essay traces certain contexts of the allegorical impulse in Philippine image
making and art, specifically as it marks the self-consciousness of the maker of
image and art to render time, place, and event legible. It conceives of it as an aesthetic of
migration, prefiguring an elsewhere that is aspired to as well as a phantasm of
affinity that describes a present condition.
The allegorical, therefore, bears the desire to belong to the world,
referencing both the critique of coloniality as well as the possibility of
transcending it at the very moment of revealing its ethical failure.
colonialism, diaspora, globalization, migration, nation, Philippines,
Every day a Filipino
leaves home. Somewhere a Filipino lives
out what is left of home. Every day, too, a Filipino returns, finding a home
Antipas Delotavo, Diaspora, 2007.
In Antipas Delotavo's work Diaspora (2007), we measure the extent
of a scene of passage, of people with their belongings heading off somewhere
quite difficult to discern. They are
facing a horizon that seems to be a dis-place, but their strides are decisive,
their load roots them to their ground, and they are resolute in “being there”
and disappearing into a depth. Are they
coming or going? Are they in a vast
terminal in the airport or on the tarmac to catch their flight or have they
arrived? In some way an elsewhere is
intimated, either a home to which they return or a foreign destination for
which they long. There are more or less
ten million Filipinos outside the Philippines, roughly ten percent of the
Philippines was colonized by Spain for about four centuries, from 1521 to 1898,
and ruled by the United States for around four decades, from 1899 to 1946. After recovering from the Second World War,
it tried to develop an economy primarily nurtured in agriculture. But in the seventies, the government started
to harness human labor as an export itself. At the present time the overseas Filipinos,
whether workers or migrants, keep the economy afloat with their steady transfer
of money to relatives and dependents; they send around 13 billion dollars in
remittances every year, ensuring that the economy does not totally sink and
leading the government to call them the new heroes (bagong bayani) of
dispersion of the country has been sensitively portrayed by contemporary
artists in both monumental and intimate ways, testifying to the universal and
particular conditions of migration.
Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan,
Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan’s project for the 2008 Singapore Biennale, they
assembled homecoming boxes laden with belongings and created a gargantuan
version of the same perhaps to represent the magnitude of the experience as
well as the minutiae of its details. In
Lani Maestro’s imagination, the tale of travel takes on a more poetic register,
as in her work a book thick of ocean in which she photographs the sea in
seeming sameness, with the moment of difference initiated by the performance of
turning the pages. In I Am You, she gathers benches cobbled
together from found wood, arranges them in a church in France like pews, and
invites the audience to sit and hopefully converse where they are in what may
well be a congregation. The box, the
sea, and the chair may be understood as allegorical figures indexing the
Philippine diaspora and the desire to belong.
in the instance of colonialism in the Philippines, which began in 1521 when the
Portuguese mariner Ferdinand Magellan, laboring under the auspice of the
Spanish crown, circumnavigated the world and reached the islands to be known as
the Philippines only to be killed on the shore by a local chieftain, the sensibility
was allegorical. This is best gleaned in
the early maps of the Philippines, evocations of the place through cartography
that was allegorically conceived.
In Conquista de las Islas Filipinas (Conquest
of the Philippine Islands), which depicts the story of Spanish colonialism, the
intent was to acclaim the work of the Augustinian missionary Gaspar Aquino de
San Agustin in the conquest of the Philippines. It is inscribed that the temporal realm is assigned
to King Philip II and the spiritual to the religious order of the
Augustinians. This print has a
triangular structure marked by three points: Jesus Christ, Saint Augustine and
his friars, and King Philip and his soldiers. The heart of the allegory is the radiating
anagram of IHS, Jesucristo Hombre y Salvador (Jesus Christ Man and Savior).
Around it are the phrases: “Praise Jesus
Christ till the ends of the earth.” “Light
shines splendid and all of the earth adores you.” The phrase “till the ends of the earth” is repeated
five times and stresses the universality of the colonial conquest that is conflated
with evangelization. The light from the
heavens descends, refracted by the heart that St. Augustine carries, and falls
on the map of the Philippines, conveying the grace of God on the islands under
the aegis of the cross and the sword.
