Nasaan ka na, Mara-bini?

Mga Kuwento ng Kalayaan at Kasarinlan na Kinakatawan ng Mga Rebeldeng Anak ni Francisco V. Coching

Noong 1935, nilikha ng komikero, nobelista, at ilustrador na si Francisco V. Coching ang tauhan na si Mara-bini -isang babaeng tinagurian na “mala-Amazonang mandirigma” ng propesor na si John Lent. Naunang nakipagsapalaran si Mara-bini kaysa kina Darna at Wonder Woman. Binuo ang kanyang pangalan mula sa mga salitang “Marahas na Binibini,” at mayroon man itong ipinapahiwatig tungkol sa babae bilang mandirigma, taglay din nito ang kabalintunaan ng pagiging mapusok ngunit kaaya-aya, nakakasindak, ngunit kabigha-bighani.

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Sa komiks, makikitang binubuhat ni Mara-bini mula sa putikan ang isang naligaw na lalaki. Bakas ang tapang at malasakit sa panatag na mukha ng dalaga. Sa paglikha ng ganitong tauhan, nangangahulugan lamang na noon pa’y radikal at pasulong na kung mag-isip si Coching. Sa kasamaang-palad, ang serye na pinagtampukan ni Mara-bini bilang bida at unang inilimbag noong 1941 sa Bahaghari ay di na nakapagpatuloy dahil sa pagsapit ng Ikalawang Digmaang Pandaigdig. Sa pagkakaudlot na ito, lalo tuloy nakasasabik na malaman kung gaano kalayo ang narating ng mga mambabasa ni Coching kung sila ay lumaki sa piling ng mas marami pang mga bayani na tulad ni Mara-bini.

Ang Babae sa Panahon ng Dahas

Ngunit hindi ganap na naglaho si Mara-bini. Sa seryeng Dumagit (1953), magpapakita siyang muli, dito ay nilalabanan niya ang bidang lalaki, bago siya tuluyang umibig dito. Sa kasamaang-palad, ganitong mga papel ng babae’t lalaki ang nakasanayan ng mga mambabasa, sa loob at labas man ng mga akda ni Coching.

Sa pagpapatuloy ng engrandeng naratibo na sa ilalim ng kapitalistang patriyarka, madalas na itinatanghal ang kababaihan bilang biktima o kaya ay ka-love team lamang. Minsan pa nga ay pareho at sabay ang ganitong pagtatanghal sa kababaihan.

Ang pang-aaping nararanasan ng kababaihan sa bawat araw ay madalas na pinalilitaw nang todo sa mundo ng komiks–isang media na kilala sa pag-asinta sa mga lalaki bilang mambabasa. Kadalasan, ang babae rito ay pinatatahimik o ginagawang sensuwal at seksuwal. Ayon kay Glady E. Gimena sa The First One Hundred Years of Philippine Komiks and Cartoons, “di maikakaila na ang komiks sa Pilipinas ay sakop ng mga lalaki, mula sa mga publishing manager ng mga ito, sa mga manunulat at ilustrador, hanggang sa mga trabahador sa imprenta,” (salin mula sa Ingles). Sa Liwayway Magazine pa lang kung saan madalas mailimbag ang mga gawa ni Coching, tinitingnan ang mga babae bilang kasangkapan lamang sa ads na nakapaligid sa mga ulat at nobela. Marami sa mga komiks tulad ng David Martel: Pleyboy Ditektib at ang …naku, ang BABAE ang nagpapalaganap ng kaisipan na ang mga babae ay para lang sa mga di mahalagang papel at inaaping katayuan sa ating lipunan.

Ang Babae sa Gitna ng Digma

Bilang isang mahusay na tagapaglahad ng kuwento, nakalilikha si Francisco V. Coching ng komplikado at paminsa’y hindi kapani-paniwalang mga kuwento na nagtatampok sa mga babaeng may sariling identidad at kasalimuotan.

Sa Espada (1952), makikita ang unang paglabas ni La Sombra, isa sa mga tauhan ni Coching na mahal na mahal ng mambabasa. Ngunit imbes na isang Carlo o Angelo ang nasa likod ng maskara, ang bida pala natin ay isang Leonida, ang anak ni Don Teofilo, na pagkalaon ay naging alkalde ng bayan.

