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Starweek Magazine

Contemplating Botong

Orlando A. Oliveros - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - The traveling art exhibit “Carlos ‘Botong’ Francisco: A Nation Imagined” came to De La Salle University-Dasmariñas and was on display at Museo De La Salle from July 1 to August 2. I had not made it to the opening, but on succeeding days when the crowds had gone, that’s when I chose to go see it. I mean, the title has “a nation imagined” in it, right? I just thought it would be more fitting if I went there and the mood was more contemplative.

There is a familiarity that awakens within me whenever I see Botong’s works, even if at times, it was my first time seeing some of them. I mean, if you’re born-and-bred Filipino and you see the paintings, it’s likely you’d feel an affinity. Perhaps, it’s because we’ve had a glimpse of the paintings before, here and there in our memory – in our history books back in high school…or on a calendar….

In my case, one particular experience was seeing this television commercial years and years ago. It showed details of a Botong painting – “The Katipunan,” if I’m not mistaken. The experience of seeing it was made more vivid because there was the sound of a flute and a guitar accompanying it. And then a man’s singing voice came on:

“Ang lumikha ng isang mapayapang landas/tungo sa lipunang malaya sa dahas/ay karapatang pantao./Ang mag-isip at magpahayag ng mungkahi’t pananaw/ay karapatang pantao….”

I’ve seen that Botong painting many times on the Internet. As for the song, I’ve been looking for it for years, longing to hear it again. And not having found it yet, seeing that Botong painting from time to time is like seeing a benign specter that has been haunting me for so long.

And so, standing there in the Fe Sarmiento-Panlilio Gallery of Museo De La Salle, surrounded by a number of Botong reproductions all around, I got “haunted” again. The strumming guitar, the musing flute, the clear strong yet gentle tenor voice sounding in my mind again.

No, I was not disappointed that the “paintings” were reproductions. I would have liked to see the originals, but then I think Ayala Museum did a good job in photographing the images and printing them on canvas. Somehow, one can still see texture – here and there the Master’s brushstrokes, here and there the patchiness of thick paint, and even the weave of the original canvas.

The Katipunan painting was not part of the exhibit. Nonetheless, the trademark Botong lines, earthy coloring, the subtle gestures and expression of the figures, the balanced almost-Baroque “clutter” of the composition are there. With these elements, he painted some of the most iconic images in Philippine culture and historiography (“Bayanihan,” for example, or “Filipino Struggles Through History”). The images have been etched in our consciousness that it’s like seeing a childhood friend again.

 

In Botong’s works, one finds a wonderful intermingling of contrasts: the rough and the smooth; the real and the fabled; the eternal and the fleeting.

Wistful and mysterious Maria Makiling sighing at length in her solitude becomes a comely señorita fanning herself while in repose among brown-skinned men carrying her hammock in precarious and back-breaking labor on a pilgrimage to Antipolo.

While his colors are vibrant, he did not just use them for sheer effects. Mainly, he used them to aid his composition, especially in the murals, where they ingenuously serve manifold purpose: they give his backgrounds an exuberant surreal definition; they collapse the space between his main figures; they aid in balancing the overall composition; they dreamily frame his subjects in a microcosm that emphasizes the composition’s overall monumentality.

Unlike the monumentality of most masters’, however, Botong’s is graceful and ethereal. Dynamic and energetic, yet tempered with a softness that renders his monumental figures seem like they are “at play” among colorful clouds – clouds that happened to take on the shape of trees or waters or mountains or other people.

His lighting is yet another thing. If Amorsolo had ingenuously captured the intensity of Philippine sunlight, Botong had starkly yet admiringly brushed it on his figures’ skin – the rough reds, yellows and browns pulsing and glistening with sweat. This is evident on the outdoor scene “Nagmamandala” and, to a lesser degree, even in the interior scene “Give Us This Day.” You do not see the sun, but you feel its heat on the people’s skin.

This intensity, he sometimes depicted along with intended exaggerations on his figure’s anatomy. This way, Botong empathized. The strain of laborers carrying a heavy load. The hunger and poverty of emaciated barefoot diggers digging for their next meal.

Thus, the title “poet of Angono” is justified. That is Botong’s main strength, I suppose: his heart was with his people – through thick and thin.

I guess I’m not alone in this. You look at a Botong painting – especially his murals – you get transported to this world, to this intimacy that at times fantasizes but always poetizes one’s Filipino-ness.

I don’t know exactly what being Filipino is all about. But if feeling it is knowing it, then I guess looking at Botongs helps. You can rationalize and rationalize about these things, but then, it’s probable that in the course of your rationalizations, you’d realize so many Americans would fail at being Americans. Ditto Australians. Even Koreans, Indians and Chinese, notwithstanding their millennia of history and culture. In this day and age, the rational mind is easily distracted and confused. Only with our hearts do we feel certain.

And I feel the certainty, when I look at Botongs. And Amorsolos. And the bahay kubo. And the bukid and the kalabaw. And the Mayon Volcano. And the Banaue Rice Terraces. Etcetera, etcetera.

Being part of our history, they are preserved there in the recesses of our consciousness as a people – unchanging, ever waiting for us to look back on them from time to time. Whether we like it or not, they have become our pride and our standards – ideals of who and what we are, ideals we hark back to whenever there’s a need to mine and represent some of the best that this nation has to offer the rest of the world.

I count Botong’s works as among them. To me, they are the monumentalities of the Filipino soul.d

A NATION IMAGINED

AYALA MUSEUM

BANAUE RICE TERRACES

BOTONG

DE LA SALLE UNIVERSITY-DASMARI

DITTO AUSTRALIANS

EVEN KOREANS

FE SARMIENTO-PANLILIO GALLERY OF MUSEO DE LA SALLE

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