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April 05, 2004

INO MANALO

I had just moved to Angono From Manila to do research of festivals.  It was Holy Week, and on  my way to attend the church services in the poblacion I saw a crowd of costume people in the street. The women were     wrapped in black shrouds and red-caped men brandished spears.  In the midst were the man bearing a cross.  He did not speak as he trudge along the rocky path that snaked up the mountain behind the townsfolk’s homes.  The crowd was reenacting the Christ’s Passion.  I was mesmerized.  All my life I had thought of Holy Week only as a time to run off the seashore.  I learned that the silent man was a local healer who had himself crucified every year.

            I joined the crowd and climbed the mountain.          

A town of artists

            When I mentioned that I lived for several years in Angono, Rizal people invariably ask me why the town has so many artists.  Their query shouldn’t come as a surprise; Angono is the only town here in the country that has produced not just one but two other National Artist:  Carlos “Botong” Francisco for visual arts and Lucio San Pedro for music.

            The assumptions implicit in the question are that other communities are not as artistic as and that what is particularly remarkable is not so much the town’s musicians, but its large number of painters. 

There are at least three painters’ associations in the town.  There are also the studio/ museums of the famous Blanco Family, Nemi Miranda and Orville Tiamson, and Balaw-Balaw, the gallery/ restaurant of Ferdigon vocalan.  Towering all of them is Botong whose legacy suffuses the cultural life of the community.

A legacy of painting

Less known are the painters before Botong such as fine-arts graduate Moises Villaluz and architect Felisisimo Fuentes.  Two painters were also active during the Spanish colonial period:  Juan Senson and Pedro Piñon.  Piñon is said to have made several religious statues, some of which are in nearby towns .  He also believed to have done a painting on metal plate (part of the Stations of the Cross:  Jesus Meets the Women of Jerusalem) in the collection of Jose Blanco family which claims him as an ancestor.

The documentation on Senson is more certain.  A local historian claims he lived from 1847 to 1927.  One of his works , Vista Parcial de Angono, was exhibited at the Exposicion Regional de Filipinas in 1895.  It is now in the collection of the Central Bank of the Philippines together with another Senson painting depicting the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt.  Among Senson’s major creations in Angono today is a large work of the crucifixion of display in the sala of the house that also maintains town’s Santo Entiero.  This painting is notable for the exquisite rendering of faces and for its dramatic background of brooding clouds.

The arts of the everyday

            Angono’s heritage of painting is impressive, but the townspeople express their creativity in so many other ways –in creative pieces used bith in everyday life and in times of celebration.

The titiris, for example is a weather vain once a common fixture of Angono houses and now quite rare.  It usually consists of wooden figures of a Spaniard and a Moro fighting each other with large flat swords which turn with the wind.

            Then there are the local furniture makers.  Godofredo Lirit makes pieces only for his and his neighbor’s use.  He has no formal training in furniture making and in fact supports himself by driving a tricycle.  He incorporated with the carabao yoke (saklay) and palay hooks (lingkaw) in one of his chairs.

            Angono has many other furniture makers who work with bamboo.  One was Vicente Villaluz or Ba Inte.  Unschooled, he developed his manual dexterity through a lifetime of making repairing nets and tools.  He started turning out simple furniture in the 1960s, encourage by his cousin Botong.  Among  his best creations are what he called his divans , bamboo day beds remarkable for the way the graceful curve of the kawayan (bamboo) determines the basic outline of the pieces.

On a visit to Ba Inte at his workshop, I was chatting away when he suddenly motioned for silence just before hammering together the parts of a sofa.  As the kawayan pieces masterfully, magically joined before my eyes, there was a tension in the air which I later recognized as the anticipation of creation, the expectation of a new and wonderful thing being crafted into existence.

Years after he died , I still remember him saying: “Ang kawayan ay may damdamin. (The bamboo has feelings.)”  This is why , he always explained he always looked for bamboo in the very heart of the grove, where it was darkest and the shoots had to struggle to seek light.  The struggle bent and twisted them, imbuing them with character and soul.

 

The arts celebration

            Angono has also artworks for times of celebrations.  Unlike neighboring towns, Angono continues to hold elaborate festivals  featuring colorful structures and decorations to mark New Year, Epiphany, Holy Week (with special activities on Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter), San Isidro the patronal fiesta on the feast of San Clemente and Christmas.

