It takes two hours to travel to Sagay from Bacolod, along a well-paved highway flanked on either side by vast expanses of sugarcane. Planned and built during the American colonial regime, the whirr of rubber on asphalt echoes the metallic spin and thrum of the sugar mills that first brought prosperity to Negros’s elite. They serve as a reminder that down these same roads, the cogs of industry and empire still move in tandem, bearing the spine-like stalks of sugarcane as proof that modernity is a product of backbreaking work. No harvest is made without first toiling in the fields.
The difficult questions of “whose toil? Whose back is being broken?” has long preoccupied the painter Nunelucio Alvarado. Nune, as he is called by friends, is a founding member of the Black Artists in Asia—one of the most prominent collectives in the region. Born in Fabrica, Sagay, where the monocrop that flattened the province gave way to the steam trains and railways of the Insular Lumber Company, Alvarado first learned to paint from his father who worked as a sign painter. Alvarado lives humbly, choosing to stay in Negros and work within his community for most of his life.
No stranger to hard labor and the militarized environments created to protect elite interests, Alvarado is known for work depicting dignity amidst death and despondency in the cane fields of Negros. One of these older works, Kaupdanan sa Kampo, hangs in the galleries of the ILOMOCA. A massive piece, measuring 5 by 8 feet, the word kaupdanan means “company” in English, translating in this case to a camaraderie despite hard labor. The five men in the frame are surrounded on all sides by bundles of sugarcane, there is no space for anything else to peek through, no light nor air, stripping the work of the romance typically associated with depictions of farm life in the Philippines.
“[T]he myth of the rural idyll never did find a congenial ground among the artists of Bacolod,” wrote the critic and historian, Alice Guillermo, in her essay on Alvarado entitled “Sugar is Bitter.” Yet, the men in the kampo, for all the darkness that surrounds, still display a dignity and resilience – traits Nune has over time become known for depicting without glorification. The artist’s gaze remains squarely fixed, not so much on suffering, but on what it is to survive systemic injustice in a deeply feudal society.
For Songs from the Sea, Alvarado shifts his gaze, to the coastal areas of Sagay – a town far removed from the concrete and cacophony of the city. Here, the artist has made not only a home, but a community, far from the opulence of Bacolod and Silay, but in no way removed from the concerns of Negros Island.
“Inaawitan ako ng dagat (I am serenaded by the sea),” he says of the peace he has found in this place, a peace that has paved the way for a new kind of prosperity – one that feeds back into his community, enriching the lives of its members through art. This may seem like a far cry from Alvarado’s jarring depictions of Negros’s cane fields and mills, from which the harsh and oppressive conditions created for its most downtrodden workers cast an unrelenting glare at the viewer from within the frame. But Alvarado still draws a strong thread between both forms of engagement, citing new ways we can work together, expressed in this exhibition though the simple act of staying local while reaching out.
Like most of Nune’s works, Songs from the Sea begins with a story, and here we start with the most seemingly mundane objects. Recovering rocks, sticks, paper, and plastic, Songs is an attempt at reclaiming humility and recognizing how space is shared not only within society, nor only among humanity, but with everything that surrounds us. Recounting how he had badly stubbed his toe on a rock, shattering the nail and causing it to bleed, Alvarado instead retaliated with what he knew best: by putting brush to paint and giving the stone color. “Nawala ang depression ko dito, (My depression went away with this,)” shared Alvarado, while contemplating one of his works – not a large canvas, but a pebble, small enough to turn in the hand and enclose in a fist.
There is sweetness in the gesture, but also an acknowledgement of potential: with it came the recognition that color draws happiness and breathes life into space. It was a stone that started Alvarado’s affair with the so-called small things that make up this show – an affair that not only reflects, but builds upon the notion that art is not only restorative, but radical in itself.
Written for Nunelucio Alvarado, Songs from the Sea. Curated by…me? I know this is a citation but it’s so weird to cite yourself in the third person. Anyway…Iloilo Museum of Contemporary Art (ILOMOCA), 10 Nov – 10 Dec 2018.