By KARL M. GASPAR CSSR -OCTOBER 9, 2021 6:44 PM
DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 9 Oct) – There is no doubt about it: the Mindanao Art Fair could very well be considered the most significant cultural event of the year 2021!
It is certainly the one major artistic accomplishment of committed visual artists across Mindanao. In sheer volume, the entire collection of works – numbering more than 600 paintings (10 huge murals; 270 medium-size, i.e., within the range of 50 to 60 inches; 300 regular size, within the range of 20 by 35 inches; and a hundred tiny pieces), along with close to a hundred sculptures (with the giant black carabao in steel greeting the visitors at the venue’s entrance) as well as 16 mannequins displaying high-end fashion – can overwhelm the viewer’s senses if viewed only in one setting.
One would need a few visits to the event’s venue to fully appreciate this wide range of a collection that occupy the two floors of the recently finished Poblacion Market Central, soon to open as a shopping center (ala the Aldevinco). The entire collection has been collected from all over Mindanao from Zamboanga peninsula in the west to the Caraga District (the old Agusan-Surigao) in the east, from the north Mindanao (Cagayan de Oro, Iligan and Bukidnon) and the south (Cotabato and Davao regions). Missed are works of artists from Sulu-Basilan islands, indicating that Moro and Lumad artists remain under-represented.
As can be expected of an art fair – that is not meant to only showcase the most accomplished works of established artists but also to encourage young, budding artists, apart from another main goal which is to generate sales for these works to support starving artists affected by the pandemic – the works are uneven. But there is no question about it: this year’s Art Fair has surpassed what was accomplished in the first two art fairs in 2019 and 2020. Lawig Diwa, along with its partners (traversing the whole length and breadth of Mindanao) and sponsors, is to be congratulated for the heroic efforts in putting up this fair.
Why the theme – Mindanao in the Liminal Space? On a billboard standing at the very center of the exhibit are these words: “We are at a threshold – a liminal space – between the immediate shock that disturbed the world and the new future that is yet to be named. Mindanao Art is right in-between phases as though to undergo another rite of passage. This year’s Mindanao Art Fair explores the theme Art in Between – Mindanao Art in Liminal Space – a recognition of where we are right now – in a space of ambiguity and disorientation as though suddenly put in the middle of a busy hallway where everything is a blur…Neither black or white, neither here or there, the liminal is to be everywhere and now here.”
True to its “liminal character,” the exhibit seems to be on tentative mood, of being in-between or in-betwix (using the archaic word of being in a state of between-ness). Befitting the use of this term for this cultural event, one needs to allow the organizers the right to decide who can join or not and what works are to be representative of where Mindanao Art is these days. No wonder, they have welcomed a wide range of established, professional, experimental and amateur artists of various ages, genders, ethnicities and artistic traditions exploring all kinds of content, form, media and materials to explore. And the art works cover a wide range: paintings (using a variety of materials from oil to acrylic, saw dust to watercolor, on canvas and cloth), sculptures, paintings-cum sculpture, fashion, assemblages, ikebana and attempts at art installations.
These “in-betweeners” have collectively accomplished what their counterparts in Luzon and the Visayas (except Metro Manila of course) have not been able to mount showing the level of collaboration among visual artists across Mindanao. Not any of the other group of artists – in theatre, music, literature, architecture, etc. – has reached this heightened level of partnership and cooperation, for it is no joke to transport both artists and their works across the island to bring them to this venue.
What has made this possible is because at the local level, artists have been organizing among themselves. One can tell by the title of these groups listed as one enters the exhibition space: Likha Caraga, Agusan Artistic Association, Pintagum, Arts Guild of Nabunturan, Capitol U Museum of Three Cultures, various arts guild from Zamboanga Sibugay to those of Iligan City and the Talaandigs of Bukidnon as well Davao’s various circles of artist-friends. One can see this reflected in the whole setting of the exhibit as booths are assigned their respective groups.
A few of these collections are a must-see, including: the Ahon Davao group (truly an outstanding achievement with the versatile watercolors led by Anthony Serafin whose Strawberries stands out), the group from Davao with Lucas Ranola and his social realist paintings of iconic Bangkerohan market, Jag Bueno’s take on Ingod with a unique use of materials that seem to combine sculpture with paintings through the use of resin and acrylic, Tanya Lee’s Tilaok that elevates the fighting cock to the mythical sarimanok and Elenita Dumlao’s Simplified Complexities that bursts with vibrant colors of her imagination. Other must-see are the 37 pieces of Talaandig soil paintings (also moving to bigger pieces now), the Tagum collection mounted on their very own mobile wooden planks to showcase works of mainly indigenous birds with their rainbow-colored feathers.
