Re-imagining the tao-tao

- Dina Sta. Maria (The Philippine Star) - October 14, 2012 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - The journey started nearly a quarter century ago with a restaurant – a homey, unpretentious little log cabin along the national highway in Silang, Cavite.

The owner, Ernest Escaler, then a businessman and part-time coffee trader just venturing into growing vegetables on his property behind the restaurant, chanced upon some wood carvings on a trip up north.

“We were in Baguio once and then I saw all these sculptures in Asin, and I said, why don’t we get this and decorate the place with it,” Escaler recalls. “So in 1990 we bought these Ifugao sculptures to decorate the log cabin restaurant.” These huge wooden characters populated what came to be known as Gourmet’s Cafe, silent witnesses to the chismis and secrets that the growing clientele from Manila shared over salad and pasta and juice (which was the extent of the original menu).

As with all other things, change set in, the log cabin has since been demolished, the restaurant has had four or five restorations, “but the statues were still there,” Escaler says.

But with Gourmet’s Cafe now called The Dining Room and sporting a Mediterranean look, the wooden figures were out of place, but Escaler felt “these pieces are much too valuable and have too much history with us… So what do I do with them?”

Instead of selling or otherwise disposing of them, he came up with a project. “I thought of making these traditional pieces go very contemporary. And because of my affiliation with the Asian Cultural Council (he is chairman of ACC-Philippines. Ed), I thought why not create a project where I can showcase the different faces of ACC and how they have helped, how they have contributed to the art scene here in the Philippines,” he says.

Escaler distributed these 25-year-old wooden souvenirs to several contemporary artists: Anton del Castillo, Don Salubayba, Gerry Leonardo, Noel Crizon, and Irma Lacorte, all of whom have received grants from the ACC for various projects in the US.

Soon, they were joined by Nic Pichay and his documentary team who interviewed not only Escaler and the artists, but were also able to track down two Benguet woodcarvers who create such sculptures, locally known as tao-tao, similar to the ones used as “canvas” in this experimental art project. The resulting documentary has been dubbed “The Journey of the Tao-Tao.”

“It’s an interesting project, but at the same time also challenging,” says Anton del Castillo, one of the participating artists.

“It’s part of the vocabulary of contemporary art. The artist chooses that thing to become a part of the artistic process, so it becomes a material for art… It could be seen as a material, but in this case it is a fully formed one,” Del Castillo elaborates on the concept of the project.

“It had a previous life, so to speak… And then, when it becomes a part of an artistic project, it acquires a new life. Because it’s a participant in a new conversation about the world and so forth, the artist also becomes part of a new situation.”

The contemporary artists, through the project, enter into a conversation with Alex Bimwag, one of the first wave of master carvers in Benguet. A pair of second-wave woodcarvers – Manong Hector and Manong Hilario from Hapao, Benguet – were able to identify Bimwag’s work from photos shown by Pichay’s documentary team.

The project explores, as well, the differences and similarities – the delineation – between artist and artisan, between, on the one hand, the “Arts” and, on the other hand, the crafts sold as souvenirs, such as the iconic woodcarvings visitors to Baguio often take home.

Even Manong Hector and Manong Hilario have different views on this. Manong Hilario has had considerable success, even serving a stint in Japan as a master of the craft.

On the other hand, “Manong Hector refuses to even think that he is anything but a simple woodcarver,” says Pichay. “He looks at himself as an ordinary person. ‘I am not an artist,’ he says. And he explains, because ‘an artist goes to school. I only finished 4th grade’.”

As the conversations ensue and the journey progresses, both through the contemporary artists’ interaction with the woodcarvings and in the documentary, various views and ideas on the arts and the scene’s current issues arise.

Pichay says, “The juxtaposition of points of view, the discussions on art and the artist, the expressions of respect for the original sculptures, and now the narratives of the second-wave woodcarvers bring the documentary to some kind of satisfying completeness.”

Del Castillo adds, “It’s an entire section of so many things, across history, across forms, across times… It’s already been constituted as something distinct in a particular context, and then the artist’s response to that context. That’s why you see in this project the artist also brings into the situation his or her own history, background, sensibility,” he says, as he discusses the various styles of each participating artist and how they have each confronted and interpreted the challenge of the project.

“The end product I wanted to see here is how our contemporary artists transform these primitive figures into their interpretation 25 years after,” says Escaler. The finished works of art will be sold, with proceeds going to the artists and to support their various art causes.

Summing up his views on art, which has become reflective of the outcome of the whole tao-tao project, Escaler says, “I think art is a reflection of the culture and social environment. And for this reason art depicts the reality of time.”

The tao-tao sculptures will be on display at the SMX Convention Center at the SM Mall of Asia from Oct. 17 to 20 during the Manila FAME, Asia’s design and lifestyle event organized by the Center for International Trade Expositions and Missions (CITEM), as part of the trade show’s focus on the Filipino artisans and their craftsmanship as the soul of the country.

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