In Aspecto Symbolico del Mundo Hispanico
puntualmente arreglado al Geografico (Symbolic Aspects of the Hispanic
World Geographically Set), the queen represents Spain, her crown signifying the
Iberian peninsula. The dove above it is
Italy. On her chest is a rose of thirty-two
petals; flanking it are the Americas. On
the folds of the skirt are the routes to the Pacific charted by the fabled
trade of the Manila Galleon. On the feet
are the Philippine islands of Luzon and Mindanao.
The Carta Hydrographica y Chronographica de las
Yslas Filipinas offers a more familiar cartographic image of the
Philippines. What is interesting here is
the way in which the allegorical dissolves into the everyday. The sense of locality that was being conjured
in the earlier maps finally assumes a culture through the ethnographic
vignettes that surround the map, complete with the habits of the place, flora
and fauna, and the planning of cities. The
elsewhere that was the Philippines in the time of global imperial conquest has
become a country with everyday life, with the local artist for the first time
signing his name and appending an ethnic reference, a sign of
self-consciousness stamped on a map that locates and names him.
sense of the elsewhere and migrancy is also embodied in the nineteenth-century
painting Spoliarium (1884), the
exalted work of the esteemed painter-patriot Juan Luna (1857-1899), which takes
us to a distant place and moment. This
is a Rome of Emperors, who preside over dreadful struggles between humans and
beasts, slaves and rogues, before spectators who cry for blood in a coliseum of
ignominy, entranced by carnage and exhilarated by grave games. This distance in
history is paradoxically the painting’s source of intimacy: the sight provokes beholders into professing
their inalienable ethical belief, into unveiling the depraved deed of an empire
that leaves corpses in its wake. Its
estrangement is its immanent critique. The spoliarium could be accessed through the
southeast entrance of the Roman coliseum called the Porta Libitrinensis. Through this door passed such large creatures
as elephants and rhinoceros as well as dead animals that were tossed to the
beast-men. It was the chamber into which
the fatalities of the arena, including Christian martyrs, were consigned and
later burned. The drama that transpires
in Luna’s painting is akin to a deposition in which those who have died are
taken down, either from the cross or the scaffold, and then finally despoiled,
laid bare in full dispossession. It is
said that such a scenario was partially taken from Charles Luis Dezobry’s Rome in the Time of Augustus; Adventures of
a Gaul in Rome, which was a popular publication of the day.
this distant place and moment is Luna’s contemporary Rome, too: the city that had been his address when he
apprenticed for his mentor Alejo Vera, the “taciturn painter of Roman
catacombs,” and the inspiration of a series of paintings like La Muerte de Cleopatra (1881) and Daphnis y Chloe (1881). Rome may have been a specter of antiquity to
which his art aspired, the former colonizer of Hispania or Spain, which had
been his country’s conqueror. The Spoliarium was completed and was first
exhibited at the Palazzo della Exposizione.
Madrid was its destination, although Luna had his eye on Paris as the
emerging center of art in light of the waning of the Salon. In 1884, when Luna received the First Gold
Medal, one of the three highest, albeit not the ultimate, honors conferred at
the Madrid Exposition, the Salon des Independents of the post-Impressionists
Redon, Seurat, and Signac had already commenced. Indeed, Spoliarium
would gather layers of both concurrent and discrepant time. Luna had been
caught up in a cycle of provenance and future: Manila (colony), Rome
(antiquity), Madrid (empire), Paris (modernity).
is for this reason that the Spoliarium,
far from being a static tableau, inhabits a moving allegorical space. If allegory permits a transposition of a tale
impossible to narrate and offers a moral resolution to a predicament too
intricate to reveal with directness, then Luna’s opus finds affinity with
Filipino Francisco Baltazar’s metrical romance Florante at Laura (1838; 1875) in which its hero laments a failed
homeland, in the guise of Albania, that is suffused with and surrounded by a
regime of deceit:
over the country
merit and goodness are prostrate,
alive in suffering and grief.
