a version of this was published in The Philippine Daily Inquirer on May 24 2009.
Projects that deal with the creation of a Filipino identity are always bound to be met by debate and objections, violent reactions and a lot of hair-pulling. And rightfully so. At a time when we are being told that Manny Pacquiao is our sense of identity, we must be able to kick and scream our way towards a better sense of who we are.
The “Looking for Juan Outdoor Banner Project” of the Center for Art, New Ventures and Sustainable Development (CANVAS), seems to be a step in the right direction. Asking artists to create works that respond to the question of Filipino identity, the first batch of paintings on exhibit at the Cultural Center of the Philippines is telling of the individual minds of our young contemporary artists. Collectively, it is everything and indicative of where we are as a nation.
On that hot evening of the exhibit’s opening night, the slew of paintings hanging on the second floor lobby walls of the CCP was surprisingly refreshing. The youthfulness was difficult to ignore, owing literally to the bright optimistic colors across the canvasses. Even when a given canvass dealt with dark hues, there seemed to be something light and agreeable about the general look of the string of paintings in front of me.
It could have been the familiarity of it all as well. From afar, the amalgamation of images of being Pinoy (the jeepney, the Filipino child, a person sweeping, people smiling into camera phones) couldn’t help but be heartwarming. But too, it was almost a warning: the concern for identity after all is an overdone concern of the arts, visual and otherwise, and as such it does quite often become cliché.
As some of the works on exhibit are, falling into the trap of using overdone stereotypes of the Filipino. The Pinoy as unique in our ability to smile in the midst of pain (Galos Lang by Jeff Carnay) and oppression due to unjust laws (Juan Line by Dansoy Coquilla), to walk to the beat of our own drum (Hataw sa Traffic Light by Marcial Pontillas), and to rise above adversity given our heroic history (Like Our Heroes, We Will Rise by Anthony Palo). The realism that the first three work with don’t leave much for interpretation – a function as well of its being cliché – while the latter is strangely enough a representation of people flying with and on a hot air balloon, an image that connotes social class mobility. Is this to say who can become hero?
Many others, while dealing with realistic images of poverty, corruption and oppression, end up talking about the universal notions of environmentalism (Juanderful World? by Anna de Leon), unity (Maybe we are the pieces… by Jay Pacena II), personal struggle (Sarisari Storm by Maan de Loyola), determination (The Rise of Juan Tamad by Lotsu Manes), and hope (The Traveller by Palma Tayona). Understandably, it is these pieces as well that have more to say on the canvas.
Pacena’s piece in particular screams against the oppression of information, with a blindfolded image up-close, mouth filled with three-dimensional puzzle pieces. With eyes unseen and face half-covered, this was a statement on every Juan and Juana: you are being defined by too much, even as you remain unknown. Meanwhile, the Filipinos’ need for travel and movement is in Tayona’s work, showing an oversized figure carrying wooden children and lifted off ground by two hands. It is a statement on the enterprise of selling laborers’ bodies across the globe.
The clichés notwithstanding, a lot of thinking obviously went into many of the artworks. This was particularly true for the more politically charged ones, those that spoke of the true conditions of nation, and dealt with it head-on. There was the truth of poverty and how it understandably sacrifices hope (Juan Luma by Migs Villanueva), the contemporary Filipinization of what is foreign and how this hybrid identity is problematic in its abstraction (Hybrid Nation by Jucar Raquepo), the static state of the nation as potential never fulfilled (Penoy by Manny Garibay). Expectedly, the latter two paintings used a pastiche of images (popular culture and our unfulfilled, respectively).
But it is the flair for the revolutionary that is striking about this exhibit. The works “Byaheng Maynila” by Omi Reyes, “Aklas… Baklas… Lakas… Bukas!” by Marika Constantino, “Panata” by Salvador Ching, and “Pinoy Big Brother” by Buen Abrigo are priceless not just in its imagery but also in its call to action. Reyes’ close-up image of a jeep seems cliché, but up close its movement challenges the audience to an engagement: where are you going and why? The value of this question is true as well for Ching’s use of a Filipino everyman doingthe Catholic devotees’ sacrifice of flagellation. This man though is facing a bright red moon, his bare back bloodied – the Juan is himself the sacrifice, as he is the one facing the possibility of revolt with the red red moon. And while the image of two arms clasping each other in Constantino’s work could seem cliché as well, its flowing red background connotes the rage and revolt that seem all possible.
But it is Abrigo who outdoes them all, creating the image of contemporary times as transnational neo-colonial: an unstable building and tower is filled with everything commercial that permeates our everyday lives; figures beneath these structures, are that of a masked GMA/Imelda, a two-faced man in shadows, and a zombie-like creature with laser eyes. All of these are contextualized in the dark neglected buildings in the background – a telling sign of how the capitalist enterprise silences the nation. The eeriness reeks of injustice and murder, and this is precisely what works for “Pinoy Big Brother”. Because too, it highlights the need for change, the need to end the oppression that capital brings. Hooray for the revolution!
If only for Abrigo’s as well as Reyes’ and Ching’s works, and in the context of the highly debatable concepts of nation and identity, the “Looking For Juan” exhibit is everything and a must-see.