Have our Artists found the Filipino Soul?
- Clarissa Chikiamco () - May 30, 2006 - 12:00am
(Winner, Lifestyle Journalism Awards 2006 sponsored by Philippine Star, Stores Specialists, Inc. and HSBC.)

One of the greatest issues to arise in Philippine art is the search for its national identity. What, in Philippine art, is Filipino? It is a tiring debate and one that was particularly hot in the ’60s and ’70s when art was strongly seen as an instrument in shaping national consciousness. Despite an agreement that good art is good art no matter what its context, the issue still haunts those of us who work in the art scene today, particularly in launching Philippine art into an international platform, where in a near borderless world one tries to find the thin lines which delineate one culture from the next.

More than anything else, subject matter instantly leaps to mind. The golden sunlight streaming down on pastoral fields where a dalagang bukid stands smiling – the paintings of Fernando Amorsolo were, and actually still are, seen as the epitome of the Filipino soul in art. While I respect Amorsolo, having him as the bastion of the Filipino in Philippine art as many people uphold him to be treads on dangerous ground. Still decades later, we have yet to loosen this stiff fixation for genre. Contests and calendars still largely revolve around this theme and opportunist artists chug out one farm scene after another. This bastion is unfortunately being bastardized. I’d like to think, too, that the Filipino soul, especially in these modern times, encompasses more than farming, fishery or beautiful maidens bathing in the river.

Abroad, the taste for the exotic seems alive and well if the e-mail I received late last year is any indication. A Paris gallery/hotel was looking for Filipino artworks to display but specifically mentioned interest in "depictions of Philippine culture and not works that are too modern or abstract." One young artist then wryly suggested that they should just go to Mabini for such paintings and I certainly can’t blame her for being put off. Filipino contemporary artists feel, directly or indirectly, the pressure to produce Filipino works, begging the question – can’t Filipino art simply be good art or must there be something Filipino in it?

This insistence to create something relevant to one’s nationality is not unique to the Philippines. Alice Miceli, a promising video artist from Brazil, presented her video artwork "88 from 14,000" on the Cambodian genocide during the Third Asia-Europe Art Camp last year. In the open forum, she was peppered with questions – why, since she is Brazilian, doesn’t she do something on Brazilian issues? Why is she doing art on Cambodia? She answered wisely, later reiterating this stance to me in a private discussion we had: "I’m tired of being asked to produce works on Brazilian issues. An issue like the genocide in Cambodia appeals to me not as a Brazilian but as a human being."

Alice’s answer is a reminder that the boundaries for artists today aren’t what they were only a couple of decades ago. The rapid progress of globalization means today’s artist could be born in one nation, raised in another, practice in several countries while tackling issues on the other side of the continent and having the art beam all over the world through streaming on the Internet. An artist in any nation is a global citizen which makes the issue of national identity a little ineffectual but, I suppose, all the more relevant.

This brings to the fore an issue that must be reckoned with in the search for the Filipino identity in art: the Filipino expatriate. Some of our artists are part of the 10 percent of the Philippine population who now live abroad, raising even more questions on art’s Filipino soul. If an artist who has Filipino blood was raised abroad and studied abroad but tackles Filipino issues – then is his art Filipino? Or how about the international artist with Filipino blood who was raised in the Philippines but left to practice abroad with no obvious Filipino qualities in his or her work? Then there are the artists with no Filipino blood at all who reside and practice in the Philippines. Do location, upbringing and blood matter in determining Filipino art from art made by a Filipino? Of course as far as the National Artist awards are concerned, only Filipino citizens may be nominated. (This has everyone clucking their tongues on what a waste it is that Anita Magsaysay-Ho, a Canadian citizen, has been disqualified from the race but I suppose a line must be drawn somewhere.)

With subject matter being too constricting, one tries to find the Filipino identity through style: there is the baroque mentality, the love of color and the affinity for graceful and decorative lines. While these are principally agreed upon as qualities that have continually surfaced on paintings done by Filipino artists, one has to ask how applicable are they when dealing with different media? Nowadays, contemporary art deals with performance, installation, video and sound and certainly, there haven’t been enough of these works to see a common quality or to form a judgment on a Filipino identity.

Putting aside art that directly tackles a Filipino issue or frames it within a Filipino setting, sometimes trying to find the Filipino in certain Philippine art is like trying to milk a cow when the cow isn’t a cow after all. One can have some highfalutin explanation on why a foreign-looking Philippine painting smacks of Filipino post-colonialism or what not and occasionally these things are right. However, also intermittently, they are overreaching. With so many international influences and the variety of media the artist can explore that are not endemic to the country, it should surprise no one that – dare I say it? – sometimes there might not be much Filipino to find in contemporary Philippine art.

One of my favorite artists Lee Aguinaldo has been said not to care if his paintings could be deemed as Filipino because his primary concern is ensuring that a painting is well made. I think this is where all the best artists take off from as Filipinos are known for their art all over the world, not because of the art’s Filipino style or Filipino subject matter, but because of its creativity and world-class excellence that echoes not just nationally but universally.

So have our artists found the Filipino soul? I can’t say no, and I can’t say yes, but, with all the issues that may never be resolved, I think the answer will always have to be the definite maybe.

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