At Patuloy ang Gulong
Art Cube, March 7, 2020
Alee Garibay, Pansamantala (2020)
The phrase “at patuloy ang gulong,”can be heard in an air of resignation to fate, which comes with the understanding that what goes up must come down. “Gulong,” the Filipino word for “wheel,” can be interpreted as the wheel of time – the natural cycles of creation and destruction. Alee Garibay ruminates on these natural (and man-made) cycles over the seven works that make up her 8th solo exhibition, At Patuloy Ang Gulong, which is a response to the eruption of the long dormant Taal Volcano.
The Taal eruption on January 12, 2020 buried homes, businesses, and farms, and displaced 40,000 residents of the surrounding towns, many of whom are still taking refuge in evacuation centers. In the immediate aftermath, Alee joined other volunteers in cooking food for the evacuees who fled from Batangas to Alfonso, Cavite.
Depicting the human cost of these cycles, Alee points out another interpretation of the title, wherein “ang gulong,” (the wheel) can also be read as “anggulo,” or an angle. Playing on this notion of angles, she cites Katsushika Hokusai’s 36 Views of Mt. Fuji as having inspired these renditions of Taal. This can also be further parsed into “ang gulo,” or chaos. Every turn of phrase, angle, or distortion of the title only paves the way for a different story.
Alee cannot help but paint a bleak picture of the loss and helplessness for the little control we have over nature’s hysterical strength. We are, after all, powerless to make the volcano stop. The aftermath of destruction can be sensed in Alee’s ghostly figures that cut and float through the ash-colored landscape, popping up like jumbled memories in the mind’s eye of a sleep-deprived, grief-stricken refugee. But life an also be seen stirring beneath the grey surface in the hopeful faces shown in portraits like Handa (which hangs in direct opposition to Karamay, the only other portrait in the series), or foregrounded in Dumaloy (a landscape with figures doing a native ritual in which Garibay’s son, Alon, makes an appearance).
The richness of language and its capacity to breathe new life into the stories we tell runs deep through these works. Salin for instance reads as “to translate,” but also “to change vessels”; Timbang suggests both the burden of bearing weight and balance achieved when we take only what we can carry. These titles lend another layer to the figures populating Garibay’s landscapes, and their attempts at showing composure over grief, and the need to carry on with daily life.
The shifting meanings of the Filipino word “pansamantala” can suggest the temporality of one’s conditions, as in “Pansamantala lang ito,” or “This is just for now” or, by changing the prefix from “pan-” to “pag-” in the case of “mapagsamantala,” the meaning changes entirely to that of exploiting or taking advantage of – both scenarios all too familiar to Filipinos.
Still, Alee sees disaster relief and response not just as a moment of desperation but a reaffirmation of community, finding reassurance in knowing that in times of need we still have one another to turn to. Dressing her characters in 19th century Filipino as well as ethnic clothing, Garibay draws from a time in which people had to rely on their immediate community for survival, lending an air to the works that is nostalgic but not escapist.
Much has been written about the Filipino people as resilient, but these tales of resiliency have recently been colored by the reality of resiliency coming of being prone to abuse – a pliancy that is as damaging as well as defensive. We were resilient amid foreign presence and eventual invasion and we continue to be resilient at the continued abuse of those in power.
The works in At Patuloy Ang Gulong bear this complexity of resiliency in the face of structural oppression and exploitation, painting at the intersection of nostalgia and critique to show just how far back in time that exploitation stretches but also how it continues, rolling into the present, immersing us in its urgencies while reminding us of how they pass, but not without what are now incalculable losses. And still, life must go on, the world will keep turning, and in every frame the volcano still makes its appearance. We dust the ash off and push forward.