Memories of the Archipelago

- John L. Silva () - September 6, 2009 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - If Valeria Cavestany had her way, she’d also be her country’s tourism ambassador. She’s firstly, though, a painter/sculptor whose exhibitions in various parts of the world touch on oriental and tropical themes that point to her Philippine roots.

Her current show in Barcelona, Archipielagos de la Memoria (Arxipelags de la Memoria or Archipelagos of Memory), is a delightful and disarming way for her audience to remember their once furthest colony and file it in their next summer destination list.

Casa Asia’s Modernist building alone, designed by Josep Puid i Cadafalch with its mosaic swirls on the floors, a sensual staircase and Gothic/Moorish details lend well to the equally serpentine curves and oval shapes of Cavestany’s metal animal sculptures laid out in a faux tropical forest complete with artificial grass. The Philippine map with all 7,100 islands has been blown up in sections covering the gallery walls.

The creatures, hugely larger-than-life, lit from within and glowing through perforated body patterns, dominate this tropical primeval.

House lizards (tuko) proliferate, climbing the mapped walls about to invade an island. A moth (gamo-gamo) flies down from the ceiling. A gangly spider with the tips of its feet glowing like flashlights wanders aimlessly on while a rooster, erect with its neck posed forward, is perched to crow. There is a dog meekly looking up at a large self-confident cat and nearby, a menacing python climbs and wraps itself around a fake papaya tree. At one end, on a mound surveying it all, a stoic rat with a long coiled tail complete this tableau vivant of creatures that inhabit Southeast Asia.

Cavestany adds an important dimension to the glowing menagerie by incorporating traditional two-line verses recited by village folk linking these animals to popular folk sayings and superstitions. When a tuko makes its series of repetitive throaty sounds (their name being onomatopoeic) it means a visitor is coming. When a gambler sees a serpent on his way to a cockfight, that’s bad luck. But if the gambler sees a spider, then bet big because it’s his lucky day. The gamo-gamo flying at night signals rain the next day. It will also pour if a frog croaks in the summer. And if a rooster crows in the morning, a married lass will soon be pregnant.

The wall text sayings are rendered in poetic couplets and translated into Catalan and Spanish by Cavestany. She follows in the footsteps of the 19th century Philippine national hero Jose Rizal who, in searching for his own roots, began to collect and document local verses used for poems, songs, dramatic poetry and sayings. Rizal remembered as a child with friends “…improvising verses on the streets in moonlit nights…” Cavestany’s choice of old-time verses recall a rural country’s beliefs in animals foretelling the weather, the pervasive gambling culture (which Rizal railed against) and a world before family planning.

On opening night, Cavestany’s creatures, folklore messages and enlarged map created a magical ensemble. A large crowd of older Spaniards whose parents emigrated and lived on the islands were animated, recalling as children the tuko sounds in their convivial Manila neighborhoods or their provincial bungalows.

They eagerly pointed to towns and cities on the map where they were born and grew up. Other guests marveled at the hundreds of Hispanic town names dotting the islands, like Legazpi, San Juan, Concepcion, and even a Barcelona in a southern province.

The Filipinos in the crowd read the folk sayings, nodding in agreement and remembering the very same sayings told to them by grandparents. The creatures triggered and unlocked childhood play: captured spiders placed on sticks, prodded to fight each other, while bottled fireflies became evening lanterns. On opening night, at the Casa Asia’s Manila Salon where a bust of Jose Rizal presides, a rendition of the Filipino national anthem and nostalgic love songs by a Filipino choral group moistened many eyes. It was Cavestany’s triumph using tropical creatures to engage Spaniards to remember a colony they and their ancestors affectionately called “Eden del Mar” or “Perlas del Oriente.”

Cavestany, whose roots are Spanish and Filipino, has lived in both countries and straddles the two cultures with aplomb. It’s a marked difference from others of mixed parentage who grew up with a shortfall of either culture and go through life “seeking their identity.” For artists, the search usually expresses itself in works ranging from pensiveness to an excess of discovered ethnic pride. Being well grounded, Cavestany creates a medley in her paintings and sculptures gingerly incorporating images, artifacts, discipline, style and craftsmanship from both cultures.

Apart yet linked to her artistic creation is an all-consuming desire to make her Spanish audience identify, remember, and embrace their eastern connection. The Philippines, historically, was the gateway for the silks, ivories, spices, embroidery, devotional pieces, gold jewelry, jade, teas, tropical seedlings, and vast numbers of porcelain, much from China, finding their way to Mexico and later to Spain through the 255-year-old Manila-Acapulco galleon trade. These in turn fashioned and enhanced Spanish daily life. Ingrained in Cavestany’s works is the reminder that Spain, with its various and distinctive regions, would have been culturally diminished if not for the colonial ties with a far-flung entrepot named after the 16th century King Philip II.

Modern Philippine art has increasingly been shown and represented by galleries outside the country. Many of these works take local artifacts, colors and themes, and adroitly tailor them for a regional, if not a global, art market. Cavestany’s

Métier, which includes a pastiche of Asian faces, native scenes and tropical flowers, some on paper, others on lit translucent boxes, have been exhibited and acquired in collections throughout the world. The enthusiastic reception her latest exhibit has garnered in Barcelona is yet another testimonial to the emergence of a burgeoning Filipino art market.

The author is senior consultant to the National Museum of the Philippines and is an arts writer for various publications. Archiepielagos de la memoria is on exhibit at Casa Asia located at Palau Baro de Quadras, Av. Diagonal 373, Barcelona. The show runs until Sept. 30.

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