07 January 2013

Leavings: An Afternoon at the Ayala Museum

Some of you might recall that last year, my brother Mikko gave me Ayala Museum membership for Christmas. It was a great gift for someone who thought she'd be spending the year single, with lots of free time. But, life happened, and also, I got lazy. So, though I attended some talks at the museum during my membership, I didn't actually take full advantage of my free passes until yesterday, one week before the membership's set to expire.

Looming expiration date aside, my timing was pretty great. Last month, the museum launched "Botong Francisco: A Nation Imagined," an exhibit of selected works by the late National Artist. There was a short Peque Gallaga film, written by Vicente Garcia Groyon, to accompany the exhibit, and it actually helped set the tone for the rest of my afternoon.

The film focused on Botong's love for scenes from everyday Filipino life as well as from Philippine history. As actors reenacted the scenes Botong painted — a local fiesta, the progress of medicine, Rizal's execution, bayanihan — a voiceover from his point of view went over his desire to preserve the past. The actors would be locked into their poses, the painting preserving their moment forever. It might be a cheesy concept, but I thought it was really well done.

It's not clear whether the text was based on Botong's actual writings or thoughts, but they seemed consistent with his style and themes. The film began with something about how the marks on his paper or canvas were like the tracks of an animal, but the animal is art, not the artist. As for the shape of the tracks, it was the past, and the artist served as myth-maker in the interest of preservation:

"If this were the world of the past, it would be painted as though it belonged to the world of the future."
"If history is to be kept alive, perhaps it must pass into myth."
"History awakened becomes history that is present, seen, remembered."
"A nation awakened to its history is a nation that remembers."

Although I was once lucky enough to visit Botong's studio in Angono, I confess that my memory is horrible; I remember the studio, but not the paintings. I'm glad that the film reacquainted me with the artist and his art, and it got me to see the content of his works in a new light; when I might have dismissed them as old-fashioned, they made history and its figures loom large and legendary.

From the Botong exhibit, I headed up to the museum's second floor, where the history refresher continued. This was my third or fourth time to see the diorama collection, so I thought I knew what to expect. But with the idea of "history awakened" fresh in my mind, the old scenes came alive; before the scene of the rice terraces, I could hear high winds and feet moving through water, and I suddenly recalled what it had been like to see the dioramas for the first time, at nine years old.

I started to see details I hadn't noticed before: a lone Indian soldier, in a strange hat and still in shorts and sandals, trailing after the British forces during the occupation; broken plates in the Balangiga massacre and a dead American still clutching his fork; two women chopping ingredients and standing over two pots of stew, and a guy pulling up his pants and coming out of a latrine as the cedulas are torn.

I didn't have the audio guide with me, so whatever I could remember from school filled in the gaps. I also liked the quotes from old texts printed beneath some of the dioramas:

- a reference to the "miraculous punishment" of the Sangley rebellion, in a dispatch dated 1606
- the boasts of Kudarat regarding Spanish conquerors:
"He had the God of the Christians already under his feet", after he'd stolen some Communion bread and literally put it under his feet; and
"Be of good courage, and wait here for me, for I am going to do what I did yesterday to the others." to his wife who, sadly, did not wait and threw herself to her death before the Spaniards could get her
- the text on the walls of the Katipunan initiation room:
"If you have strength and valor you may proceed.
"If only curiosity has brought you here — go away.
"If you do not know how to control your passions — go away.
"Never will the gates of the sovereign and venerable association of the sons of the people open for you."
- "... to shoot the brothers for the good of the country." from Emilio Aguinaldo's statement regarding the verdict on the Bonifacios
- from General Antonio Luna's last will and testament: "I confess that I would gladly die for my country, for independence — without however seeking death."
- from General Gregorio del Pilar's last diary entry: "I realize what a terrible task has been given me. And yet I feel that this is the most glorious moment of my life."

The dioramas make an abrupt jump from the days of the Philippine-American War to President Quezon's inauguration; I suppose there were other jumps, but as struggle was the theme for the longest time, the scene of this peacetime activity was especially jarring.

On the next floor was an exhibit on 1960s works by Fernando Zobel and Botong Francisco. It was interesting to move from Zobel's abstract, conceptual works to Botong's more realistic and colorful pictures.

I liked the two Botong works titled "Harana," because they were just interesting to look at next to each other; the 1965 "Harana" has a mysterious guitarist with his eyes covered, his target woman practically in his lap already; the undated "Harana" has a blushing boy guitarist with his eyes to the floor and an indifferent girl spacing out. Also noteworthy was "Kuloban ni Kuping," if only for its ridiculously ornate, thick, golden frame; the painting itself was of a cobbled-together bangka boathouse with a roof of yero.

As for my favorite Zobel work, it was "Icaro" (1962), black lines in the rough shape of wings, thrust so you're not sure whether they're falling or flying.

The top floor galleries had three exhibits in one: "Gold of Ancestors," "Embroidered Multiples," and "A Millennium of Contact," all under the banner "Crossroads of Civilizations."

"Gold of Ancestors" was my favorite; I had no idea that pre-colonial Filipinos had all that gold, so to see all these belts, sword hilts, necklaces, earrings, cuffs, death masks, and even "chastity covers" was just mind-blowing.

Alas, it is not part of modern culture to don gold ornaments and hold a "life-crisis ceremony", so I guess McNuggets of Shame and lazing around in bed will have to do for me.

"Embroidered Multiples" was also really interesting. The exhibit breaks down 19th-century Philippine clothing, and I liked seeing how the number of layers and types of clothing differentiated one social class from another. It also turns out that the elephant pants of the early 2000s were predated by the men's sayasaya — worn with barong and top hat — of the 1800s.

"A Millennium of Contact" features trade ceramics from China and Southeast Asia. Frankly, I've had my fill of ceramics, but it's not to say that the pieces in the exhibit aren't beautiful.

I had a great afternoon at the museum and would definitely like to add more museum visits to my calendar. My only complaint about the Ayala Museum was that the gift shop didn't have any postcards for my collection, but the foldout brochure on "Gold of Ancestors" should be all right.

Come to think of it, I also went to a museum in January 2012, and also to beat some kind of deadline (it was the last weekend to see Picasso's "Suite Vollard"). Maybe I'll stick to this accidental New Year tradition.

When I changed the name of my blog last year, I created two categories: Letters, for weekly (haha, nice try, Kat) personal dispatches, and Leavings, a link list for all the interesting things I found online during the week. I've more or less covered the latter through Twitter, so I've decided to repurpose Leavings for entries about things (mostly) outside of my own head.

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