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FROM A DISTANCE - Veronica Pedrosa (The Philippine Star) - January 23, 2021 - 12:00am

There is a round wooden shield in the British Museum, acquired in 1894, and probably made earlier in the same century. Its story and secrets have become part of a much bigger hunt for things made by Filipinos in centuries past that could help us Filipinos in the 21st century know much more about who we are. It is a piece in a much larger and, to my mind at least, profoundly significant effort by a team of women who want to know the truth about who we really are.

“The museum records only give the Philippines as provenance; hence its specific ethnolinguistic origin will remain uncertain. It is however definitely from a nineteenth century Muslim community in a part of Mindanao that may or may not have been part of the political entity las Islas Filipinas (but now is part of the Philippines),” writes art critic and curator, Marian Pastor Roces, who first saw it a quarter of a century ago and was fascinated by it.

The inner part of the shield, which the warrior who wielded it would have held closest to his body, is carved with inscriptions that have never been properly read. Comparing this specimen with several others in different European museums, it is clear that they are prayers.

After she posted a picture of the shield on social media, people started to get in touch, translating the inscriptions. First, Abdulhamid Alawi Jr, the Chief Administrative Officer of the Office of the Regional Governor Cotabato in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao in Cotabato City, gave his reading of the Arabic words of Islamic prayer proclaiming the only god Allah and his prophet Muhammed. Others refer to the Azriel, the archangel of death, Mikhail/Michael, the archangel of mercy and Jibreel/Gabriel the archangel of revelation. There are also seemingly random letters and numbers, some in a grid, that others suggested were numbers from early Sanskrit. A young colleague of Pastor’s in Muslim Mindanao, who recently converted to Islam, told her the grid with inscriptions looked exactly like his Christian father’s amulet.

It is an object that seems to deny the idea that Christian and Muslim traditions were separate and hostile. Could it be that the warrior who used it drew on more complex traditions about a spiritual world in the imaginations of people who interacted in fluid coexistence?

Pastor told this story last week at the launch of a digital humanities project “Mapping Philippine Material Culture.” It is a fascinating initiative to research the historical reality of the Philippines, free of colonial narratives, political myth-making and fanciful nostalgia.

There are very few objects like the shield actually in the Philippines. Pastor suggests a full 90 percent of objects, generated by people in Philippine society through the ages that might provide clues for us to understand past and present societies, are elsewhere.

It’s the result of the near total destruction of the National Museum in the apocalyptic bombing of Manila at the end of the Second World War, and the assiduous collecting habit of colonial travellers and scientists.

So, where is this stuff? There are thousands and thousands of artefacts, including textiles, paintings, writings, books, clothes and weapons, scattered around the world. From St Petersburg, to Vienna, Stockholm and New York, in museum vaults and archives as well as private collections, they have sat gathering dust. Until now.

This new mapping project is a visual inventory of these Philippine objects in holdings of museums and private collections outside of the Philippines. It is an extraordinary collaborative concept: an open access online inventory that gathers photographic and other information about these objects and gather the data in an easy-to- navigate, all-in-one sortable portal. Take a look if you can at https://philippinestudies.uk/mapping/

“It’s not purely academic for me,” said Dr Cristina Martinez-Juan, the project’s lead researcher, editor, coordinator and chief liaison. She is the project head for Philippine Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. “There is a kind of the joy of finding out these things that are there and like making them accessible to people.”

There is no specific funding for the project, there’s just a small team of researchers helping out. The sheer volume of stuff, and the way it’s ended up in unexpected places has surprised Jessica Manuel, an art history student who was born in the Philippines but grew up in London. She leads the group and told me how exciting it is for her to be dealing with such objects that provide a direct line to Philippine history and to be working with Pastor and Juan. “There is this sense of discovery about the past in a very sort of substantial way. I mean, it’s real,” she told me.

As far as Pastor is concerned it is essential and urgent work. “I think that policy in the Philippines, should be crafted with a clear understanding of what the data says about us. Unless we do that, we analyze ourselves wrongly.” The first step is to know what’s out there. Much more will follow.

One of the objects she highlights is an exceptionally finely embroidered Talaandig headcloth that is physically at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. It has been there for the past hundred years, probably unknown to Talaandig today. “There have been endless livelihood projects for the last century. They all look like Oxfam, they end up with trash and it ends dreadfully for the people, because they end up with no skills whatsoever and they are degraded – (with) a degraded capacity for aesthetics.  If they don’t see what was done by their own grandparents, they have no clue of such quality, such joy in making.”

It is not just about the objects themselves, but what they teach us about ourselves, Filipinos. They do not speak of kingdoms, but of villages where “absolutely exquisite” artefacts - small things – were imagined and provided the environment for them to be made.

Pastor thinks what is learnt from the mapping project should have consequences “across the board from political policy to governance.” “Like how do you govern a people who didn’t have a supra-village organizations, it’s village-centric – how do you plan for that? How do you create a democracy for that? How do you create livelihood projects for that? So for me, it is essential to do this tedious work, it’s full of joy, it’s full of possibility of understanding ourselves in a better way with actual data points.”

“Instead of hypothesizng about Philippine culture, there’s evidence of what it was. One of the things that I do not wish for this project is a nostalgia trip.  We can’t afford nostalgia.  We need to understand ourselves better.”

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