            On Palm Sunday for example, the people set up platforms decked with coconut fronds and bright cloth to serve as stations for the procession.  On Holy Thursday young boys march to the streets carrying pasos, painted symbols of Christ’s Passion attached to poles.  During the town’s patronal fiesta in November, streets are decorated with indramada, usually models of fish and shrimp, as well as all manner of garlands and bunting.

            Even more fascinating are the Estrellas, bamboo and paper lanterns used in the celebration of Epiphany.  During the mass dedicated to the Magi, Angono resident Simeon Tolentino uses a complex system of pulleys to move three large star-shaped-lanterns down the church aisle.

            Tolentino handles a similar system of pulleys for the Easter Salubong. The Salubong re-enacts the meeting of the Risen Christ and the Holy Mother of Galilea , an intricately festooned kiosk within which hangs thepuso, a bamboo and paper cone. A pair of begowned women recite a gozo and dance the Bati before the statue of the Virgin.  Then several large birds fashioned from bamboo and paper are made to fly through the air.  They converge at the tip of the puso which then opens to reveal a little girl dressed as an angel who descends to remove the veil of the Virgin. One of the young men who works on the Galilea is often asked by many of the more famous Angono painters to help them with their larger  painting commissions.

            Another festival piece is the statue San Isidro which is the center of a ritual re-enacting the life of the saint as well as the planting of rice.  The statue is set on a carroza (float) decorated with bundles of palay(unthreshed rice).  The carroza is also adorned with small wooden figures of a cow, an angel and farmer supposedly carved by Botong’s assistant, the late Crispin Clarete, who also used to retouch the polychrome statue of San Isidro when its sheath of  paint faded or cracked.

            These creative works are best encountered during the celebrations  of they are integral parts.  The only way to experience the indramada festival decorations, for example, is in the midst of the riotous parades, pungent smells, intricate costumes, vigorous band playing and the delicious feast which make up the San Clemente fiesta in November.

 

Questions on art

            Another assumption behind the question why Angono has so many artist is that art-making is highly specialized that it can accessible only to select few. This perception of the arts as an elite domain goes hand-in-hand with the perception of art works as precious objects that must be conserved and displayed in galleries or museums and in the collections of art patrons.

            These perceptions are closer to notions of art in the West where artists are lionized and art works are capital investment goods commanding astronomical prices.  Indigenous Filipino concepts of art, however see the works as expressions of the community.

            In her study on the Ifugao, anthropologist Aurora Roxas Lim pointed out that they had no terms for art and artists, probably because what Western-trained observers would label as art- the carving of statues and pottery making among others- was seen by the Ifugao as simply part the village life and not a specialized activity. 

            The Western concept of paintings as objects which can be sold and resold assumes that they have the quality of permanence.  In sharp contrast, after their ceremonial purpose has been served the works which required much time, effort and skill to prepare – such as the Galilea and indramadas – are often destroyed or thrown way by the people of Angono.  Distinct cultures treat artworks and art-making differently according to their needs.  It is tragic when the standards and frameworks of one culture are indiscriminately applied to another.  With Westernization art forms such as painting are labeled fine art”  while artistic products which are part of the lives of most Filipinos- fiesta decorations, santos, fabrics- are often dismissed as “folk art.”  Oil paintings are simply of a different perspective on art.  Festival décor kids perhaps an even more authentic manifestation of the creativity, skill, values and aspirations of a greater number of Filipinos. After all, how many oil painters are there in the Philippines?

            Sadly, we often remain distant from our people’s expression because we have adopted foreign standards.  We thus exclude from academic artistic discussions the informal, nonpermanent artworks which cannot be hang in museum walls.

 

Paintings in the procession

            In Angono, creative expressions explode onto the streets.  Fiesta parades pass under huge sculptures of fish and shrimp.  Houses display tableaux of fishing and farming activities.  The townsfolk move about in costumes and ornate masks.

            At a mass of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary , I saw that even easel paintings can be part of a town’s cycle of celebration in ways unimaginable to a collector of H.R. Ocampo or Manansala masterpieces.  Behind me, leaning against the wall ,oval oil paintings on metal plate set on long poles which were to be carried in procession.  Repainted expensively, many were originally done by the 19th-century master, Senson.  Later I watched spellbound as the oval paintings moved through the streets, weaving in and out of the lines of the faithful, glowing faintly in the light many candles, occasionally masked in smoke.