Mauulit ang paglabas ng mga babaeng nagbibihis-lalaki para lamang makapasok sa teritoryo ng kalaban sa Duwag ang Sumuko (1964), isang nobelang naganap sa gitna ng Ikalawang Digmaang Pandaigdig. Dito ay gupit-lalaki si Isabel at sa pagpili ng damit, una ang pagiging praktikal at hindi ang itsura ng damit kaya malimit siyang nagpapantalon. Sa bihis na ito, sinubukan niyang kumbinsihin ang mga gerilya na siya ay si Abel, isang sundalo na kayang-kayang makipagdigmaan kasabay ang pinakamahuhusay sa kanilang hanay.

Sa Pambihirang Tatlo (1968), itinuloy ni Coching ang naratibo ukol sa Ikalawang Digmaang Pandaigdig, at ito ay sa pamamagitan ni Victoria, pinuno ng isang grupo ng mga gerilya. Di tulad ni Isabel, tanggap ng mga gerilya ang katauhan ni Victoria, at hindi na nito kailangang magdamit-lalaki para lang pagkatiwalaang gumanap ng mahahalagang tungkulin.

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Noong dekada-50, na tinaguriang “golden age of film production,” ang mga studio tulad ng Sampaguita Pictures at LVN Pictures ay humugot ng mga kuwento mula sa komiks. Ang Kontra-bida (1954) ay isa sa mga ito. Nakinabang nang husto sa tanyag na sinematikong pagkukuwadro ni Coching (at ni Federico Javinal) ang mga imahen na ibinatay sa mga orihinal na ilustrasyon. Nagluwal ang mga ito ng likhang-sining na taliwas sa mga pangkaraniwang papel na madalas na ibinibigay sa mga aktres.

Sa Bella Bandida (1970) ni Coching, masusubaybayan ang masalimuot na kuwento ng buhay ni Anabel, mula sa pagiging mahinhin na dalaga hanggang sa pagiging reyna ng mga bandido. Hindi sapat para kay Bella ang maging kasintahan o tagasunod lamang, kaya tinanggal niya sa puwesto si Tigro, ang pinuno ng mga Dambuhala, sa pamamagitan ng pag-akit dito kapalit ng kapangyarihan at pagkilala. Dahil dito ay nakapaghiganti siya nang walang dahas, nakapaghiganti siya sa pamamagitan ng pagbibigay ng bagong anyo sa kapangyarihan na noo’y bumigo sa kanya.
Sa mala-epikong pakikipagsapalaran na ito na katatagpuan ng isang babaeng may kontrol sa sarili niyang kapalaran at seksuwalidad, makikita natin na hindi natatakot si Coching na bumuo ng mas komplikadong naratibo ng buhay-babae, gayundin ng pagpapakilala ng mga mekanismong nagbibigay sa babae ng kakayahang mag-isip at magdesisyon para sa sarili.

Habang ang Mara-bini at ang Bella Bandida ay tungkol sa mga babaeng hindi tumatalima sa karaniwang preskripsiyon ng lipunan, ang Waldas (1954) at ang Talipandas (1958) naman ay naglalarawan ng buhay ng babaeng namamalagi sa loob ng sistemang kapitalistang patriyarka. Pareho itong nagtatampok ng temang ukol sa seksuwalidad at pagiging palaban sa loob ng isang mapang-aping sistema. Bagama’t hindi lagi nagpapakita ng malasakit si Coching sa kanyang mga tauhan, siya ay nakatuon nang maigi sa kanilang mga pinagdadaanan.

Babaeng Lumalaban

Sari-sari ang mga kuwento at tauhan na matatagpuan sa mga obra ni Coching, hinahandugan nito ang mga mambabasa ng pagkakataon na makasilip sa mga ideya ni Coching ukol sa kung saan nga ba nararapat manahan ang babae, lalo na kung pagmumunihan din ang araw-araw nitong pakikibaka na siyang iginuhit niya sa kanyang mga komiks.

