Reclaiming A Vanishing Heritage

(By Delfin L. Tolentino)

Lopez Nauyac is an Ifugao CARVER who spent most of his adult life working as an art entrepreneur in the woodcarving village of Asin in Baguio City. Part of the great exodus of artisans who left Ifugao in the postwar years to take advantage of Baguio's prosperous commerce in "tribal curiosities,"he realized in his old age that he had not given back anything of substance to the native society that was the wellspring of his talent and creativity. Today, after some 50 years as a manufacturer and seller of wood crafts, Nauyac is back in his home village of Hapao in Hungduan to pay back what he had taken. With the help of other villagers, he now works for the preservation of the muyong, communal forests that serve not only as watershed but also as source of wood for Hapao's thriving industry in wood craft.

Nauyac's village has also captured the attention of internationally known filmmaker Kidlat Tahimik who now spends half of his time in Hapao as a matter of personal choice. Dictated partly by disenchantment with the commodified culture of urban spaces, his move to Hapao was also prompted by a desire to document the rapidly changing ethos of Ifugao. But Kidlat Tahimik believes that documentation must not be the exclusive preserve of talented outsiders. Thus, he has been training the natives on how to use the video camera to express their world view and to record their culture. The completed films are for local consumption. Tahimik is trying to convince the public schools in Ifugao to show these films as an antidote to the insidious effects of Westernization.

The stories of Lopez Nauyac and Kidlat Tahimik illustrate present efforts to revitalize the traditional culture of Northern Luzon. The stories also suggest some of the symptoms of its malaise.

By general admission, the woodcarvers of Hapao are the best in the Cordillera. The Hapao bul-ul is widely recognized as the most distinctive of the anthropomorphic figures used in Ifugao rituals. Even the woodcarvings produced by village carvers for the tourist trade are better executed than most of the souvenir carvings found in curio shops. Woodcarving remains a primary occupation in Hapao, but the traditional forms are gradually disappearing. The growing Christianization of the people of Ifugao has led to the steady decline of traditional practices. With the disappearance of rituals, the production of the correlative ceremonial paraphernalia is brought to a halt. But the decline in the production of traditional wares is also brought about by Hapao's integration into the world of commerce.

The production of bul-ul and other objects for ritual and domestic use has been largely superseded by the more lucrative production of carvings for souvenir-hunters and importers. Huge sculptures of American Indians, Mickey Mouse, and Laughing Buddhas are now being produced in great quantity, ensuring the survival of the woodcarving industry. On the other hand, there is cause for alarm as one contemplates the potentially disastrous effect of this commercialization on the aesthetic sensibility of the native carver who must now accommodate the judgment and preferences of outsiders.

The craft of Cordillera carvers is also being altered by a derivative aesthetic introduced by antique dealers and interior designers who commission works copied from pictures of African tribal sculpture-a case of commercially induced influence. Bul-ul iconography has not been spared of this influence. Shops in Manila, Baguio, and even Banawe are also selling African-inspired wooden boxes, lime containers, and miniature sculpture whose appeal lies in their refined style, as opposed to the so-called archaic style of authentic artifacts.

The introduction of new stylistic devices has its positive side, inspiring local craftsmen to explore other modes of artistic invention. On the other hand, there is something skewed when native carvers produce duplicates of artifacts from other cultures that do not have any bearing on their lives, seen for example in the copies of wooden fertility dolls (akua-ba) originally created by the Asante tribe of Ghana and now being manufactured in the woodcarving shops of Ifugao.

To a large extent Northern Luzon crafts are sustained by external demand, but very often not even this demand could ensure their survival. The manufacture of traditional Ilocos pots known as burnay is now a dying industry, according to some Vigan potters, with laborers in the potteries leaving the kilns and turning to white-collar jobs. Once an indispensable household item of domestic life in Northern Luzon, the burnay is now bought mostly by tourists, landscape designers, and interior decorators as local households turn to cheaper and more versatile plastic ware.

The decline of traditional crafts has led the Kalipunan ng mga Asosasyon para sa Ikauunlad ng Vigan at Kapaligiran (KaiVigan), organized in 1994, to come to the rescue. Plans are afoot for the purchase of an abandoned house in Vigan's Heritage Village to serve not only as a tourist information center but also as a shelter for traditional crafts and industries. Support has also come from the Spanish government through the Agencia EspaƱola de Cooperacion Internacional. With its backing, the implementation of the Master Development Plan of Vigan, which includes the establishment of a cultural and trade center, has started.