It is this allegorical
device that enables Spoliarium to
evoke a multitude of meanings beyond the anecdote that it depicts, and most of
all, the sublime. It becomes a mode through which an abject disposition in
another locale becomes so tangible and urgent and palpable back home that
Luna’s peer Graciano Lopez-Jaena would be so stirred to proclaim while in
For me, if there is
anything grandiose, sublime in the Spoliarium,
it is that through this canvas, through the figure depicted in it, through
its coloring, floats the living image of the Filipino people grieving over
their misfortunes. Because, gentlemen,
the Philippines is nothing more than a Spoliarium
in reality, with all its horrors.
There rubbish lies everywhere; there human dignity is mocked; the rights
of man are torn into shreds; equality is a shapeless mass; and liberty is
embers, ashes, smoke.
This allegorical insight invests Luna with valor, making
him the visionary, the teller of truth as it unravels in paeans by his
confreres, the elite coterie of his illustrious Filipino contemporaries in
Europe who entreated for reforms from the mother country, Spain.
Another Philippine painting, an earlier series of
fourteen panels done in 1821 by the self-taught provincial painter Esteban
Villanueva, testified as well to a tumult, a local revolt brought about by the
attempt of the Spanish government to regulate the production of basi, the wine extracted from
sugarcane. This work, which is the first
historical painting in southeast Asia, may be allegorical, too, in the sense
that the depiction of the execution of the native rebels may well be a portent
of revolution as presaged by a comet that streaks across the sky. Moreover, the series is composed of fourteen
panels paralleling the fourteen Stations of the Cross that narrate Christ’s
suffering. In other words, the discourse
of sacrifice allegorizes the revolution. The allegorical elsewhere, which is a
universal moral world, the afterlife of oppression and pain, salvation and
redemption, is key to the understanding of how the “people” are implicated in
Philippine art. The people in this discourse
are mortal, humans, incommensurate, and therefore in need of others and of a community
for their emancipation.
imagination of a community may also take domestic form. The Quiason-Henson
Portrait by Simon Flores presents the “family” as patron holding court: a
couple and two siblings, with the father playing the role of the patriarch,
with hand on his hip, thus the masculine elbow seen prominently in Renaissance
portraits. The representation of the
family as a unit connotes a certain stability and comfort. Such security stems largely
from the power relations that uphold traditional roles of “father,” “mother,”
and “children” and how these roles come to make a “family.” The family is not only to be apprehended as
kinship based on blood, but also as a constellation of social ties. To reflect on this portrayal of the family is
to reflect on the social system that allows this kind of family, obviously of
the ilustrado (enlightened) kind, to prosper.
first glimpse, the work looks staid and uninteresting. But if we look more attentively, we will
realize that Flores carves a pictorial space that demarcates spheres. For instance, it is apparent that the family
is enclosed within domestic parameters, framed by the architecture of the house
with Western accoutrements. The latter
implicates a window that alludes to an area outside, alerting viewers to a
sight beyond the boundary or at least to an intimation of this possibility. This inside/outside revelation, as implied by
a curtain that acts like a component of a proscenium of this colonial theater,
refers to another distinction: the foreground and the background, the everyday
and the elsewhere. And if we are to
believe research on linear perspective, most notably of Hubert Damisch, this plastic visualization of spatial
discrimination allegorizes the formation of a subject that is able to name the
self in relation to the other. These
ruminations deserve further investigation, most pertinently because the Flores
painting and Eduardo Gelli’s of the Chakri Royalty in Thailand in more or less
the same period had been meant for a
cavernous stone house in colonial Manila or a salon perhaps in the palace in
Bangkok, a radiation and concentration of power in a private preserve that
interiorizes a public virtually seeking an audience.
is deployed in this paper in its unique capacity as a rhetorical strategy to
grasp an elusive reality. Having said
that, it also tends to elude itself, thus the allegorical problem rests on its
own provisionality, “seeming to be other than what it is. It exhibits something of the perpetually
fluctuating, uncertain status of the world it depicts.” And so, this tentativeness, this precarious
balance between appearance and truth, stages a “likely story.” It affords a kind of interpretation that
“encourages its readers not only to aspire toward some world of perfect
fulfillment, but to direct attention to the limited world of which they are a
part.” On the one hand, inscribed
in the allegory is the instinct to see through what it says tos what it really
means. On the other, “it does not need
to be read exegetically; it often has a literal level that makes good enough
sense.” Walter Benjamin confirms this indeterminate
feeling when he asserts that allegory is “inherently contradictory” because
allegory is both: “convention and expression.”
