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The noble, savage art of Santiago Bose |

Arts and Culture

The noble, savage art of Santiago Bose

For some time, I had strong misgivings about the work of Santiago "Santi" Bose. The fodder of many overseas exhibition catalogues, and evidently creating a bigger stir abroad than here, it incensed me to see how many foreign, particularly antipodean curators who seemed to possess a center-periphery mindset, and who fetish-ized Philippine art for its strange and exotic quality, full stop, were building up his reputation.

It did not help that Bose seemed to play the stereotypical role of the noble savage to the hilt. Perhaps I was experiencing what sociologists refer to as the "cultural cringe" – that discombobulating feeling one gets when faced by clichéd, oftentimes unflattering, depictions of the native of one’s own country – because in my mind, Bose was guilty of charlatanry. I considered him to be one of those "salt of the earth" types: A dark, portly, bearded and unkempt man from the mountains who had a penchant for padding his oeuvres with tattooed natives garbed in loincloths, slathering his canvasses with "Little Brown Brother" photo-transfers, and assembling a firing range of bulols, dap-ays, ikat patterns and anting-antings riddled with arcane spells in bastardized Latin – all for show and great effect; a sham-man who enthralled his wide-eyed, mostly white, audiences with curious ministrations coupled with strange incantations of gobbledygook in an attempt to soothe the nerves of earth deities unbeknownst to anyone but him.

My damning opinion of Bose only began to salve somewhat when I saw the Alab ng Puso exhibition at the Met in 1998 – a most maddening and mediocre Centennial flag fest if ever there was one. Not that it was very difficult to do, considering the overall piddling quality of the pieces on show; but the artist’s work clearly stood out then. Large scale, it contained his trademark postmodern, Adobe-style palimpsest of image (indios bravos) and text (more of the same cultic palaver). Yet, this time, these elements were blended with just the right amount of aesthetic sense, glitz and rust-hued irony to serve up a rich visual repast, con todos recados.

Not being the type to let what I thought to be a one-off effort color my view of the artist, Bose remained for me an obscure, forgotten figure until his untimely demise last year. And even as the tributes flowed, I simply cast his passing aside as just one of those things.

That was until the CCP retrospective, In Memory of A Talisman, An Exhibition of Works by Santiago Bose, came along.

It was, for want of a more superlative description, an epiphany. Seeing the vast array of works assembled by Bobi Valenzuela come alive in that clammy, dank, uninspiring, tunnel-like hall was like being overcome by a flash of light, followed by a thunder clap that shook me to the core. It made me realize how unfairly I had been dismissive of the artist and, by the same token, allowed me to feel the full impact of his loss. It was the fulcrum that led to my belated realization of the evolution, breadth and magnitude of this man’s talent, from the delicious subversion of Bose’s early and highly revealing "Pillbox Violence and Students with Molotov Cocktail" abstractions of the early Seventies to his post-colonial diatribes in collage-form which reached an apogee in the stark and haunting "Travelling Bones" series (2000).

Till the day he died, Bose stayed far from the popular imagination; his esoteric output – arcane symbols, skeletons, skulls, and garotted prisoners gallivanting with Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Ronald McDonald and Colonel Sanders – appreciated only by those who were able to look beyond the scrimmage and the scruff, and find meaning in the artist’s unyielding passion for the primitive.

For those who cared to look, Bose’s outsider-type naïf style, with its bold and unflinchingly direct language, allowed viewers to peer, with the same intense, penetrating eyes as in his self-portrait, into the perplexing reality that Bose saw right to resolve – a society so bedraggled and convoluted by centuries of physical and spiritual depredation, conquest and betrayal that only a true artist, with unmitigated purity of intent, could deign to summon the powers of earth and sky through his work, and immerse himself, as Marian Pastor-Roces once wrote, in a form of visual fiction-making that both questions and liberates.

Bose presented a compelling and convincing view of truth that was not only new; it was, in the final reckoning, unsettling.

On this rests his significance.
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