Attempts to preserve and revitalize the traditional culture of Northern Luzon are being made in other areas in various ways. In PeƱarubia, Abra, Dominga Agaid and other weavers have organized the Namarabar Farmers and Ethnic Arts Association to secure the old tradition of Tingguian weaves. Long-forgotten design motifs are being revived by village weavers, and organic dyes from local plants and trees are being used again. Similar efforts can be seen in Kalinga, Apayao, Mountain Province, and Ifugao where old textile traditions also exist.

Oral tradition is another area of concern. When the bearers of many of these traditions die, the folk forms are likely to die with them. For instance, Parompon Bahay of Bambang, Nueva Vizcaya, now in his late 70s, is said to be the only remaining chanter of the long alim of Ummangal and Bugan. Who will remember this ritual chant when he is gone? The process of transmission has been impeded by a new generation no longer interested in the ancient practices of their ancestors.

The documentation of vanishing lore in the region is, therefore, an urgent task. Usually the preserve of teachers who often write on folklore and its pedagogical value for their thesis requirement, documentation projects are being pursued by other groups. The University of the Philippines in Baguio has embarked on a project involving the retrieval of Cordillera and Northern Philippine literatures and the setting up of a comprehensive archive. KAISA, an organization of college students from Isabela, has included the collection and transcription of folklore in their province as part of their agenda.

There are other cultural preservation efforts worth citing. The United Architects of the Philippines has documented the history and refurbished the museum of an Ilocos Norte architectural landmark, the splendid Cape Bojeador Lighthouse in Burgos.

Even the festivals that have flourished in some major cities and capital towns (e.g., the Arya Abra! in Bangued and the Panagbenga Flower Festival in Baguio), despite their primarily tourist intentions and tendency to commercialize culture, have something to contribute to cultural growth. Paoay has revived the Guling-guling which dates back to Spanish times. In this pre-Lenten festival, the Ilocanos make merry as they reaffirm various aspects of their traditional culture, from religious rituals to native industries.

Sometimes the truly significant projects emanate from the most unlikely places, like the tinapa section of the Baguio City market where Mothers and Family Multi-Purpose Cooperative (Mofamco) holds quarters. An award-winning cooperative, Mofamco has organized a cultural guild dedicated to the preservation of traditional music in the Cordillera. Their first projects were recordings of Cordillera folk songs (Kullilipan) and instrumental music (Gangeh di Montanyosa). In 2001 they came out with Boltan (heritage), an anthology of music from Kalinga, Benguet, Ifugao, and Mountain Province. Here one gets an intimation of the continuity of tradition, as young people from each tribe join their elders in singing the chants.

The preservation of Cordillera indigenous culture has become a priority item in the national agenda, and the government has expectedly made significant interventions in this area of concern.

The conferment of the Gawad Manlilikha ng Bayan-equivalent of the National Artist Award-to Alonzo Saclag, a master of Kalinga dance, is a recognition that cannot be ignored. The government, through its cultural agencies, also worked hard to have the Ifugao hudhud chosen by the UNESCO as one of the "Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity." Intended to complement UNESC's World Heritage List of natural and cultural sites, this award was first given in 2001 to recognize "outstanding cultural spaces or forms of expression from the different regions of the world."

The hudhud, an epic chant recited during the sowing and harvesting of rice and other important events, shared honors with cultural masterpieces from other countries like the Ivory Coast, Bolivia, China, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Benin, and Italy, which were recognized for their outstanding cultural value and role in perpetuating endangered traditions. To make the hudhud part of Filipino consciousness, the National Commission for Culture and the Arts has launched a playwriting competition based on the epic. The government also plans to have it included in school curricula and its variants collected in an archive.

The NCCA also had a role in the liya held in Hungduan in connection with the ordination of Pinatnaan Kiling as a new mumbaki (native priest). Pinatnaan did not have the wherewithal for the liya, a series of rituals involving the ritual slaughter of chickens and pigs, so the NCCA shouldered the expenses. It was not a minor gesture. Over the years the number of mumbaki has decreased because of the onslaught of modernization and Christianity in Ifugao. If the mumbaki disappear, the Ifugao will lose the primary carriers of their oral traditions, community laws, and genealogical lore.