Such revealed elusiveness is an inner world that cannot
be affirmed without the threat of discipline in whatever semblance it may take.
This is one of the impulses of the
history of allegory as a category of device, an unburdening of an inward gaze
that “sees, not the ‘compact character of modern fiction, but the contending
forces which cannot be described at all except by allegory.” It is in this context that Filipino critics have
cast Florante at Laura (1858/1875),
an awit, roughly translated as a
metrical romance involving courtly love, as an allegory of the colonial
struggle: “To sing of his insufferable
sorrows and miseries, his lost joys, his griefs, his misfortunes, and the life
of one unjustly deprived of liberty in a country where the rich and the
powerful oppress and tyrannize could only be done through allegory.” Sources of romances of this type may be traced
to chivalric ballads, Moorish tales, and historical narratives of Greek origin.
This particular example serves up staple
motifs: “setting in some remote foreign
kingdom; brave and handsome heroes and beautiful and faithful heroines; a
maiden disguised as a warrior to look for her lover; abandonment in a forest;
forged letters; abductions; a Christian captive maiden being forced to marry a
Moor; and conversions.” But while it partakes of this convention, its
expression is commensurately idiosyncratic to the degree that is a “faithful
though veiled representation of the times in which he lived”:
the truth of the torment in
faraway Albania could have never been closer to the anguish in the Philippines,
making it, as an observer contended, “a sustained poetic interrogation about
the nature of justice, truth, and the human commitment to social-political
equity.” The allegory, therefore, is at once intimate
and alien, distancing and complicit.
can identify certain modes of this allegorical vision and visuality in selected
works from Philippine art history that in their complex mediations materialize
certain conditions that necessitate redemption:
Castillo portrays the plight of the people in the image of Calvary, the site of
Christ’s crucifixion, as setting of the struggle. This agony and transcendence is paradoxical
because death on the Cross had been decreed as disgraceful in Christ’s time. Catholic belief, however, would reshape
Christ’s identity as criminal and the Cross of his punishment into a
precondition to salvation. The Crucifixion,
therefore, lends itself well to allegorical interpretation as it strikes at the
heart of an ethical dilemma, making its “penal character” indispensably
penitential, the “deep structure of Christian thought and devotional feeling.” Two works cogently express this, centered on
the grisly procedures of torture.
Orlando Castillo, Different Forms of Torture: Tribute
to the Political Prisoner, 1975.
In Iba’t Ibang Uri ng Torture: Alay sa mga
Bilanggong Pulitikal (Different Forms of Torture: Tribute to the Political
Prisoner), 1975, Castillo strips political prisoners naked and relocates them
in their own Calvary, tied to wooden posts and evoking the ritual of slow death
in the different permutations of persecution. In his other works, a winged
figure bears witness to the life in the fields and hovels, the revolution, and
even the aftermath of strife.
Antipas Delotavo, Dagger at the Heart of Mang
Delotavo articulates this visual argument in Itak sa Puso ni Mang Juan
(Dagger at the Heart of Mang Juan),
1978, in which the tail of the letter “c” of the transnational logo of Coca
Cola pierces the chest of an emaciated man, egregiously wrought by brutish
labor -- and the red of Coke bleeds across the entire surface. This, too, may be considered a crucifixion of
the proletariat by a harsh capitalist system. In an earlier time, Hernando R. Ocampo painted
Calvary: Three Crosses (1948), a Crucifixion scene that rises amid smokestacks of
factories, forging the bond between the affliction of Christ and the dire
straits of the working class after the Pacific War. Delotavo had an earlier series of works
involving the Pieta iconography in which the Marian figure transforms into the
Motherland making plaintive pleas on behalf of her languishing sons as in the
work Lucas (Luke), 1986) and in Pieta
(1986), she looks after them as they lie dying.
