First of 2 parts
AT the Parque del Buen Retiro in Madrid, Spain, you will see a magnificent greenhouse called Palacio de Cristal. It was built for the 1887 Philippine Exposition and was inaugurated by the Queen Regent herself, Maria Cristina. But the fabulous event highlighting the success of the Spanish empire had a dark side. It also showcased Filipinos, Christian, Muslim and the Indigenous groups as displays. The point was to tell the story of how Spain won the culture wars, differentiating a Christianized Filipino from the others.
The propagandists, who were living in Spain at the time of the Madrid Exposition, were in a sort of dialogue. Pedro Paterno saw it as an opportunity to highlight the beauty of the Philippines and cooperated. Those like José Rizal saw red flags, a freak show, which was heightened even more when a Mindanaoan named Basilia died shortly upon arrival.
But National Artist Kidlat Tahimik has reclaimed that space for those early Filipinos after 135 years. From October 2021 to March 2022, half a million visitors flocked to the Crystal Palace to see his exhibition titled, “Magellan, Marilyn, Mickey and Padre Damaso: 500 Years of Conquistador Rock Stars.” This was in time with the worldwide commemoration of the quincentennial of the first circumnavigation of the globe by Spain.
The exhibit reminded the Spaniards that the conquest of the Philippines was not merely an invasion they had won but a culture war; some aspects of it resisted, some negotiated, some appropriated. For good and for bad, it had enduring effects on the psyche of what would emerge as the Filipino Nation.
As Filipinos should also see this somehow “liberating” exhibit for themselves, for three months the National Museum of Anthropology closed its doors just to mount this monumental exhibit once again, retitled “Indio-Genius: 500 Taon ng Labanang Kultural.”
Five days before the museum opened its doors to the public once again, the exhibit was launched on Oct. 17, 2022. Not much of a fan of abstract art, I saw a weird mix of images that might seem odd to a casual observer. The first ones I saw were a wood carving of José Rizal as he falls after being shot but he was wearing a “bahag” underneath the overcoat, and Manunggul Jar indigenous souls on boats in front of Darth Vader that had Mickey Mouse looks. My first reading of this was that still having the core character of “mabuting kalooban” at “matuwid na kaluluwa,” we seem to embrace the culture of the West. But we enjoy the foreign more when we do not forget who we are. This is the strength of our culture: our adaptability throughout history, our capacity to absorb the foreign and make it our own and thus has even become more inclusive and colorful.
Kidlat opened the program by emerging from the steps of the museum to the courtyard, donning a toga of someone who had graduated from the West. His statement was that our formal education, inherited from our colonizers, has obscured our view of ourselves. Kidlat urges us to look at our culture and history through the lens of his symbolic “bamboo camera,” where we see our culture not as a formal linear thing or even as an inferior creation, but as a dynamic living creature transforming and ever-changing. Instead of inferiority, we must see in the indigenous the real indio-genius within, as Rizal appropriated the racial slur “Indio” to become Indios Bravos.
I was overwhelmed by the event and the culturati who attended more than the exhibit and so when everything was almost done that night, I sat beside National Museum Director General Jeremy Barns to relax. We were looking at the gigantic display at the courtyard and he told me, “This is the biggest thing I have ever mounted!” Seeing him hands-on since I first met him in 2011, I was told by his staff he worked like hell in the past few days.
Knowing me, he knew I had not had the time to take it all in, and so he told me he would give me a gift. He asked me to coordinate with Bryan Ferrer and come any time before the opening day with May-I, so we could have the museum to ourselves, because people like me can appreciate it more if I would take the time.
Last Friday, October 21, the team leader of the museum guides, or shall we say, docents (from the word “doce,” to teach), lvan Anthony Claveria, welcomed us. Docent Ken Bañares walked us through and explained the stories as envisioned by the artist. Anyone who visits will find this helpful: Look at the exhibit as the story of how Magellan's Malay guide Enrique might have interpreted his experiences and how he told his own people. When you see the exhibit with this handle, it is easier to read the artworks.
The details next week, Nov. 1, 2022.