Pete Jimenez’s ongoing show at the Ateneo Gallery has a straightforward message. The title, “Islands for Sale,” pretty much screams: West Philippine Sea (or South China Sea). Still, Jimenez, known for creating gargantuan sculptures from resurrected junkshop finds, comes up with something that’s worth a deeper dive.
Jimenez, who calls himself a “basurero” or a scavenger, has always been consistent in utilizing scrap metal as an art medium. It’s not a Pete Jimenez installation if it isn’t covered with rust or any other form of corrosion. For him, the dents, scratches, and cosmetic damages are like character marks, representing a narrative, a backstory, a proof of what it went through before it eventually found its way into his hands.
In the show, which was co-curated by Nilo Ilarde, the artist transforms part of the gallery’s third floor to emulate a panoramic view of the disputed islands. A fleet of old, rugged patrol boats, all sawed in half, are scattered within the halls, and planted on small hills of sand to give off an archipelagic look. No doubt, the shores of 10-feet-tall monolithic sculptures are an astounding sight, especially in person.
“Around 2018, the gallery’s director and chief curator Boots Herrera invited me to do a solo exhibit,” he said. “She showed me the space. At first, my idea was to use a real helicopter for the exhibition. That time, there was an issue about a helicopter accident and another about anomalous helicopter deals. Logistically, however, it wasn’t possible. So, I looked around and chanced upon these rescue boats stacked up in some junkyard. The idea to use them as a representation of the West Philippine Sea dispute suddenly came to me. And once I got the gallery’s approval, I began working on it immediately.”
His 2019 show at the Finale Art File, “Oh Baby, Baby it’s a Wild World,” employed the same techniques. Most notably in the piece I Am Not A Robot, a massive sculpture made of 15 rusty Volkswagen hoods. Another thing that’s becoming a staple in Jimenez’s work is the commentary on our country’s international relations, specifically with China. In the 2019 show, he presented Marine Life, which was a subtle jab on the issue.
“Islands for Sale,” however, appears to be a more direct and decisive statement of condemnation from Jimenez. According to him, as an artist, it is his responsibility to speak about societal issues and remind us to do the same. “I don’t want to point fingers using this show with regards to the West Philippine Sea issue,” he said. “But I want to use it as a vehicle to make us reflect: What happened? Why did we let it happen?” Ironically, Jimenez—not pointing fingers—wants his audiences filled with sadness and guilt.
“I want them to ask themselves: ‘Oo nga, ‘no? Bakit hindi ako umimik? (Why didn’t I react?),” he said. “Habang kinakatay ko ‘yung mga bangka, parang ganun din siguro ‘yung mga isla natin. Kinakatay din, dahan-dahan. Tapos tinatayo rin, dahan-dahan. ‘Pag tumahimik tayo, walang mangyayari sa ‘tin (The dismembered boats reminded me of our islands. If we stay silent, nothing will happen).”
Beyond his statements, however, Jimenez’s art potentially offers much more than just shallow virtue signaling and liberal nationalism. The material used in the exhibition are decommissioned rescue boats of the Philippine Navy, most of which are donated by the US, presumably as part of the Mutual Defense Treaty. A sign that even before China has risen as an imperialist power aiming to overwhelm our economy with its torrent of excess capital and military aggression, US imperialism has always been there, dominating our economy, culture, politics, and armed forces.
Our country, as well as its rich natural resources and our labor, has always been for sale. At a very cheap price. And now, by arguably selling out to China while, at the same time, remaining subservient to the US, President Duterte commits a double-sided betrayal of Philippine national sovereignty, or so implies his art, as does many Duterte critics.
“Islands for Sale” takes us to the middle of an inter-imperialist conflict within a semi-colonial and semi-feudal country. It shows how the fight for economic freedom is tightly intertwined with the struggle for national sovereignty. That to achieve genuine national independence, we must resist imperialist domination by both China and the US.