While these images focus on suffering, they actually form
the basis of a possible redemption within the discourse of the history of
salvation in which sacrifice is a prelude to an afterlife that is free of the
impediments of power and discrimination, liberated from their obsessions. Death, therefore, is not to be conceived as an
end but as an emergence of a political will to outlive a fatal destiny. This is perhaps the reason that in Delotavo’s
pictures, the elements of blood and motherhood are essential because they are
formative and generative.
image of woman as allegory of nation or a social condition can also be gleaned
in Benedicto Cabrera’s Sabel figures (Untitled,
1967; Misericordia, 1968; Sabel, 1968; and Sabel Looking Through Time, 1973). It is in fact the basis of his early drawings
that signaled the transition from the abstraction in the sixties in the
Philippines to a new figuration in the seventies. Sabel as a subject was taken from real life, a
vagrant of the city, whom the artist saw on the street and its environs where
his house stood in Bambang in Manila. The
sight of a drifter afflicted by dementia, with a “flimsy dress that billowed,” and
was a symptom of homelessness caught Cabrera’s eye. According to him: “She used to gather the plastic sheets and
wrap them around the body. They made the
most beautiful abstract shapes.” The artist molds her as emblematic of the
dispossessed, one who has survived ruthless conditions and vagaries by making
do with what she had to shield her from the severity of nature and society. It is worth mentioning that the vagrant figure
has had its apparitions earlier in the fifties when the “beggar” would come to
demonstrate the abjection in post-war Philippine cities, as can be seen in H.R.
Ocampo’s Pulubi (Beggar, 1946) and Romeo Tabuena’s Beggar (1957), for
This type of Philippine modernism derived significantly from the work
of Victorio Edades, whose exhibition in 1928 unsettled the conservative school
of pastoral and picturesque instincts. The Builders is a key work in this
sequence in which we see workers toiling, disfigured, misshapen, grimy, a sharp
departure from the idyllic scenes of the gentle academic master Fernando
Amorsolo. Edades formed a coterie of
kindred artists including Carlos Francisco and Galo Ocampo, who collaborated in
art nouveau and art deco murals for cinemas and residences, like Rising Philippines for Capitol Theater, that is an allegorical depiction of the
legacy of Spanish and American colonial regimes. At the center is the Philippines under American
tutelage rising above the everyday towards an elsewhere, carrying a film reel, a
sign of progress alongside education, commerce, and transportation.
In his early exhibitions in the
middle to late sixties, Benedicto Cabrera would sketch, in the vein of the
Spanish painter Francisco Goya, social types that inhabited the urban
landscape, from workers to scavengers to everyday folk subsisting on bread of
salt, as in Sacada Worker (Plantation Worker, 1969), Scavenger (1968), Coconut Man (1974), and Pan
de Sal (Bread of Salt,
1968). This reflection on the
relationship between labor and the plantations or slums would further deepen
his engagement with Sabel, who is made to belong to this thematic of alienation
that breeds madness. This primes the
propensity to read into Sabel an allegorical reference to another well-known
madwoman in Philippine letters, Sisa, from National Hero Jose Rizal’s
fin-de-siecle incendiary novel Noli Me
Tangere (1887). Sisa
descended into mental malaise when her two sacristan sons were accused of theft
by a Spanish friar; one died in the hands of his accuser and the other fled to
The link between Sisa
and Sabel is salient; it enables the artist to create the nexus between the
misery of contemporary society and its possible roots in the nineteenth
century. It also affords him the
opportunity to inflect Sabel with a historical tone, not only to fix her in the
vise of the past but to draw out her allegorical potential as a wraith that
hovers in history. At this intersection we begin to decipher Cabrera’s transcodings of Filipino female labor, from
Sisa to Sabel to Flor Contemplacion. The
latter is the domestic helper in Singapore hanged in 1995 for allegedly killing
her fellow Filipino worker, Delia Maga, and her Singaporean charge. The incident sparked widespread protest in
Manila against the governments of the Philippines and Singapore, denounced for
their indifference towards the well-being of migrant workers.
