Disinterring Philippine Art And Culture

(By Bienvenido Lumbera)

Manila has always been the city to which Filipino artists are ever loyal, for its history is the history of the Filipino people itself. In its dim beginnings it was the Muslim settlement that Spanish conquistadors, spreading out from Cebu, made their base for colonizing the whole Luzon. Later it was the port where galleons stocked with treasured Oriental goods started their long voyage to Acapulco in Mexico. By then it had emerged as the capital city from which Church and State made their combined will prevail over all the islands that had been claimed for the Spanish Crown. Late in the nineteenth century, Manila was the site of Bagumbayan where Spain executed an accomplished young native who had dared to dream of equality and justice, imbuing his countrymen through his essays, poems and two novels, with his vision of a people standing proudly among the free peoples of Europe. And it was also here that the Revolution, led by a fiery youth of plebeian birth, finally asserted the right of Filipinos to rule themselves and chart their own destiny as a Republic, the first in Asia to break away from colonizers.

The United States, after the Treaty of Paris had ignobly delivered the Republic into its hands, further strengthened Manila's position as primate city from which power and wealth radiated to the rest of the archipelago. Manila was established as the seat of government. Education, finance, trading and industry, the Center to which everybody seeking power and influence turned to be able to participate in "national development." Thus, it was inevitable that the arts in the Center would provide the examples that would-be artists in the rest of the country would try to emulate. At the Center, artists were in direct touch with new directions and developments coming from the West, and they proved to be most adept at keeping up with foreign artists in following trends and adapting what was then touted as international standards. Up until the latter part of the second half of the 20th century, standards of excellence and relevance in artistic creativity were set by Manila.

Then in the 1960s, along with discontent over the goals and directions pursued by the Philippine State in governance, education, economy and culture, came the awareness that beyond the boundaries of the Center lay the major part of the national territory. Much of what had been going on in that territory had failed to seep into the consciousness of those in the Center, and it was especially true of artists. Awareness of that lapse started educators and students into a journey through the arts and culture of the territory then known as "the countryside," hounded by questions about identity and the Filipino nation. In the academe, the discipline of local history began to attract young scholars and researchers, and the combined output of these intellectuals later started to shed light on the past and achievements of the territory outside the Center.

In these beginning years of the 21st century, ignorance of the arts and culture outside Metro Manila has become inexcusable. The Cultural Center of the Philippines and the National Commission for Culture and the Arts together have brought to the attention of the nation artists and organizations that have hitherto been known only to a local audience. And as it turns out, literary, musical, visual and theater arts away from the primate city form a considerable part of the culture of the Filipino. Now it has become a all too clear that the question of a national identity for the Filipino cannot be discussed, much less resolved, only within the narrow confines of the Center. And so need to "de-Center."

Decentering, it must be emphasized, is not merely bringing arts and culture from the Center to the regions. More importantly, it is bringing arts and culture from the regions to the Center, not as token samplers of exotic and, unique tradition-based creative works, but as cultural products instructive in expanding the consciousness of artists and artisans working within the hub of cosmopolitan culture.

In the late 1950s, Priscilla Magdamo-Abraham, then a young researcher and choral conductor at Silliman University, brought to the attention of Manila audiences a body of folksongs collected from various communities of the Visayas in performances that enriched the musical experience of people who knew Visayan music mainly through renditions of such war-horses as "Ay, Ay Kalisud." At the onset of the 1970s, choreographer, dancer and scholar Ramon Obusan started his own dance company, initiating a series of performances called "Rare and Unpublished Dances" that gave lovers of dance a glimpse of exciting horizons away from Manila.

Theater in Manila was introduced by director Frank Rivera to Mindanao culture in dance, dramatic spectacle and socio-cultural issues when he brought the Sining Kambayoka to Fort Santiago and the CCP in the first half of the 1970s, and theater artists have since then referred their experiments in the indigenization of the theater practice vis-a-vis the example of this provincial theater group. Closer to our time, Elena Rivera-Mirano, musicologist, performer and choral conductor, brought out of the hinterlands of Batangas dancers and singers of the traditional subli, affording Manila's largely secular audience a look into the intimate relationships of dance, ritual and religious faith among the rural folk. In the field of visual arts, Bacolod has maintained a Visayan presence in Manila's art galleries through the artworks of Nunelucio Alvarado and Charlie Co, the two of them reminding the Center that artists outside have much to say and teach audiences and artists.

The insight to be derived from this recital of cases is that decentering calls for exchange between the Center and the provinces, a departure from the one-way cultural traffic that seeks to mold art and artists in the periphery in the image of the glamour figures and practice in the capital city. But if interaction among artists does indeed lead to mutual enrichment, cultural traffic ought not be limited to the two-way exchange between the Center and the provinces. To make the interaction relevant to the definition of what has been phrased as "the Filipino search for identity," it cannot remain as just a two-way process.

The need of the moment is to institute a process which might be described as cross-regional interaction and exchange. Art and culture from the different regions, bearing distinct regional traits, need to be brought into contact with one another. In this way, it is not only the practice of art that will be enriched; the process could impel molding a unifying consciousness that projects artist and audience beyond regional chauvinism towards genuine awareness of nationhood. Thus, without erasing regional identities, cross-regional interaction might bring us closer to the ideal of mutual respect for and appreciation of the cultural distinctness and diversity of regional artistic production in the country.

National festivals of dance, theater, literature, and visual arts have been organized, and these events have brought together art practitioners from different regions, and much understanding of local traditions and practices has been generated. What is envisioned in the cross-regional exchange described above is of a smaller scale, but with the potential of exerting a more lasting impact on the production of Philippine art. National festivals are a good introduction to the multicultural riches of our art and culture. What is needed, however, is a closer, more intimate encounter among Ilocanos, Visayans, Tagalogs, Cordillera people and the lumads and Muslims of Mindanao moving through the regions with their respective artistic products as part of a program intended to get artists coming from regional cultures to learn from one another and for audiences to be introduced the variety of outlooks artworks have to offer.

The task of decentering Philippine art and culture entails a certain amount of adventurousness among cultural planners and administrators. It requires daring to depart from traditional practice, and vision to chart a new course in encouraging the production of art relevant to the aspirations of our people.

**From Sanghaya 2002, a publication of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts

*BIENVENIDO L. LUMBERA, Sanghaya editor-in-chief, is one of the pillars of contemporary Philippine literature and film, having written and edited numerous books on literary history, literary criticism, and film. The professor emeritus of the Department of Filipino and Philippine Literature of UP Diliman, he has received several awards citing his contribution to Philippine letters, most notably the 1993 Magsaysay Award for Journalism, Literature, and Creative Communication Arts and the 1999 CCP Centennial Honors for the Arts. He currently teaches at De La Salle University.