Before the ‘Birdie in the Barrel’

Published August 6, 2018, 1:15 AM

by Madelaine B. Miraflor

By Dr. Jaime C Laya

A splendid book, Ifugao: People of the Earth, has been released by the Aboitiz Group of Companies, presenting life and culture in the Cordilleras, richly illustrated with objects in Banaue, Baguio, Cebu and US collections, early 1900s photographs by the first Americans who reached the highlands, and contemporary Jacob Maentz photographs of villagers at work and play and in ceremonials.

Erramon J. Aboitiz, president and CEO of the Cebu-based conglomerate, explains, “Culture drives our everyday decisions, anchored on our values of integrity, teamwork, innovation, and responsibility…” citing the Ifugao as “an example of what we aspire for … [in the hope] … that the culture that binds them together continues to … inspire many more to rediscover their own potential.”

A fiercely independent, hardworking and spiritual people, the Ifugao successfully resisted Spanish domination and now seek to maintain their distinct identity. Lowlanders should know more than the Rice Terraces and bu’lul, the black figures standing or seated on their haunches lined up in Mabini handicraft shops.


The book describes how traditional Ifugao life revolves around the rice cycle—land preparation, seeding, planting, caring, harvesting, and storing. Each stage is marked by a ritual presided over by a native priest (mumbaki) where a bu’lul assumes central importance. The figure is considered a representation of the rice god whose help ensures bountiful harvests and protects—indeed, multiplies—the grain while in storage. The bu’lul is also invoked in rituals to heal the sick and generally to prevent misfortune and attain an object of desire.

The consecration of a bu’lul is a big production that not everyone can afford. First, an auspicious tree is selected and felled; the wood is brought to the owner’s village; and the figure is carved and eventually consecrated. Each stage is marked by a ritual that includes chanted invocations by a mumbaki; animal sacrifices—chicken, pig and/or carabao; feasting and flowing rice wine. High-status persons are generous, e.g., if the selected tree happens to be five villages away, there could be an all-within-gong-hearing-distance-are-invited feast at each.

Bu’lul are carved following established conventions as to posture, size, wood, and surface orientation. An interesting departure was made by a Hapao carver named Taguiling. He was active in the early 1900s when Americans began administering the Cordilleras. Taguiling gave his bu’lul a Roman (“hook”) nose modeled after that of the first American provincial governor. The style became popular and locals also commissioned images with the same “power appendage.” A pair looking like Venus de Milo and Michelangelo’s David, however, simply won’t do.

A fiercely independent, hardworking and spiritual people, the Ifugao successfully resisted Spanish domination and now seek to maintain their distinct identity.

The souvenir trade unexpectedly brought out the creativity and skill of Ifugao sculptors. A 1950a cigarette holder, for example, is in the form of a brave riding a carabao. The fully accoutered man has a pot on his shoulder for cigarettes, a pan underfoot for ash and butts, and a lizard’s mouth is a matchbox holder.

Unfortunately, a 2018 souvenir-hunting visitor is saluted—stiffly—by a “Birdie in the Barrel,” the production of which evidently occupies much of today’s woodcarvers’ time and talent.

Note: Ifugao: People of the Earth was produced, designed and published by ArtPostAsia Inc. in partnership with Aboitiz. Editor: Delfin Tolentino, Jr., and Book Design and Development: Tina Colayco.

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