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Glimpses into Palawan ethnography

PASSAGE - Ed Maranan (The Philippine Star) - March 27, 2016 - 10:00am

Alliance Française in Makati came out with an announcement several weeks ago about two separate but related activities to be held in two venues: the AF headquarters on Nicanor Garcia St. in Makati, and the UP Manila Museum of a History of Ideas on Padre Faura.

The first offering was a two-day program with the theme “Pala’wan, A Long Standing Humanity,” described as “a multi-disciplinary event featuring the works and discoveries of pre-historians, anthropologists and artists resulting from French-Philippine cooperation on the island of Palawan.” The second, which opened a week later, was a photo exhibit titled “La Vallee/The Valley,” which displayed striking black-and-white images of the small community of indigenous Palawan people called the Taw (or Tau’t) Batu.

The first day of the program held at the Alliance Française featured two documentary films on the Pala’wan by French ethnographer/visual anthropologist Pierre Boccanfuso —The Two Sons of the Shaman and The Shaman, his Nephew and the Captain; the opening of visual artist Anna Fer’s pen-and-ink drawings on the elaborate rice wine ritual of the Pala’wan; a presentation by Norli Colili, herself a Pala’wan, on her people’s crafts and artifacts which were gathered in a mini-showcase; and the launch of a tiny but precious book authored by her and Nola Andaya, The Tingkep and other Crafts of the Pala’wan which played up the iconic and highly-prized finely woven basket for which their people are known and admired.

After the film showing, Pierre Boccanfuso — he is married to a Pala’wan woman and mirthfully translates his Tagalog-sounding last name as “open-hearted” — answered questions from the audience on his field experience and the process of creating a somber narrative of an agricultural, highland native society on the cusp of transformation, and even decline, with the intrusion of external influences from the mainstream that threaten to supplant what was traditional and revered. For her part, Anna Fer described her experience of living among the Pala’wan of the Mt. Mantalingahan and Makagwa River culture area, visually documenting over several visits the pristine landscape, festive rituals, jural discussions, and the simple ways of this most gentle and least warlike of indigenous people. She collaborated with Dr. Revel on a comprehensive exhibit on highland culture, “Pananaw Palawan: Perceptions and Expressions,” at the CCP in 1991.

Also on display at the Alliance were some of the books on Palawan natural history, oral literature and language written by the eminent French linguist and ethnologist Dr. Nicole Revel, emeritus director for research of the Paris-based National Center for Scientific Research, who is arguably the most knowledgeable anthropologist on the Pala’wan indigenous group, and whose work has influenced other experts in this field of research. She has worked with the Pala’wan at various times throughout four decades, recording, filming, transcribing and translating numerous chanted epics in the highlands of southern Palawan, as well as documenting the material culture, music, poetry and performance, rituals and social institutions of one of the world’s endangered IP groups. She also authored the chapter on the Pala’wan in the Encyclopedia of Philippine Arts and Culture produced by the CCP in 1992.

The second-day activities were conducted at the UP Manila Museum of a History of Ideas:  a colloquium involving a panel of experts on the prehistory and material culture of the Pala’wan. Dr. Eusebio Dizon of the National Museum, who was founding director of the Archaeological Studies Program of UP Diliman in 1995, and Dr. Victor Paz who is currently a professor in this program and director of the Palawan Island Paleohistoric Project, gave presentations on the archaeological and evolutionary profile of Palawan and its inhabitants since the prehistoric period. Both experts are now actively involved in the teaching program of the National Museum of Natural History in Paris.

Dr. Hermine Xhauflair, a French researcher on prehistory — who was introduced to the Pala’wan highland group by Dr. Revel and has since been engaged in an in-depth study of ethno-science in southeastern Palawan, the Tabon Cave archaeological site off Lipuun Point, and the Ille Cave in Coron — talked about current practices in plant processing which could provide clues on the past activities of the ancient inhabitants of the island.

The final session was a lecture with video presentation by Dr. Revel herself, a selection from a set of 10 DVD-Roms which represent her lifetime’s work of documenting the remarkable verbal arts of the Pala’wan, “the synergy between sounds and images, speech, songs and music performances”.

The first day of March saw the opening of Pierre de Vallombreuse’s photo exhibit on the Taw Batu, a Palawan group inhabiting the Singnapan valley in the densely forested southwest region of Palawan, nestled between Mt. Mantalingahan and the western coast of the island. While commonly referred to in various sources as “the people of the rock,” the Taw Batu is rendered by this photo-documentarist as “the rockshelter people,” which seems to be a little more accurate as this group of closely-knit families inhabits the communal caves in the valley as places of refuge during the rainy season, to move back to their customary abode on the mountain slopes where they practice highland agriculture. The power and intensity of black-and-white photography are most eloquent in this series of large-scale images, depicting the lush environment of living forest and prehistoric rock, and the drama of everyday life of men, women and children in repose or in their struggle for survival with, or against, nature.

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La Vallee/The Valley photo exhibit of de Vallombreuse on the Taw Batu and the Pala’wan drawings of Anna Fer are open for public viewing at the Alliance Française until April 29.

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