winds blowing free, you miss the glories of sunset over our waters, except past security guards dying to know what you're doing up here. You see, Mr. or Ms. Guard, from the fourth and fifth floors facing west on a good day, you see a red ball plunging again into darkening blue. Yes, it's always worth the hassle of your check and balance.

There’s another truth and lesson here among all the other truths and lessons past and present. On its ruby anniversary, the CCP is besieged by highly dubious National Artist Awards and Palace “desire” for “an accountant as new CCP president” – the latest laughable facsimiles of the real thing both Estrada and Arroyo know so little of in their crude exercise of presidential power. Its unexamined breadth, too, is way past due a very close scrutiny in our democracy, such as it is.

These two, Erap and GMA, really have more in common than they realize, successively presenting the CCP with the latest of its conundrums, a nation's conundrums, since a center for national theater was glimpsed by Magsaysay and born with Mrs. Marcos, incontrovertible fact. That conundrum is the relationship between art and state power, in that order.

So it turns out impossible for one column to cover 40 years, each period a facet of what makes a ruby worthy to be called a gem of past, present and future. Next Sunday we continue with more of its facets beyond a building, beyond politics – cut by wisdom growing in time, mere shadows of the timeless, come to think of it.

Respond to slmayuga@yahoo.com

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