The government, through the NCCA, the Presidential Commission for the New Century and the Millennium, and the National Museum, also initiated the Tuwali Ifugao Village project in Banaue. Consisting of some 15 traditional houses to be constructed on a one-hectare lot donated by the Limangan family, the proposed village aims to preserve Ifugao culture. It will feature a School for Living Traditions where traditional arts and crafts like woodcarving, backstrap weaving, rice wine brewing, metal smithing, and basket making will be taught.

A similar project is the Ifugao School of Living Traditions, established in Kiangan through the efforts of Ifugao Gov. Teodoro Baguilat Jr. who, in his inaugural speech, identified the establishment of Ifugao heritage centers as one of his major plans. The school opened in August 2001 with Manuel Dulawan as coordinator. Students are introduced to the rudiments of chanting, myth narrating, folk singing, gong playing and dancing, loom weaving, and rice wine brewing. The faculty includes Amado Dincog, 70, who teaches the chanting of the baltung, recited during prestige rites, and Angelina Dumayahon, 75, who teaches the hudhud.

The traditional arts and crafts of Northern Luzon and especially of the provinces that comprise the Cordillera region are repeatedly featured in mass media as exemplifying an authentic Philippine culture. There is usually a marked emphasis on the exoticism of this culture, determined no doubt by the ethnocentric gaze of the beholder who usually comes from the Christian and Westernized mainstream of Philippine society.

In 2001 two exhibits in Metro Manila focused on these arts and crafts. "Philippine Weaves" at the Galeria de las Islas in Intramuros featured traditional basketry and textiles from Northern Luzon. On a smaller scale, the Philippine Museum of Ethnology mounted an exhibit called "Bah-ket," highlighting the traditional baskets of the Ifugao. As to be expected, the Intramuros exhibit was meant to draw attention to the craftsmanship involved in the construction of the exhibited artifacts.

The ethnology museum exhibit, on the other hand, was presumably intended to be a mode of instruction. Unfortunately, the guides at the Nayong Pilipino, where the museum is located, are apparently not well trained to conduct museum tours. At the Museum of Ethnology visitors were told that the Cordillera baskets on exhibit were black because the natives wanted them to be so, when as a matter of fact the dark patina of these baskets was not the outcome of aesthetic intention but the result of exposure to the accumulated soot in the enclosed shelters of the natives.

An even more egregious error was the remark, very casually made by a charming but incompetent guide, that mummification in the Cordillera begins with the dying person being soaked in saline solution.

Such misinformation tends to reinforce prejudices and widen the gap between mainstream and peripheral societies. Fortunately, there are regional museums to correct the errors. The Bontoc Museum, probably the pioneer museum in the Cordillera, is strategically situated to collect artifacts in situ and with them the vital pieces of information that would allow the visitor to make good sense of the material displayed.

Cordillera artifacts are also on exhibit at the museum of St. Louis University in Baguio where curator Ike Picpican can lecture, if requested, on Igorot material culture. A most noteworthy effort can be seen in the private museum set up in Banawe by George Schenk, an expatriate from Washington. Open to the public from December to March, it contains an outstanding collection of Cordillera sculpture, and the items on display are meticulously documented, with notes on their cultural context and provenance. In the Ilocos, easily the best museum is the Museo Iloko housed in the old and beautifully restored Tabacalera warehouse in Laoag.

Elsewhere in Northern Luzon, other academic institutions have established their own museums to document the material culture of the region where they are located. The Cagayan State University in Tuguegarao maintains a museum depicting the confluence of Ibanag and Ilocano cultures, while in Bangued, Abra, the Divine Word College has put up the Tingguian Studies Center with an adjunct museum showcasing local textiles, sculpture, and material implements. The absence of curatorial expertise and adequate funds has spoiled other regional projects. The Ilocano culture section of the Mariano Marcos State University museum in Batac, Ilocos Norte is in a state of neglect, its shabbiness accentuated by its proximity to the relatively well-kept and better endowed section housing the Ferdinand Marcos memorabilia.

