Filipiniana In Madrid

- John L. Silva () - June 25, 2006 - 12:00am
"Filipiniana", an extensive arts, cultural, and historical exhibition opened last May 11, 2006, at Centro Conde Duque in Madrid. The Centro was thronged with visitors led by Philippine Ambassador Joseph Bernardo, senior officials from the sponsoring organizations, Casa Asia and the Spanish Ministry of Culture. Reviews in the various newspapers were enthusiastic. Juan Guardiola, Casa Asia curator, managed to borrow over 300 Filipiniana material and works from various parts of the globe for this exhibit, many having never been publicly shown. When brought together, thematically, the works are extraordinary.

The long dark hallway flanked by rooms on both sides gives one the feeling of having entered a warehouse or the innards of a galleon ship. The first hold contains early and modern maps of the Philippines, from a 16th century Abraham Ortelius–so early that the island of Luzon hadn’t been charted–to contemporary artist Stephanie Syjuco’s World War II map of the 1945 reconquest of the Philippines. The rooms proceed in chronological order from early botanical prints and drawings of the country’s flora, fauna, and vistas to the latter 19th century photographs by Albert Honiss and Francisco Van Kamp.

The next rooms show the development of Filipino painting highlighting a selection of Juan Luna’s sensual paintings of Madrid women (the catalogue refers to them as "…ennobled portraits of prostitutes" ). The Juan Luna piece Parisian Life, lent by the government’s insurance company GSIS, showing a young dishevelled French woman sprawled on a café couch, was perhaps a last ditch attempt to justify their spending over a million dollars in public funds at an auction three years ago. The purchase, recently ruled unwise and inapproprirate by government auditors, is now under congressional investigation.

There’s a long wall full of artifacts displayed in the 1887 Madrid Exposition. Bulols (rice gods), kris, exquisitely carved wooden containers, textiles, model houses, capiz containers, fans and many more items were scrupulously chosen as the finest examples of the colony’s craftsmanship. Given the dubious provenance or the bad tourist market carvings that abound these days it’s a delight to see actual period pieces lent from Madrid’s Museo de Antropologia.

There is much historical material citing the beginnings of the propaganda movement led by our heroes Jose Rizal, Marcelo del Pilar and Graciano Lopez Jaena–with some justifiable boasting in the catalog that their intellectual development blossomed in the "mother country".

The inevitable Filipino revolution is covered and authentic Katipunan banners, documents and the painful photograph of the execution of Jose Rizal by Manuel Arias appears, which the catalog sadly admits as the "…beginning of a legend which would be used as a symbol of colonial disgrace."

The saving grace for the Spaniards is that the Americans came to take over the country and the following galleries with photographs of tortured "insurgents" and racist political cartoons on display are ample enough evidence that the Yanquis were far less "fino" than the previous colonial administrators. For good measure, there’s also a section devoted to the three years of Japanese occupation. There’s enough burning of Manila, dead Filipinos and other ravages of war by Fernando Amorsolo buttressed with Japanese wartime propaganda posters to almost pine for Spain’s benign rule.

It’s a relief to get through this unfortunate section of history (some Spaniards get soppy and apologetic like the Japanese do over their imperial past) because the next galleries and all the way to the end are a stimulating array of paintings, sculpture, the plastic and kinetic arts, photography, film and video of the past seventy-five years.

Much of these works were lent by the artists themselves and by private collectors, galleries and museums including the National Museum. A grand countryside scene with villagers at work under a papaya tree, lent by Eleuterio Pascual, dominates one wall and is breath-taking. Entitled Interaction, the 1935 painting was a rare collaboration of Victorio Edades, Galo Ocampo, and Carlos "Botong" Francisco.

The selected paintings of the ’50s shine in these rooms. A 1951 Romero Tabuena of hanging laundry from nipa huts and a 1952 Arturo Luz of three men celebrating the new year on a speeding bicycle, both from the Ateneo Art Gallery, have so much verve. Anita Magsaysay-Ho’s laughing women, entitled Tawanan, (1950) and a nearby heavy wooden sculpture called Planting Rice by Napoleon Abueva, both lent by the Kalaw Ledesma Foundation, sustain the dignity of peasant women.

David Medalla, an internationally known artist residing in London, reconstructed his incredible Bubble Machine, a 1964 kinetic artwork, composed of standing funnels whose tops spew bubbles to the delight of all.

Despite the restrictive policies of the Marcos Regime, social realist artwork flourished along with political films and they are given ample space in the exhibition. Some of the more stirring are the portraits of workers by Antipas Delotavo (Ang Paglakbay, 1983) and by Gene de Loyola (Napipintong Pagtutuos, 1984). Other works have strong Chinese Cultural Revolution leanings, with linked arms, clenched fists and waving flags. The passage of time tends to make them look stale and stilted, more reflective as period pieces rather than classic social change art. As for the inclusion of Imelda Marcos in one video, well, there’s the Hola! magazine crowd to contend with.

