Arts Not War

- John L. Silva () - April 15, 2007 - 12:00am
We were checking out very early in the mor-ning in Zamboanga to catch our flight. My porter gingerly carried my laptop and lcd projector to the hotel van, asking if I was headed back to Manila. No, I said, I was going to Jolo. The porter gave a pensive look and cautioned: things were "delicado" there. I brushed off his worry with a smile. I was conducting an arts appreciation workshop in Jolo, a most historical city laden with all the mystery and danger, perceived rightly or wrongly, that accompanies this island.

My porter’s fears were not totally off the mark. When our twin engine plane landed on Jolo’s dusty airfield, armored personnel vehicles, a convoy of trucks with battle-ready troops, were driving by and Vietnam era helicopters were whooshing overhead. Instead of an airport porter, we had two armed military men (compliments of the mayor) bringing our donated school books to the van and escorting us the whole day in an open pickup truck. Maybe it was really "delicado" in these parts.

Like all the other autonomous Muslim provinces I’ve been to, a military presence has become a fixture. In Jolo, a city that has witnessed insurrections, massacres and bombings for over three hundred years, the prevalence of guns and cannons and camouflage uniforms has become indelible images of the city.

At the conference site, I see a welcome sign with my name on it and many smiling women in head scarves and teachers’ uniforms. Mayor Salip Aloy Jainal of nearby Indanan municipality, who brought these teachers over, gives me a hearty greeting. I quickly forget my nervous musings and am raring to start my presentation.

My day-long program entitled I Love Museums for public school teachers on appreciating the arts has traveled throughout much of the country. Getting to Jolo would almost complete the major cities in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) which included Marawi, Tawi-Tawi, and Cotabato City.

The program has a simple proposition: Give teachers a crash course in arts education, let them pass it on to their students, and see student academic scores increase.

A Stanford University study shows that a child with an arts education is four times more likely to have higher academic scores, three times more likely to be involved in student affairs, four times more likely to love reading and writing, and three times more likely to do volunteer work. These findings have been taken so seriously that California has mandated all high school students to complete one year of arts education in order to enter the state’s university and college systems.

Synergeia, an education reform organization dedicated to raising reading and comprehension scores for primary school children, has been working in the municipality of Indanan for close to two years. 767 first graders were tested in the beginning and the reading scores were a frightening 24 percent. That meant a student could only comprehend two out of ten words presented. The average reading score in the country is 54 percent, which means Indanan students, like many other Mindanao students, have one of the lowest literacy scores in the country.

With that challenge, Synergeia helped energize the local school board with the help of the mayor. The teachers were given remedial courses and the parent/teachers’ associations were given after-school mentoring assignments and the students were given one workbook each. Today, they were going to be steeped in the arts.

The Indanan teachers are polite and pleasant, trooping into the auditorium and patiently waiting for me to set up. I could see though from the corner of my eye they were a skeptical bunch. The Synergeia testing results were crushing. You aren’t exactly chipper knowing most of your students can’t read. And now they have to suffer a culture course from a chirpy Manileño.

I start flashing images of museums throughout the world and their collections. There is the usual titter over Greek male nudes since most in the audience were female and not familiar with Western representational art. I sense a quiet and the occasional "mmmh" when I begin my subsection of Islamic art found in major museums throughout the world: A 13th century lantern from Egypt, the calligraphic signature of Sultan Sulaiman from the 16th century, colorful prayer rugs from Iran, geometric tiles from Spain and textiles from Indonesia. Exquisitely designed gold jewelry created excitement, a craftsmanship that the mostly Tausug members in the room were quite familiar with.

I venture into our National Mu-seum’s collection of Muslim art. Gravemarkers, mat weavings, woodcarvings, brass, kris, all detailing their superb qualities evoke excited murmurs. This is the entrée to the deeper discourse on the following module on Philippine history.

Using old photographs, Philippine history comes alive with images of the Yakans, the Samals, the Tausugs, the Badjaos and other tribes in the archipelago, in their finery, on their houseboats, in procession, dancing, and readying for ceremony. There are photographs of proud Sultans negotiating with American authorities, of regal Sultanas with their retinue, of gleaming mosques, and pristine landscapes. These carefully chosen images exorcised the prevailing visuals of Muslims as fanatics and ignoble, living in total abject squalor.

Injecting cultural and historical pride, my presentation acknowledge and remind the teachers of their people’s defiance of colonialism, resulting in their culture remaining relatively intact compared to the wholesale loss of culture and norms in other parts of the country.

During the open forum, teachers raise points proving they had absorbed the presentation. "Is it the material or the craftsmanship that gives an object its value?" asks one teacher. Artistic freedom and religious constraints are also broached. There are sobering comments too about the difficulty in setting up their own school museum when they don’t even have enough schoolrooms.

The National Museum of Jolo is right beside our conference center so we all walk there, the majority of the teachers visiting it for the first time.

How quickly the lessons were internalized. The teachers pause longer to scrutinize weaving patterns and jar designs. They ponder and gush over the curved and gracious ukil designs in the wood carvings. The second floor is a vast display of Sultanate genealogy and historical highlights of Sulu, adding further to the pride they had gained that day.

The teachers give effusive goodbyes and board tricycles with painted signs like "Guns and Roses" driving down the main boulevard shaded by century-old acacia trees planted by the Americans. It would be a long trip back to Indanan, with military checkpoints at intervals and peeling political posters that have once again uglified their towns.

There is still some light that afternoon so I get a quick tour of Jolo’s historical sights and the public market where I find beautiful woven mats, baskets, pottery, gold jewelry and kris still being made in their area. These artworks, much admired and treasured for hundreds of years, continue to thrive, proving the tenacity of artistic creation despite limited resources and an ongoing war.

There are still many outlying islands to visit in the Sulu archipelago and give my I Love Museums program. There will always be that prevailing warning about how "delicado" the area is. I’ve heard it said since childhood. But whenever I’m there, it’s the teachers’ warmth and their desire to learn about the arts that dominate my mind. Apprehensions quickly disappear, leaving me with only the good fortune of visiting and teaching in yet another beautiful place in our country.

The free one-day arts appreciation program for public school teachers (now called Arts Connection) will be offered in key cities around the country. For information please e-mail jsilva79@hotmail.com or call/text 0926-729-9029.

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