Taglay man ng mga ito ang mga pangkaraniwang katangian ng mga babae– pusong mamon, mababaw ang luha, at nagmamalasakit– ang mga babae sa mga nobela ni Coching ay may kakayahang magdesisyon at kumilos nang para sa sarili, binibigyan din sila ng tapang sa pagpili kung ano ang gusto nilang ipaglaban. Makahulugan ang terminong “Mga Rebeldeng Anak,” kung isasaloob ito sa pagbasa ng komiks. Pangmasa ang mga obra na ito, maramihan ang paglilimbag. Pinupuntirya nito ang mga Filipino mula sa gitna at mababang antas ng lipunan, kaya’t mamamangha kang talaga sa tindi ng mga ideya na mapasusulpot nito sa iyong utak habang binabasa ang mga ito.

Sa pagtatanong ng: “Nasaan ka na, Mara-bini?” nang may paggunita hindi lamang sa mga babaeng nilikha ni Coching kundi pati sa mga rebeldeng anak sa kasalukuyan, posible kayang mabakas natin ang unang paglabas ni Mara-bini sa mga kasalukuyang pinuno ng mga kilusang feminista?

Sa mga guhit ni Coching ay makakahanap ng kanlungan ang mga pahayag na “The future is female!” gayundin ang mga hashtag tulad ng #BabaeAko at #IamEveryWoman – sapagkat sa espasyong ito ay walang kahirap-hirap na binubuhat ng mga babae ang mga lalaki, mga babae ang nag-uutos sa hukbo, at ang pinakamahalaga sa lahat, sa kilusan ay babae ang siyang namumuno.

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Written on the occasion of National Artist, Francisco V. Coching’s Centennial at the Cultural Center of the Philippines. Translated with the help of Beverly Wico Siy.  Images from Pasinaya 2019, courtesy of Rica Estrada.

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Table for One

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ADRIAN EVANGELISTA, A World of My Own, oil on canvas, 48 x 96″, 2018. From fb.com/TheMetroGallery