Benedicto Cabrera, Flor Contemplacion Portrait, 1995.
Cabrera’s portrait of Flor Contemplacion
(1995) comes after a series of depictions of women from the historical archives
and present-day scenes, specifically focusing on indentured labor through the
images of servants in the Spanish period to the chambermaids in Europe in our
time. This lays the predicate for the
eventual allegorization of Sabel from native to national. And his trajectory is the Larawan (Image) series
in which Ang Tao (Everyman, 1972) is exemplary and from
which his pictures of migrants (Migrants
of Europe, 1982) would spin, as well as his suite of women, including Portrait of a Servant Girl (1972), A Family of Servants (1972), A Domestic Worker (1978), and Two Filipinas in the Era of Multinationals (1983),
to cite some variations.
some kind of logic of practice in which the woman transforms into the nation,
Sabel would dovetail with the same
tendency in a later work, a shift that is sustained by Cabrera’s keen attention
to women figures from the colonial chronicles. To a certain extent, this woman ceases to be
merely archetypal, because she is moored in the materiality of an experience
through the artist himself, who was moved by her real existence in the streets,
as well as her presence in history as an actor in the colonial annals. Ultimately, Sabel as phantasm infuses a
feeling of spectrality in Cabrera’s work, or a melancholy that pervades in the
wake of loss. We get this impression
through the patina of the archive and also because Sabel seems to dematerialize
over time, overcome by her drapery that in one instance becomes the Philippine
flag in Imaginary Patriot (1975),
which is presaged by The Imaginary
Portrait of Sabel (1969). This is, indeed, a culmination of the allegorical
project, with the vagrant becoming the nation.
outlook is supported by cognate appropriations of allegory as a tactic of
containment and subversion in the colonial period in the Philippines. Vicente Rafael investigates such penchant
through the American census of the Filipinos and the latter's nationalist
melodramas in theater: "Whereas the
allegory of benevolent assimilation regarded imperialism as the melodrama of
white love for brown brothers, seditious plays used the language of melodrama
to express the love of nation." He continues: "Where
colonial archives characterize and classify in order to render their subjects
available for discipline, nationalist melodramas resignify the vernacular so as
to reclaim the capacity of people to nominate themselves as agents in and
interpreters of their experiences."
image of the woman as Mother Country may have religious resonance, as seen in
earlier efforts to indigenize the Madonna and Child iconography, as in Galo
Ocampo’s Brown Madonna, that is at
once nativist and Gauguinesque. In recent
time, Alfredo Esquillo has appropriated the template to propose an allegory of
Philppine-American relations, with the Marian persona supplanted by the face of
American President William McKinley, author of the phrase “benevolent
assimilation,” cradling the Filipino child with talons and a gun’s nozzle on the
Delotavo deepens this impulse of Cabrera with works that situate inhabitants of
an impersonal and indifferent society, man and the machine. Delotavo situates these people in the context
of either the machine or the ostentatious edifices built by the authoritarian
regime of Ferdinand Marcos, who was President of the Philippines from 1965 to
1986. He declared martial rule in 1972 and was deposed by a popular uprising in
1986. Works like Dambuhala (Giant, 1990), Saan ang Daan (Where is the
Way, 1987), Bulong ng Umaalingawngaw (Whisper of the Echo, 1983), and Istruktura (Structure, 1990) represent this mode. We see the people in them
dazed, lost, displaced, catatonic, as they seem to stray into the
internationalist-style buildings of reinforced concrete, steel, and glass that
they themselves had built and at times died for, as in the case of the Manila
Film Center, in which in the hectic pace of construction, a floor collapsed and
trapped workers in quick-dry cement. The
documentation of the extrication in the media could only be terribly
distressing. That Delotavo throws
glaring light on the Cultural Center of the Philippines, the centerpiece of
First Lady Imelda Marcos’s policy on culture built in 1969, is an index of his
inclination to examine the violence that the ideology of culture inflicts on
the people in whose name it is invoked. All
told, there is something haunting in how the characters in these paintings
stare long and hard into what might well be an abyss, again a dis-place. This painful gaze is, however, also ominous, a
sign of an imminent insurrection as may be seen in Rurok (Peak, 2000) as
capitalism scales its summit.