Contemporary art production in the North is centered in the city of Baguio, long known for its community of homegrown and transplanted artists. In the past the energy was supplied mostly by the Baguio Artists Guild (BAG), with internationally known artists like Bencab, Santiago Bose, and Kidlat Tahimik providing the leadership and inspiration to a small but dedicated group of young talents. The BAG is moribund, if not dead, but new developments suggest that Baguio remains the art center of the North.

First, there are the art festivals and the smaller workshops they have spawned. In February 2001 "Hiblang Papel para sa Kapayapaan"- a month-long handmade paper festival featuring lecture-demonstrations, art exhibitions, and cultural shows-was held in Baguio with NCCA funding. Also in 2001 the UP Baguio Summer Arts Festival, now more than a decade old, continued to serve the community by offering some 30 art and crafts workshops for children and adults. The continuing success of this festival has inspired other groups in Baguio and La Trinidad, Benguet to conduct similar activities in summer.

Also providing impetus to creative work is the rise of new exhibition spaces. The Chanum Foundation, led by Bencab, has put up the Tam-awan Village, a cluster of huts featuring the vernacular architecture of the Cordillera, where the works of a group of artists associated with the village (Jordan Mangosan, Jojo Elmeda, Rishab, Roland Bay-an, Ged Alangui, Mark Tandoyog, John Frank Sabado, and others) are on permanent display.

Across Tam-awan is the studio-gallery of sculptor Ben-hur Villanueva. Iggy's Inn, previously known for its cuisine, is also trying to establish a reputation as an art center. Local artists have also been given space in the Baguio Botanical Garden, where installation art seems to be the norm.

In Asin, known for its village of woodcarvers, a group led by Gilbert Albert, an Ifugao artist, maintains a gallery-workshop called Bobhle (Ifugao for village) where they exhibit their works in stone, bamboo, and other media. Also in Asin is KM 6, a studio and gallery put up by papermaker Nida Dumsang who envisions the place as a workshop for papermaking, creative bookbinding, and paper craft.

The most successful exhibition space, however, is the Sanctuary Gallery at Maryknoll. Established in 1999, the Sanctuary must be credited for professionalizing the gallery system in the city. Careful planning, attention to detail, and competent publicity work have ensured the success of its shows. In 2001 the gallery presented exhibits of handcrafted objects, book art, collage, pottery, and photographic environmental history, in addition to the usual painting and print shows. It has become a regular venue for local artists, but more important is its success in educating its public. The emphasis on the gallery as a learning center is evident in the scrupulous exhibit notes that explain and contextualize the objects on display.

The abundance of exhibition spaces in Baguio is surprising, given the fact that local galleries do not make money. But this could be changing. Sanctuary curator Erlyn Ruth Alcantara admits that the gallery is able to sustain itself with sales. There is a growing number of local buyers, she says. What is striking is the fact that most of them are not art patrons or collectors looking for blue chips but "non-collecting types" who often ask for a layaway scheme.

Baguio artists continue to be productive, the evidence being in the number of shows they were able to mount in Baguio, Manila, or elsewhere. John Frank Sabado, a recipient of the CCP 13 Artists Award, had a show of pen-and-ink portraits and mixed-media murals inspired by Cordillera motifs and rhythms at Iggy's Inn. Photographer Tommy Hafalla, also a 13 Artists awardee, exhibited a series of monochromes exploring "modernity and First World changes from the eyes of an 80-year old Igorot."

At Hiraya Gallery Leonard Aguinaldo had his first solo show, "Chadang and Other Rites,"where he gave full play to his fascination with shamanistic practices. Two consecutive shows called "Ensembles" at the Sanctuary featured the collage and book art projects of local artists. The old guards were not sluggish. In addition to his shows in Manila, Bencab had an exhibit of his recent paintings on handmade paper to inaugurate the new gallery at Tam-awan, while Bose was busy working on his iconoclastic images.

Young artists also came to the fore. Sisters Azra and Samantha Pinder had a painting and crafts show called "Liquid Dreams" at the Sanctuary, while Kawayan de Guia had his "Earth to Sky" show at the Lopez Memorial Museum. The Tam-awan artists went to Cubao to exhibit their new works and to Palawan to conduct workshops and interact with kindred spirits.

In 2001 the art and culture scene in Northern Luzon was alive with projects aimed at reclaiming a vanishing heritage, but it was also enlivened by the work of contemporary artists cultivating new artistic practices while nourishing yesterday's gains.