  1. Food and solitude are not meant to be taken together, at least not according to social norms dating back to the onset of high modernity. A table at a restaurant is meant to seat two at a minimum. Some places have even attempted to absolve diners of this predicament by offering artificial company: a massive stuffed Moomin plushie, perhaps? An actor in zombie make-up? A pretend boyfriend? A cat? Anything to distract oneself from the deafening silence that comes with taking a meal by one’s lonesome in a public place.
  2. While the discomfort and inability to enjoy eating alone are rarely about the food, the food does however have the capacity to magnify the experience and with it, the discomfort. Yet even if food is only meant to address physical needs, the void left by a diner’s absent companion shifts the sensation from the body to the mind. There is a name for this: the Spotlight Effect – in which individuals tend to overestimate the amount of attention and ridicule they suffer by being alone in public. This is not limited to eating, but to any activity that typically calls for some form of social engagement.
  3. Thank god for our phones then, and for the escape offered by the unseen online mass. Where the newspaper, radio, and television once offered solace from the anxiety of a table set for one, today’s lone diner can escape into the comforts of the web. Every day, an untold number of photographs are uploaded to social networks, with platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and more notoriously (as far as meal photography goes), Instagram playing host to countless pictures of brunches, lunches, and avocado toasts. It is this same categorical cross between the photographic and voyeuristic that terms like “flat-lay” and oversharing have made their way into everyday vocabulary.
  4. Because we share these experiences—even through the superficial framing of a picture in an endless online scroll—we are never really alone. Still, consider how this same spectacle designed for the individuated space of the screen does not necessarily birth new connections. Rather, it only makes our connections—not only to food, but to each other—even more complex.
  5. The literature devoted to experience of eating alone is dense and rich with subjectivity. Solitude, if anything, can potentially kill one’s appetite, as described by the novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne. Of his experiences dining in Paris, Hawthorne wrote in his diaries of how he was, “[A]shamed to eat alone…It becomes the mere gratification of animal appetite…these solitary meals are the dismallest part of my present experience.”
  6. “Dismal” is infused by photorealist Adrian Evangelista in each of his works on the subject. The food, despite appearing in full color, floats otherworldly off a canvas done in shades of grey. These are meals demanding to be finished at once, magnified in importance by their acting as distractions from the shame of a world bearing all its eyes upon the solitary diner. At times bearing a strong resemblance to outtakes from a film noir set, Evangelista zooms in on the view of a diner clearly bothered by the fact of a meal going unshared, a view in which every object—a plate, a window, a coffee cup—become outsized with meaning and metaphor.
  7. There were however those who relished their solitude, understanding that being alone was not the same as being lonely. In 1889, the turn of the century and arguably the birth of the cityscape as we know it, the composer Haydn was reported in the Boston Daily Globe as having ordered a meal at hotel restaurant that could have fed five. Baffled at the sheer size of the Hungarian composer’s order, the hotel waiter allegedly told him, “But sir, the company is not come.” To which Haydn replied: “Pooh! De gompany! I am de gompany!”
  8. This other side of eating alone is captured in the work of Mek Yambao. While Evangelista meditates on the accompanying anxiety found on the flipside of all those carefully curated and flatlayed photos of perfectly plated meals, Yambao responds by taking a more whimsical turn. In her work, eating alone becomes a chance to be more honest with oneself – to order without fear of being judged, to lick one’s fingers, to express genuine delight or disgust through the smacking of lips or gagging without having to worry about being impolite.
  9. On the average, a person living in the contemporary moment, under neoliberal capitalism, will eat roughly 89,790 meals[1] before their death. Some of those meals will be taken alone, amidst actual Scientific reportage that eating alone is not only bad for business, but bad for your health. While these claims are backed by Scientific research, how useful is it to draw generalizations when an average person will eat close to a hundred thousand meals in their lifetime? This does not even account for the fact of hunger, the fact that the person with access to food is, in fact, a very lucky person to begin with.
  10. This is how Evangelista and Yambao paint a complex picture from a seemingly silly predicament. The experience of eating alone may at first appear easy to dismiss, but it is about recognizing the need to reclaim the mundane. Food is not only meant to nourish, it is meant to be savored, to teach us to sit back and enjoy the moment, alone or with friends, and always at one’s own pace.

[1] Computed based on an average lifespan of 82 years, multiplied by 3 meals a day, 365 days in a year: 82 x 3 x 365

Written for Table for One, two-artist show featuring the work of Mek Yambao and Adrian Evangelista. Metro Gallery, San Juan. December 8, 2018. The photo of Adrian Evangelista’s work is from the Facebook page Metro Gallery.

Stories of Restoration , Songs from the Sea

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Installation view from Songs from the Sea, solo exhibition of Nunelucio Alvarado which ran at the Iloilo Museum of Contemporary Art (ILOMOCA) from November 10 – December 20, 2018.

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.

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Nunelucio Alvarado. Nawong series, 100 drawings on handmade paper, 8.5 x 11 inches, 2014-2018.

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.

The Work of Art in the Age of Being Together

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Alee Garibay, Alon and Yaya Lucy, Oil on Canvas, 48 by 36 inches, 2018.

In Kasimbahay, Alee Garibay shows how tracing the outlines of a friend’s face is its own kind of muscle memory, obtained through hours spent relating to one another. The title, which means to share a house (“magkasing-bahay”), describes how our most immediate relations teach us about life, coexistence, and growth.

“Portraiture is my first love as a painter,”[1] she wrote in an interview prior to this show. In these impressionistic accounts of the people who make and share her home, Garibay also attempts to convey the divine. Re-imagining the household as a church simultaneously becomes an attempt to reclaim the church not as a hall of worship, but as a transformative space where the banal becomes sacred and the spiritual is felt in the ground. Here, portraiture becomes not a tool for enabling narcissism, but a means to revisit the sainted and iconic.

“As I did the portraits,” shares Garibay, “I began to ponder at how the stories that we have come to know as ‘gospel’ are really about ordinary people who found—and made—meaning in their life through a direct and contemplative engagement of their life experiences.”

