An in depth look into the art exhibition ‘A la Sombra de la Colonia, A Meditation on 1521 and Beyond’
By Jose Tence Ruiz
It would seem salutary to suggest that we are woke, professing cognizance of an entire half millennium of having been molded and shaped by fellow humans coming in from outside our indigenous spaces. The big topic of the year 2021, aside of course from a persistently fatal virus that also drifted in from without, is a remembrance of 1521 when this archipelago which we inhabited since pre-history was to be changed by visitors from halfway across the globe.
By 1521, these islands were not unused to foreigners, the Arabs, Austro-Polynesians, Siamese, Chinese, Indians, all came and found settlement and social exchange. It’s just that this wave of visitors from the empires of the Baroque Era had designs to own us as a territory. We, as a subjected peoples in extension and sustenance of their own progress, of their own growth, fed on resources taken from us.
Is this not the way to launch a meditation in 1521?
A cursory chat with three Filipino artist contemporaries yielded a quaint, even giggly observation. All three of us, who are not of Iberian physiognomy, all bear Hispanicized surnames: Jose “Pinggot” Zulueta is rather quite bumi/Austro-Polynesian, Jose “Bogie” Tence Ruiz is more Ottoman/Chinese, and Federico “Pete” Jimenez pass for Sino-Japanese. Yet, we all move forward into 2022 with this cross-pollinated bricolage of a self, that which sociologist historian Vincente Rafael describes as a product of the overlapping trajectories of three empires, Spain, America, and Japan. And we belong to the converse of Empire, and, perforce, count ourselves as bred from Colony.
And the mention of Colony corollary conjures up discourses of subjugation, resistance, violent domination, exploitation, release, self-realization, parity, human justice, compassion and cruelty, mimicry, bondage, heroism and betrayal, and an elongated list of subjects that extrude themselves whenever one segment of humanity overpowers the other. So we, therefore, come into this exhibit with this Galleon-load of baggage and dwell on the expressions that are thrown up in a review of the painful but also riveting narrative of a self-proclaimed community, imagined as Benedict Anderson would call it, that has labored under the heel of one that has sought to reduce it to being merely a source of nutrition and sustenance while draining this very sustenance from those who by fate was born or sited on these dominated territories.
Thus does this show, which mainly deals with redolence, traces, effects, using the Spanish line “In the shadow of Colony,” “ala Sombra de la Colonia,” unfold with works that can as well be mutating variants of redolence? Pinggot Zulueta has marked out some very intense black and white ink drawings that propose a visceral lens, with equally raw tropes that work to start newer conversations about the last 500 years, conversations from below, to lay down a perspective, from those whose lives were ravaged and brutally gobbled up to feed larger regimes. He posits that for decolonization to be affected, courage, heroism, even martyrdom have to be relocated at the fore. He is aware that relations of subjugation are eroded by releasing suppressed histories, histories long referred to by national historian Renato Constantino as histories from beneath, from the subjugated breaking the silence of rule by force-driven conquest. Zulueta presents the bovine carcass in a good number of his drawings, as if to suggest the domestication of the conquered, like humans domesticate cows for the table, and at the same time suggest individuals who have risen above this domestication to assert decolonization, a realization dreamed of, harking to the better f-word, freedom.
Tence Ruiz had a father who looked primarily Chinese. His maternal grandfather, Victor Tence, born in eastern France into the poverty of uphill farming, came over as infantry with the American General Dewey’s occupying forces. Tence Ruiz speculates on the dilution, if not the drowning of culture with dominance. He re-creates familiar poses of what were once Filipino heroes in the continuum of self-definition but layers on them a pathetic corruption and re-assignment into the desires of empire: Proto-heroic Andres Bonifacio is relegated to a Superman look-alike in a massagic purgatory, Revolutionary General del Pilar transmutes into a Hollywood leading man on an equestrian monument of exploited agriculture and the sublime intellectual Mabini, looking unnervingly close to a Chinese martial arts idol, is grafted onto the prurient equivalent of his namesake, that which thrust prostitution onto the laps of returning strangers, now re-christened as sex tourists. The narrative of A. Mabini as redlight haven for the ‘puti’, whites, is a cautionary tale of twisted hospitality and the resultant degradation of otherwise noble lives into the infamy of subjugation.
His largest work for “Colonia” is a florid kariton-katedral, harking to both the Illusory Garden of Eden and the Islamic firdaus, that ramrods a foreign one-sided contract of a heavenly reward onto the oppressed in exchange for all their worldly ownings and dignity, while climbing on a stage-crafted from the debris of denuded forests of exploited timber and industrially profitable minerals.
Colonization is not new to homo sapiens, who from the individual to the tribal to the national to the global have always had to deal with one segment eating up another, or feeding on it in an unequal relationship.
Pete Jimenez leavens the opprobrium of his showmates with wittily reassembled avatars of cultural notions evolved in the engagement with conquest: the ‘Sardinas,’ comical metonym of overpopulation, bestowed with an elevating, if Euro-Olive oil imbued but homegrown Spanish snobbery; the robot-like remnants of ruthless Japanese severity, both as rulers and as defeated targets of the Americans; the superficial pacification of a whole people under a transplanted Educational system, even the prospect of a future loss of sea resources to the newly aggressive and determinedly growing Beijing-run Empire of Command Capitalism. He touches on grave topics with droll humor and irony, and spans the near erased past as well as the fearful future, a fraught period where the inhabitants of our Archipelago are unyieldingly besieged by those who would covet our naturally endowed treasures, above and into the soil, beneath the seas, and now, burrowing deep, into our demarcated continental shelf. Jimenez’ wit with discards also mirrors the self-serving upitty attitudes that the elite of these islands have grown like a keloid to assuage and justify their consistent betrayal of the majority in favor of being surrogates/collaborators for and with the invaders, offering their feasance for uninterrupted economic and social ascendancy. Or to explain why someone once wanted to rechristen us Islas de las Ladrones.
The entire schema of dominance, of the large consuming the small, is generally undesirable in a proportional humanized proposition of ideal existence, but it does exist and looms, grand and imposing. Colonization is not new to homo sapiens, who from the individual to the tribal to the national to the global have always had to deal with one segment eating up another, or feeding on it in an unequal relationship. In our Utopian aspirations, we yearn for a state of being free from capture, but those of us thrown into the crucible of realpolitik have come to recognize that eternity is a concept that none of us will ever live to reach, that immortality is a conceit, and that the Utopian project of being in unfettered liberty is constantly vulnerable to siege from those who entertain the illusion that their power is equal to and a signal of their magnanimity. Tyrants or colonizers for that matter see themselves as gods bequeathing to the Promethean among the masses, and this cycle of dominance and repression will accompany Humanity for millennia to come, at whichever planet we as a race might touch down on.
This exhibit exists within this contentious universe of emancipation and captivity, and our three quaintly surnamed exhibitors struggle to articulate, to give imagery to these tides of conflict between individuals, states, continents, later even planets in a way germane and thus emotionally resonant and authentic to their memories and modes of comprehension. Colonia will always hover over humans, maybe as an irreversible complement of their ability to grow. Power is said to be beneficial until it outpaces its needs, and the freedoms of people, to ever be realized, will always have to contend with the Sisyphean processes of recognition and resistance.
A la Sombra de la Colonia, A Meditation on 1521 and Beyond by Pinggot Zulueta, Jose Tence Ruiz, and Pete Jimenez is currently ongoing at the Kaida Contemporary, located at 45 Scout Madriñan St., South Triangle, Quezon City. For inquiries and viewing appointment email [email protected] or contact +6379408196 and +639279297129