themes of drift, deprivation, and homelessness are reckoned through these
images of people caught in the vicissitudes of social inequity but
simultaneously standing their ground, coming together, and morphing into a
collective as well as an allegory that is alternately enigmatic and menacing. In his new works in a similar register done in
2007 like Bungkal (Digging or Tilling), Bahay na Kristal (Glass House), Retroaktib (Retroactive), and U.K. Culture (Surplus
Shop Culture), people wander around the gleaming metropolis of
globalization, seemingly bewildered by how they might fit into the scheme of
neoliberal things. It is as if the space
of painting becomes a reclaimed space of allegorical critique, an elsewhere
that is staked out for people who might be written off in the script of
progress, made invisible in the glamour of high finance. This space makes them unerringly manifest
within the terrifyingly sleek locale of a central business district, in a way
disrupting the flatness of global capital and encrusting it with the texture of
3. Mass Formation
takes us finally to the processes depicting of a multitude, of the people as a moment in the totality of
Antipas Delotavo, Hundred Years, 1998.
Delotavo’s Daantaon (One Hundred Years, 1998), a work made
for the centenary of Philippine independence in 1998, presents the history of
gains and losses in the struggle, of deaths and survivals in Asia's first
democratic republic. It is an unfinished
one, suggesting that the revolution is an unfolding drama that still pursues
its denouement. That this revolution
dissolves into an image of the diaspora also by Delotavo is again an allegory
of the global that is always bedeviled by the contentions of equivalent
localities, the universal desire for emancipation every day, elsewhere.
monumental work alludes to the “march of time,” a movement in history. The Filipino revolutionary Salud Algabre
during the American period before the Second World War, had said that “No
revolution is a failure. Everything is a
step in the right direction.” The
totality, therefore, is constituted as a progression, a development, a sequence
of ruptures. On the other hand, if we
revisit Delotavo’s Diaspora, it is
also a dispersal. This dynamic of
consolidation and fragmentation, of patriotism and resettlement, of home and
overseas, may seize the life world of the global and the people who suffer and
try to outlive its breathlessness. Here
the allegorical sensibility is most potent because it conjures the melancholy
inhering in the condition of not being able to fully come back to an origin, a
characteristic of both the subject of allegory like migration and even of allegory
itself: “the allegorical sign refers to
another sign that precedes it, but with which it will never able to
coincide…reaches back to a previous stage and in this constant attempt at
return incorporates a structural distance from its own origin, a constitutive
temporal relation that it never manages to overcome.”
may well be that in the coming and going of the Filipino, the everyday has been
transcended elsewhere, only to be reminded of its impossibility. The astute anthropologist Fenella Cannell is insightful in this
regard. In an amateur singing
competition in a village in a peninsula south of the capital Manila, a
contestant crooned the standard Autumn Leaves with so much wistfulness
that it gave the foreign observer the impression that the reality of autumn is
deeply felt in the culture and so could be expressed so inalienably in music
through a voice so unbelievably authentic. The scholar would later remark that what may
be revealing in this moment is the sadness of both the sentiment of not having
fully understood the world in which autumn happens and the aspiration to
inevitably belong to it, to weather the depression of the tropics and hope for
a better season elsewhere.
paper in the end poses the question: How
could image in paintings, trapped in pictorial protocols and bound to be
consumed in the market, ever attend to this demand and this guarantee of
transcendence? It could be proposed that from the long view of post-colonial
politics, image is fundamental because it was the rudiment of conversion during
conquest, the language through which civilization and humanity took hold as an
Antipas Delotavo, Steal Life, 2008.