To Garibay, portraiture is not simply a series of moments, but a matter of being present in that moment – an attentiveness and patience that also links us to the past. The black and white tones of the works recall the daguerreotype – Louis Daguerre’s method of printing on silver plates, which became the first publicly available photo process. Referencing this age old technology, Garibay provides a sense of a legacy, lending gravity only available to images seen in memoriam. If a daguerreotype, at the time, conveyed awareness of what it meant to capture a moment, Garibay’s portraiture expresses how the hand can convey what has been made possible by keeping one’s heart open.

The practices and methods distilled in Kasimbahay express not only a profound appreciation of Garibay’s intimate relations, but an awareness of her artistic practice: its embedded histories and the technologies it must coexist with in the age of digital reproducibility. Within the contradicting elements of portraiture, photography, and contemporaneity, Garibay composes an anachronistic narrative of radical love, reframing an ethics of hospitality—of acceptance and generosity—in an age of increasing distrust.


[1] Personal communication, 27 September 2018.

Written for Alee Garibay’s solo exhibition, Kasimbahay, which opened at Blanc Gallery in Quezon City on October 13, 2018.

 

Hunger Pains

Or Curating While Hungry

 
I just got back from Bangkok where we (meaning Mich and I) hung a quilt for Grrrl Gang Manila at the Bangrak Market. The quilt is half of Soft Bodies, which consists of two pieces, the other being Lesley-Anne Cao’s Thread (2016). 

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Bangrak Beauty, and installation view of Mich Dulce’s At Least I Won’t Regret Anything (2017)

I find myself struggling, more than usual, to get out of bed and back to work nowadays. While I’m lucky to find work in the cultural sector, I’m beginning to find it more and more difficult to convince myself that  no job is too small. On some days, it’s about continuing an old or ongoing project. On others it’s something fun, like hanging work in a market, in another city.

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Installation view of “The Book of the Courtier,” from Lesley-Anne Cao’s Thread (2016), embroidery on fabric.

Everyday though, it’s uncertainty. The word for this or at least the term around which the art world has built a discourse, I’ve learned over time, is “precarity”; and no matter how much has been written valorizing or condemning it, nothing can really prepare you for the difficulty of facing it head on each day.

A friend once told me that the best way to work is to “avoid work,” in his terms, to just keep getting paid for things that don’t feel like work. This is how we end up working for 16 hours straight on some days, while other days we never even leave our beds. Except to eat.

Lately, living in Manila has us fucked in every orifice by inflation on top of taxation. I never had to have the vocabulary for this up to now, but now it feels like studying this new layer of precarization has become a full-time job. I can’t relax because it has gotten too expensive to even eat. If I don’t know where my next meal is coming from, I can’t get any sleep, and now I’m too tired to even think; and if I can’t think, I can’t work.

All I do is worry. The only thing that stops me from worrying is more work–the kind of work that does not require a lot of thinking, only heavy lifting. While curatorship–at least the kind of curatorship I’ve gotten used to, which requires me to constantly be cleaning surfaces, comparing prices between hanging and lighting fixtures, and lifting heavy shit, because none of the shows I’ve done has granted me the luxury of hiring a professional installation team–allows me to enjoy the best of both worlds.

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Registration table at the opening of Quid Pro Quo, curated by Elissa Ecker and Rebecca Vickers for the Bangkok Biennial

What frustrates me is that I usually love the part that requires me to write and think and discuss, but these tasks have become scarce, mostly because I’ve become incapable of thinking of anything beyond the doom and gloom sweeping through the Philippines. In reality though, that frustration has long been replaced by genuine anger, the kind that eats through your stomach and kills all hunger and any lust for life. And if I–a middle-class woman who is typing this from a coffee shop–feel that ulceration, then how much worse is it for everyone else?

Being in Bangkok was a good working break. I felt the difference in my eating habits. Eating–because there was work to do–felt like a chore to tick off a list; the difference came with actually being able to enjoy it; being able to savor every bite without feeling fucked over by rising prices and taxes and an uncaring government with nothing but disdain for its own people. I could eat without feeling like an inconvenience to my country who has to pay out the nose just to survive. And while Thailand, at least according to some people, is really no better than the Philippines on political front, at least when it comes to food, they are the clear winners. At least there was that.