a version of this was published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, May 31 2010.
It is everything and fantastic this CANVAS project that is Looking For Juan. After all, the overwrought discussion of identity seems to be at a dead-end, where insisting on Filipino-ness is adjudged too nativist and always anti-America. This forgets that when we insist on being part our colonizers, there seems to be a refusal to deal with looking at our identities as separate still from these colonizers. Meanwhile it’s easy to see why we’ve arrived at this roadblock.
And yet, this year Looking for Juan (Vargas Museum, U.P. Diliman) is in a bigger, brighter (also hotter) venue (where are those rich UP alumni to air-condition this place when you need them?), and doesn’t seem to want to stop with talking about identity. But maybe too much of a good thing can be bad?
Because with the question of everyday heroes, cliché is the name of this game. It doesn’t help that the way in which the exhibit was curated grouped the works thematically, making the clichés more obviously about sameness. And when I say that there are paintings that are the same, I mean the artistic individual creativities (difference in media, notions of genre) get dissolved in the stark similarities, of imagery, of thought-process, of just basic idea.
Workers as working heroes
Name it, and you’ve got that Filipino worker here. There are no call center agents, or yuppies, or any enslaved white-collar workers thought, instead there are images of the kargador, the fisherman, the farmer, the magtataho, the teacher, the health worker, the basurero (that last one is a sculpture). One wonders at what point it becomes less respectful and more a politically-incorrect romance with these images. After all, these workers aren’t given lives other than the work they do, and in the few paintings that show workers’ conditions, badly-written captions that accompany the work ruin things altogether.
Thank goodness for “Minimum Wage Earner” by Renato Barja, where the construction worker is rightfully the color of the soot that he creates and lives with, where he is given a cup of coffee, a cigarette and a fiery sunrise in the background, where his big eyes are allowed its sadness and its weariness, even more importantly its defeat. Where the last thing you will think of is celebration or romance, or cliché.
Jojo Ballo’s “Tuwing Umaga”, which uses charcoal on canvas, would’ve been more powerful left without its caption cum explanation. Maan de Loloya’s “Kargador” meanwhile, fails at its cleanliness, which doesn’t work as irony for what it is that the main image is doing, i.e., carrying on top of her head a “crime scene” of her oppressive past and present: an MMDA sign, pink stilettos, guns, a balikbayan box, a buwaya. Had this been dirtier it would make sense that the smaller versions of this character look up dumbfounded at, some are apathetic towards, this bigger image’s act of cleaning up.
The cliché of the OFW, and motherhood
Because we know this to be true: that the OFW is the new hero of nation. And so, there are a good number of works here that are all about this heroism, and while some do fail at bringing something new to the OFW stereotype, there are those that just succeed. Yveese Belen’s “In Every Corner” is a canvas divided into 8 x 4 square, with every other square filled with an image of tiny brown workers doing various jobs. What is extraordinary here is the detail where the workers are actually in action, doing their jobs, making it more of a tribute to what they do, versus a romantic notion of just them.
The other OFW paintings don’t quite survive their captions, although Cana Valencia’s “Bagong Bayani” does just because it’s a different image compared to all the others here: much of the canvas is taken up by a Swiss knife made into the Philippine flag, the sun used as the O to the FW. From this center, what the knife’s various tools reveal are Filipinos’ various jobs across the world. It’s everything and refreshing, removing the sadness implicit in the mere fact of OFWs.
And those mother images? All about the clichés of pregnancy and giving life, or holding the child’s hand and protecting her, of motherhood as powerful in itself, period. That might be true, but there are so many other ways in which mothers are heroes, that would’ve been nice to see, too.
Some powerful imagery
Dante Lerma’s “Call Juan-24/7-Heroes” has such a powerful image that’s failed by its title and caption. A woman in a Maria Clara costume stands against a Coca-Cola refrigerator. Her foot is up against the wall, revealing running shoes, and she is holding her phone as if writing a text message. From afar, it was easily a rendering of the notion(s) of womanhood and tradition, the powerful woman vis a vis the meek and tamed. With that title about heroes being on call? It is everything and disappointing.
Cathy Lasam’s “Mommy” is wonderful in its experimentation with texture, folding up paper to create a pattern that renders the quiet – and I daresay cliché – image of the mother more dynamic, more interestingly alive and truthful to the multi-dimensionality of all our mothers in our lives. Janelle Tang’s “May Bago Akong Laruan” layers acrylic on canvas to create the layers of a paper doll. Here, the clothes floating on the canvas create the images of a mother and a child, even when they don’t exist on the page itself. The heroism would lie in the idea of powerfully creating our own images, yes? But that caption is an absolute let-down.
Fernando Sena’s “Tatay, Nanay, Mga Tunay na Bayani” was a refreshing complexity in the midst of these works, where abstraction seemed to be few and far between. Sena’s take on the cliché of parents as heroes is done in cubist abstraction, where two tiny one-dimensional faces represent parents, that create what look like structures that go up higher and higher, evolving into darker, deeper, more serious colors, as it goes up the canvas. It’s a celebration of the default power of parenting to build, to create, regardless of whether it wants to or not; it’s a reminder, maybe even a warning.
The universal Pinoy hero
What becomes infinitely more problematic here though is the idea of every Filipino as hero. It is here that the paintings seem to all work towards the media-created notion that we can all change this world just by voting once. As if things are ever that easy. Here, laughter is celebrated even when it’s really more a negative than a positive in the way that it fails to consider oppression. There is the teacher, the student-journalist, the environmentalist. There are hands! Just too many notions of hands, both in titles and captions, and outright in images that we’ve all seen before, some of them in our grade school art projects.
The ones that survive this part of the exhibit are those works that have different images, even when these titles and/or captions want to kill the work altogether. Dante Aligaen’s “It’s In Our Hands (It Always Was)” is a black and white mixed media work of a skull from which emanates a halo and the rays of a sun, flowers/grass/weeds spewing out from the main image, and bombs ready to fall from the sky. It’s a fascinating take on pride and yabang, the kind that can get us all messed up about what’s good and what’s evil.
Liza Flores’ “You, Me” could’ve done with a more creative title and less of a caption, because it is wonderful in itself, where the notion of reflection works both with and without another, except for oneself, where the dark and cold and the bright and sunny seem to be one and the same, versus being two sides of the same coin, where heroism is ultimately about staying where you are, regardless of how difficult, or how seemingly easy.
The rest of the many works here insist that we can all be heroes, be it through images of Rizal (too many of them, too!) or through the images of the youth as the future. But while this seems wonderful, the idea of our own individual heroisms at this point doesn’t seem all that possible, does it? Maybe it isn’t even truthful, as it is more than anything about romance and false hopes? Buen Calubayan’s “Pinger” seems to be the answer. It’s nothing but a black tarpaulin with an enlarged red digital print of the artist’s dirty finger, accompanied by this line: “Ako ang simula ng pagbabago? O panggagago?”
How’s that for a caption that works.
Tagged: art, CANVAS, cliche, cliche in art, contemporary art, contemporary Pinoy art, exhibits, false heroes, filipino identity, filipino identity in art, Looking For Juan, stereotypes, universal heroes