            Every Good Friday, a squad of the children carry paso poles through the streets.  One paso is a cloth of Veronica exquisitely painted by Botong with the face of the Saviour.

             In Angono, different concepts of art co- exist with each other. Fiesta décor, like much folk art, is impermanent and created by the townspeople according to community standards and thrown away after the fiesta. At the same time Angono painters sell their expensive works to avid collectors. Then there are paintings which are part of festival activities.

            Moreover, Senson’s painting of the Crucifixion is not kept in a museum it is the backdrop of the Santo Entiero, a life-size sculpture of the dead Christ which the people Angono visit for moments of prayer.  Both the sculpture and painting , although of museum quality are also sacred  objects which play a role in everyday life, blurring the distinction between the “utilitarian,”  such as fabrics and baskets, and the “artistic,” such as Juan Luna or Joya  canvases.

 

The folk with the fine

            At the community level Western –imposed categories of folk and fine  are really quite permeable. There are folk artist who eventually take up painting, a fine art.  Angono’s local farmer took up the brush after framing so many canvases by other artists.  There are fine artists who are called onto create artworks which would ordinarily be labeled as folk. Botong, for example painted the backdrops of schools presentations decoratedcarrozas together with his painting protégé, Salvador Juban.  His assistants repainted their townmates’ treasured polychrome family santos.  And most importantly, art works which in a Western setting would be hidden  away in a museum are often encountered dancing in the streets along with beautiful fiesta decorations produced by the local people who spent many long hours expressing themselves through paper and bamboo.

            From the point of view of the towns people there seems to be little distinction between formally and informally trained artists.  Both groups simply produce different kinds of art forms. If an Angono resident needed a sofa she would go top her neighbor the furniture maker.  If she needed her santo retouched or her portrait made she would go to her neighbor the painter.

            This permeability of categories explains why there are so many  artists in Angono. Painters develop their skills by crafting the many artists in Angono. Painters develop their skills by crafting the many embellishments used for the carrozas and other fiestaware.  Manual dexterity and an eye for design and color are also enhanced by such  crafts as furniture and basket making.  It is an easy shift to painting in canvas which in Angono is not viewed in the hushed antiseptic atmosphere of a museum.  How can the children of Angono not be comfortable with paintings when they are used to carrying them in the streets during fiestas?  Clearly, festivals provide a rich environment for the development of artistry.  They also provide a rich source of subject matter for artists’ works.

            Actually, Angono is not unique in this sense.  Many towns have local furniture makers; santo painters, potters and so on.  Most towns have rituals and fiestas which require creative work.  There are towns known for woodcarving, embroidery, weaving, basket making and pottery.  The skills needed for this activities are also developed by fiesta decorating and vice versa.  But our western definition of art is fixated on canvas painting so that we don’t recognize our art centers A Salegseg, Kalinga, eventhough it produces some of the best baskets in the country of Lumban, Laguna, despite the superiority of its embroidery.  It is our Western standards which make us find Angono so remarkable, so surprising. 

            All these should not be taken to mean that there is nothing as usual about Angono.  How to explain the presence of so many painters in such a small town? What is unique is the genius of Botong. Unlike the National Artists for painting, he never left his hometown.  Thus his neighbors witnessed at close range how a painter could attain national prominence .  He inspired many a budding artist who have otherwise been lost to commerce or medicine.  He even persuaded the people to purchase large fishing vessels for the San Clemente festival- although fishermen no longer used the boats- ensuring its continuity. 

            But Botong’s presence in the wonderful panorama that is Angono.  The town is a colorful mural ofindramadas and lanterns, Galileas and kawayan beds, weathervanes and pasos – all of which should remind us that foreign concepts and standards often blind us to much of the concepts and standards often blind us to much of the complexity and intertwining of art making in the streets of our towns, in the everyday life of our people.

            A friend took me one morning to the decorating of the pagoda, the raft which would carryon the lake the image of Angono’s patron saint.  It was bare, its lattice; then the curtains defining the the structure’s shape; and then the canopy and the flags, providing an exclamation of the color.  At the end, the great central pole was hauled up in its huge banner and many ribbons came alive in the wind.  I looked at the people who had put this together- women with hands gnarled from cooking and  washing , fisherman riped from the sun- and I knew that they came here every year not only because it was their task but because they had made a promise to the saint, a promise made at the birth of a long-awaited child, a promise to a dying mother,  a promise indistinguishable from life.