A whole last section is entitled "Memories of Overdevelopment" and roughly covers the period 1986 to 2006. Video shorts from both Spanish and Filipino artists air on screens above and on panels in the rooms. One notable project–large photo diptych showing a soldier in a forest–is part of a project by Helena Cabello and Ana Carceller. The scene is Pagsanjan and the video artists have decided to revisit the site where the film Apocalypse Now was filmed. The soldier, a Filipino version of Martin Sheen, is mysterious with queer and feminist perspectives thrown in.

Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan have all the things we shop for which fit in a balikbayan box to be sent to relatives. Canned goods and towels vie with t-shirts and toys and are cleverly piled neatly on top of one another so as to look like a balikbayan box had been removed with the contents retaining the box’s shape.

One of the most haunting works is that of Susan Meiselas, an American photographer who follows a middle-aged American arriving in the Philippines to meet his young bride-to-be after a year’s correspondence (by mail, not internet). There’s the wedding, the party and the camera follows them to their bedroom recording their wedding bliss. Photographs the morning after show the American waking up from a bad dream.

You can almost miss the room solely devoted to Jose Legaspi’s naughty black and white drawings in checkered form. Called Drawings, 2000-2006, Legaspi’s ghoulish themes–daggers in bloodied mouths, crawling figures with ropes tied around their necks–seem akin to all the Abu Ghraib torture pictures. But at least Legaspi’s are just drawings.

Manuel Ocampo’s canvases with the usual medieval atmosphere overlayed with babies shitting, piss stains, nose snot, and juvenile hysteria over colonialism seem overwrought in 2006. He painted Black Sambo Filipino faces on the columns of the exhibition space. They weren’t shocking, not even amusing. One can be more lathered up about the Spanish biscuits called Filipinos, if only they weren’t that delicious.

Filipino art works in a foreign setting take on added inadvertent identities. After the shock value and exotic appeal, we Filipinos who live in the Philippines and see these works abroad hold a secret incantation in our heart. It goes like this: "Dear Gods, I hope these works don’t make us look more stupid to the foreigners." We who live in a country with an image so tattered need a break, one that shows artistic achievement over and above the tourist schlock and the bungling government we are snickered about these days.

That’s why the inclusion of Bencab’s 1978 Filipina Domestic Help and Santi Bose’s Remapping the Colonized Subject in this exhibit leaven the angst, the pedantic, and the historical sorrow that occasionally rear their pesky heads through the galleries.

Bencab, recently declared National Artist, doesn’t add froufrou to the front and side view of a servant in a white apron, with dignity writ on her face and hands that belie the slightest nervousness in her pose. No deranged look, no proletarian appeal. Simple yet majestic, it acknowledges and pays tribute to Philippine service workers all over the world.

Santi Bose starts with a painting derived from an old photograph of Juan Luna, Jose Rizal, Felix R. Hidalgo and an unidentified gentlemen posed in Luna’s studio in Paris. A thick gold outline of a tribal god and amulet incantations overlay the photograph. Luna holds a paintbrush whose tip touches the god’s design, as if he himself drew the god. These expatriates are far from their homeland but the god of Juan Luna reminds them of their roots and their destiny. No lengthy discourse on the Propaganda Movement or the enlightened ilustrado is necessary. It is haunting and moving and rounds up all the disparate but forceful elements in this exhibition.

The modern curator has the nagging preoccupation of making an exhibition relevant. When you add history as the theme’s foundation, the task is formidable. Juan Guardiola and his sponsoring institute, Casa Asia, had the yeoman’s task of putting the Philippines on the Spanish cultural radar. Despite all the sentimental blandishment about the Philippines being Spanish kin, Spanish tourists would rather fly to Bangkok than Manila. Filipinos in turn would be happy with Disneyland.

The exhibit is admirable not because it pulls patriotic heartstrings (although Filipino viewers will feel it and the indulgence allowed). Instead, the exhibition is about Mr. Guardiola assembling the most enlightening, rapturous and best works of art and artifacts of a country (it could be any country) and presenting them clearly and with affection to his own countrymen.

FILIPINIANA at the Centro Conde Duque, C/Conde Duque, 11, Madrid will last till September 24, 2006. For further information visit the Casa Asia website

The author is Senior Consultant of the National Museum of the Philippines. Write him ( if you are interested in a tour of the exhibit and "Rizal’s Madrid" slated for the first week of September.

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