work titled Steal Life (2008) is
instructive in this respect because it repositions the image as property into a
critical meditation on property, laying out a feast of life’s vanity, with an
odalisque at the background and the embarrassments of affluence resting on a
tattered Philippine flag. The genre is
still life and the medium is watercolor; it is a tribute to copiousness but its
allure is flimsy, soluble, and fleeting. This contradiction between attachment and
ephemerality is provocative and reminds us that it is the image that forms the
idiom of worldliness and the knowledge of an afterlife as equally envisioned by
the prospects of salvation in Catholic catechism. And it tells us that its mediation, though
complicit with the enterprise of reification, and irresistible materiality
could never be reduced to its capitalist appropriation.
very pictorial construction allegorizes an untenable condition, and the still
life is the most efficacious modality to carry out this operation. The art historian Norman Bryson theorizes,
proceeding from the Dutch still life, that the viewer of the still life is “related
to the scene not only through a general creaturely sense of hunger and
appetite, or of inhabiting a body with its cocoon of nearness and routine, but
through a worldly knowledge that knows what it is to live in a stratified
society, where wealth nuances everything, down to the last details.” In Delotavo’s still life, this density and
luster of reality constitutes only one part of the picture of a life stolen, or
following Juan Luna, of a life despoiled. The other is the illusion, which is disclosed
through an allegorical reading of the way in which it is constructed through
the method of perspective. The latter,
according to art historian Hanneke Grootenboer, “serves to represent truth in
painting by functioning as the foundation of a rhetoric of the image. Truth can
thus be allegorically represented by means of the rhetoric of perspective.” This kind of “thinking in visual terms” is
revelatory because it pierces through the veil of mystification, prompting the scholar
to claim that “still-life painting in particular calls for an allegorical mode
of looking because it calls attention to its two-dimensionality, thus
undermining perspective’s promise of depth.” In the context of globalization and in the era
of art as Hans Belting would put it, the image remains primordial because it
may still hold the truth and dispel the temptations of the world, the burdens
of belonging and the trappings of art history. And at this axis, the passion of the vagrant
and the masses of which Sabel and the other figures are exemplary tend to come
together because they render the form of contingency that must be suffered and
hopefully surpassed, a Filipino subjectivity that must be stitched in time.
D. Flores is Professor of Art Studies at the Department of Art Studies at the
University of the Philippines, Curator of the Vargas Museum in Manila, and he is
Adjunct Curator at the National Art Gallery, Singapore. Among his publications
are Painting History: Revisions in Philippine Colonial Art (1999); Remarkable Collection:
Art, History, and the National Museum (2006); and Past Peripheral:
Curation in Southeast Asia (2008).
He co-edited the Southeast Asian issue with Joan Kee for Third Text (2011).
Published on November 17, 2011.
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Pag-aaral Kay Balagtas (Manila: Cultural Center of the Philippines, 1988).
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Commission, 1974). Quoted in Zero In:
Private Art, Public Lives (Manila: Eugenio Lopez Foundation, Inc.,
Ayala Museum, Ateneo Art Gallery, 2002), p. 78.
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C. S. Lewis quoted in A. D. Nuttall, Two
Concepts of Allegory: A Study of
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Perspective: Realism and Illusionism in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Still-Life
Painting (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 2005), p. 137.
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Legazpi a Malaspina, Comisaria para la Celebracion del
V Centenario del Nacimiento de Don Miguel Lopez de Legazpi, 2004.
Norman Bryson, Looking at the Overlooked:
Four Essays on Still Life Painting (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1990), p.
Hanneke Grootenboer, The Rhetoric of
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Painting (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 2005), p. 162.
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University of Chicago Press, 1994).
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Origin of German Tragic Drama, trans. John Osborne (London: Verso, 1998).
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University Press, 1990).
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Seventeenth-Century Dutch Still-Life Painting (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 2005).
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as Vengeance in Philippine Literature (Manila: New Day Publishers, 1984).
Melendrez-Cruz, Patricia and Apolonio Chua, eds. Himalay: Kalipunan ng mga Pag-aaral Kay
Balagtas (Manila: Cultural Center of the Philippines, 1988).
The Thief, The Cross and the
Wheel: Pain and the Spectacle of Punishment in Medieval and Renaissance Europe
(Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1998).
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Concepts of Allegory: A Study of Shakespeare’s The Tempest and the Logic of
Allegorical Expression (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1967).
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