I was just thinking this morning about a poem I tried writing over a decade ago, spoken in the voice of a tribe of young women coming of age, pulled by the elements, this very old ancestral land, and the deities that created it. The poem was a failure, or I couldn’t poetically pull it off — I was just making up too much stuff which I’d since deemed implausible or incongruous, placed everything into a poetic container not solid enough to support it, using a language so wrought because it was meant to overcompensate for not knowing enough about my subject matter. I was so moved by Merlinda Bobis’s Cantata of the Warrior Woman Daragang Magayon, and the voices and words of Bayang Barrios and Grace Nono, but I was writing blind.
A couple of weeks ago, I made it to 1 AM Gallery in SOMA, San Francisco to check out the Tabi Tabi Po exhibit, which was curated by James Garcia, though I wasn’t able to attend any of the events which took place at the gallery during the exhibit. I’d recommended these events and exhibit to my students (I even offered extra credit to those who attended and submitted a brief write-up), and I was pleased to know that a good number of them seemed plugged into the local Fil Am artist and activist community and did, in fact, attend and really enjoy the exhibit.
This is how the exhibit is described: “A group exhibition that explores the rich and colorful creatures of Filipino Folklore through Urban Contemporary art, featuring artists who are either Filipino or have Filipino ancestry.”
This is an ongoing theme here, with my recent post on Filipino writers, magical realism, and speculative fiction, as well as the heart and matter of Diwata: How to incorporate (blend? include?) Philippine folklore and mythology into our art? How to do it convincingly, given that some of us have limited or no contact with the Philippines? How do we envision and carry “indigenous” beliefs with us into our contemporary urban settings — wouldn’t the belief in spirits and supernatural creatures inhabiting nature be animistic, hence indigenous? How does the “indigenous” manifest itself in our contemporary urban settings and therefore, in our works of art?
I place “indigenous” in quotes, because the indigenous people change with the times, with foreign invasion and influence, with modernization/technology, urbanization, commercialization. (Think: Joey Ayala, “Lumad sa Siyudad.” Think: TXT tanaga. Think: baybayin tattoos on UFC fighter Brandon Vera, though they’re written wrong). We carry elements of our root cultures into the present day and into transnational settings as diasporic people. Along the way, we pick up new stories and retell the old ones in new ways to new audiences.
Sometimes we objectify, fetishize, romanticize that pure indigenous past, perhaps because of the exhaustion of the way things are or the way things came to be. “Things were much simpler then,” we think, idealizing and fantasizing about a time before conquest and imperialism, before globalization. We imagine a time when people’s intentions were pure, when there was no word for “war” (Think: Tasaday). We think we must forsake all of what we have and are in order to get our indigenous on. For the record, I do not agree with these sentiments.
What I appreciated most about the Tabi Tabi Po exhibit is that the emphasis was placed not on the untouched and naive indigenous, but rather, on more interesting and dynamic presentations and mash-ups. Have a look at “Aswang Dancehall” by Marlon Sagana Ingram, “A Giant in the Mental” by Christopher de Leon, “Come Fly with Me” by Pancho Abalos, “Isa, Dalawa, Tikbalang” by Peabe. There’s an anime/manga look to some of the pieces (see exhibit photos here), and a couple of pieces utilizing the urban medium of spray paint.
Additionally, I think of Mel Vera Cruz’s “Manananggal” painted on Balikbayan box, which may tell us something about diaspora and displacement. I think also of two of the exhibit’s woven pieces, “Memory Planted in the Breast of an Everlasting Mountain” by Bru, and “Nuno sa Punso” by Dianne Que, both women artists utilizing what is traditionally a woman’s medium, in which the modern weaving is also a variation on traditional methods.
So the “indigenous” does not have to be so radical and idealized. Most of us were brought up by Filipino immigrants, and in many cases, “superstitious” ones, who were tapped into an “other” world, a “spirit” world, by virtue of what they believed, witnessed, experienced. Our elders told (and continue to tell) us, inundated us with stories, not just of the strange happenings back home both in the provinces and in the cities, but here too. In this way, they’ve passed these beliefs to us, here.
We act accordingly, and not necessarily in spectacular ritual or performance. I think about how many times have I whispered an apology (sorry for disturbing), or something respectful or thankful (for letting us pass through its space) to a large peculiar tree, predatory bird, amazing insect, or other animal not just when hiking, kayaking, and snorkeling, but also when walking through city (De Fremery Park on Adeline and 18th has some amazing old oaks).
That’s the thing: The beliefs persist. The practices, how we interact with our natural and constructed worlds persists. I’m most interested in how we do this as daily practice, lacking spectacle or affectation, and aspiring to that in our art.