Art Fair 2019 and 2020 were understandably replete with images of the iconic symbols of Mindanao, especially the Lumad (of rituals and myths) and nature (especially the Philippine eagle) images. These do not anymore dominate the works for 2021; in fact there are only around six paintings with the eagle and a sculpture in copper wire. If there are still Lumad images and symbols, these are appropriated in a manner that is true to the exhibit’s theme – liminality. Thus images of Lumad within the social realist perspective are few and far between (understandably dominant in the Talaandig collection and a very striking in a painting of a Lumad elder wearing a face mask whose eyes mirror the deep frustrations of a vanquished people) but in this 2021 collection, they are more shown smiling, celebrating and proudly showing off their rich legacy.
The organizers highlight the Liminality theme by putting two giant murals done by Davao City’s very accomplished muralist – Jeff Bangot – at the very entrance of the exhibit. The two murals – each one measuring an entire wall – combine images of Lumad mythical heroes with cartoon and film characters, appropriation of other artists’ works and even religious motifs. Unfortunately there are no labels with titles to these works, so one is left to guess. At the left, the painting is dominated by somber, greenish colors, while red is what makes the painting at the right looking hot and passionate.
The left mural incorporates Michelangelo’s Sistine chapel rendition of Yahweh whose tip of a finger touches the tip of Magellan’s sword pointing towards a collection of imagined mythical figures, including Wonder Woman, R2-D2, Mickey Mouse, a samurai, another Marvel-type of superhero while one of the horses is straight out of Picasso’s Guernica. There is also Mona Lisa without her winsome smile as she holds a weapon for mass destruction. On the right is a montage of Lumad epic heroes or bagani (is that Agyu? Or Mangulayon? Or Lapu-lapu?), and Pinoy cartoon characters (Darna, Kenkoy), a Katipunero and even a cubist dog appropriated from Ang Kiu Kok.
There are other murals too in various spots of the exhibit. On its third rendition, Mindanao artists are starting to abandon small pieces and moving forward to doing huge murals. It is said that in countries where condominiums and hotels are sprouting, it is the demand for murals that is rising. One can easily understand why – these buildings have many blank spaces on a hundred floors – demanding to be covered by artistic pieces. Paintings are now considered good investments and these corporate firms can certainly afford the exorbitant prices they demand.
These two works alone defines the in-betwix nature of this exhibit from mythical of the imagined narratives of our indigenous ancestors to those cartooned by Walt Disney and his descendants in Hollywood, from the sublime works of art to the most mundane, from the heroic to the contemporary reality of nonchalance, to the somber memories of the past to the passionate challenges of the yet-to-be. If Jeff Bangot were the quintessential liminal artist for Mindanao, is there hope for this movement to move forward to greater heights?
But one reality that defines the liminality of this exhibit is, of course, the reality of the pandemic. Which accounts for the admittance restriction to the venue site which is on registration basis only. Which is a pity because the exhibit should be seen by as many citizens as possible. An antidote to this sad fact is that the organizers have made this exhibit be viewed online. But there is still nothing culturally nourishing apart from actually standing a feet or two from the paintings on the wall.
With the pandemic as backdrop (one can only hope that Minda Art Fair 2022 will already be liberated from this coronavirus’ tantrums), there are works showing faces wearing face masks. Included are those of: Christine Lopez (Third Dose), Michael Bacol (Quarantined and Clown Corona), Rambeth Vergara (Rembrant Self-Quarantine), John Bibal (Sheep), Jose Gumaad Jr. (Tabang), Noemi Penerante (Uyamot), Jonal Magkidong (Fake Mask) and a collection of sepia-colored paintings of Kyle Toribio (Sundo, Gukod and The Lament of Icarus) showing angels hovering over hundreds of dead bodies. Apart from showing despair, Milon Fernandez’ Fundemic shows how playful we can be even in such tragic times.
So, is it fun to view this art fair in this time of the pandemic? Most certainly and before the end of the month, I exhort the readers to find their way to the market central for this fair is such a rare event. Victor Turner, the British cultural anthropologist who popularized the discourse of liminality-communitas centered his theory on his study of rituals especially as these relate to rites of passage. Mindanao Art Fair 2021 could very well be the rite of passage for our Mindanawon visual artists as they maneuver through this threshold we are all facing in view of the rampage of this virus and its various variants.
And one hopes for both the artists and the public that this Fair leads us to a sense of communitas, where we can all converge to promote our identity as Mindanawons – as reflected in artistic works that could go down in our cultural history – that truly mirrors our soul as a people!
[MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Redemptorist Brother Karl Gaspar is a professor at St. Alphonsus Theological and Mission Institute (SATMI) in Davao City and until recently, a professor of Anthropology at the Ateneo de Davao University. Gaspar is author of several books, including “Manobo Dreams in Arakan: A People’s Struggle to Keep Their Homeland,” which won the National Book Award for social science category in 2012, “Desperately Seeking God’s Saving Action: Yolanda Survivors’ Hope Beyond Heartbreaking Lamentations,” two books on Davao history, and “Ordinary Lives, Lived Extraordinarily – Mindanawon Profiles” launched in February 2019. He writes two columns for MindaNews, one in English (A Sojourner’s Views) and the other in Binisaya (Panaw-Lantaw). Gaspar is a Datu Bago 2018 awardee, the highest honor the Davao City government bestows on its constituents.]