Faith And The Pinoy

(By Emmanuel Torres)

Nothing is more typically, touchingly, Filipino than a story I once heard from office secretaries in Makati City's financial district.

A company VP hung a painting of a Madonna and Child in a reception area. In the ensuing days, a secretary set a small table in front of it; another a vase of flowers on it; still another a votive candle. Before long, that part of the room became an altar. During lunch break one day someone knelt to say the rosary. She was joined by two, three others. More on other floors heard about this prayer practice, and joined in. Now that corner of the reception area is a venue for noon worship.

With each retelling, you hear the same reaction from listeners, "Ah, that's so Pinoy" (local parlance for what's peculiarly Filipino). For a common feature of Philippine cultural life is its faith in supernatural or preternatural forces. Sacred caves and groves in pre-Hispanic times bore witness to this faith in the transcendental, the magical. The advent of Christianity through the Spanish colonization of the islands in the 16th century, particularly in the rural areas, only enriched it, giving rise to a belief system which mingles primordial animism (anito) with Roman Catholicism. Christ's Passion, His agony, death on the cross and resurrection, and the post-Scriptural stories of saints and miracles, appealed to the native imagination. And Catholicism's liturgy and rituals, from the Mass, its chants, musk of incense and burning candle wax to ringing bells, liturgical vestments, and the colors and lights of processions around the town during feast days, proved irresistible to the sensuous Pinoy and his love of theatrical spectacle - as if nothing in the realm of the spirit energizes as much belief as objects he can relate to by sight and touch: statuary (santo), rosary beads, estampitas (holy pictures), medallions - and anting-anting, the amulets of folk religion and native sorcery. And such amulets were worn by Filipino soldiers who believed them to be magical instruments of invincibility - and invisibility - before enemy firepower in the Revolution against Spain in the mid-1890s and, later, the protracted war against the United States till the early years of the 20th century. And that sun within the triangle of the national flag, for instance, derives from the Trinitarian symbol which has been adopted by makers of anting-anting.

Bear in mind: the ancient Tagalog word for Supreme Being, Bathala, is the root of the common interjection, "bahala na!" Uttered whenever one is forced to confront overwhelming odds, it isn't simply an expression of fatalistic resignation but often enough a spur to action which pins its hopes on strength from a supernatural force. Small wonder an artists' group this year organized a Lenten exhibition entitled, by way of wordplay, "Bathala Na!" And that bore the signs and symbols of folk religiosity.

The clergy's emphasis on the need to endure suffering here and now, in exchange for greater glory in the hereafter, is a dominant element in the visual arts in this predominantly Catholic country, which explains the popular observance of penitential/Lenten aspects of Christianity a key to personal salvation. In fact, Christian spirituality is a defining influence on national life - and the fine arts as well - which sets the Philippines apart from the rest of Asia.

Where else in the world do you find a venue, chapel or altar of the Virgin Mary in banks, shopping malls, hotels? You find such commingling of religious worship and money from the Central Bank of the Philippines to Metro Manila's commercial establishments where walkway space is allocated for Mass, novenas and rosaries which draw SRO-only crowds on certain days: the Glorietta, the country's swankiest commercial complex; SM Megamall, Asia's biggest; Duty Free Philippines near the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, to name some.

Where else in Asia do you notice people making a quick, small sign of the Cross - a car driver before driving out, a basketball player coming fresh off the bench, a passenger before boarding and alighting a bus - except in the Philippines where religion has rooted itself so deeply in the collective Pinoy psyche? And what overseas Filipina domestic helper hasn't packed in her suitcase a statuette of the Virgin Mary or Santo Ni-o or some other holy icon? So many are the saints to pray to for succor - including some lately stricken off by the Vatican from the list of the canonized as more fictional than real (St. Filomena, St. Christopher) who continue to hold on to their niches in the eyes of the common people. So many, too, are those relatively obscure patron saints like St. Roch, St. Jude, St. Isidore, St. Eustace - because of their special appeal to the sick, needy and desperate masses struggling to survive in a Third World agro-economy.

What visual artist of stature, from Antonio Malantic, the brothers Asuncion, Resurreccion Hidalgo and Simon Flores of the 19th century to Hernando Ocampo, Galo Ocampo, Romeo Tabuena, Vicente Manansala, Napoleon Abueva and Ang Kiukok in the 20th, has not painted or sculpted the Madonna and Child, the Crucified Christ or the Santo Ni-o (the Infant Jesus suited in gala splendor), three of the most popular icons of Philippine art?

Overall, masters of the past follow the orthodoxy of the pious for whom icons are essential aids to prayer. Such is no longer the case with succeeding generations for whom Christian iconography extends beyond the needs of church and home worship: changing times require its reinvention to deal with contemporary social issues, such as justice and freedom of speech. During the martial-law rule of Ferdinand Marcos (1972-86), for instance, pro-democracy activists gave traditional imagery a new spin by relating them to human-rights causes and invoking divine tender mercies against neo-imperialist/neo-colonial power and the might of the military. Exemplifying this was the role played by the image of Mary Mother of God, hoisted onto the shoulders of the people in the nonviolent EDSA Revolution which toppled the Marcos dictatorship. Before that, the Social Realists had begun to politicize the visual arts with religion serving as a motivating spirit. Pablo Baens Santos depicted Inang Bayan (Motherland) as a female Christ in a masterly painting, Krista, her mouth gagged with barbed wire but her fist clenched in defiance. Antipas Delotavo identified the Blessed Virgin with the masses living in squalor in a distinguished portrait series commissioned as part of the 2000th anniversary celebration of her birth.

But those who came after the Social Realists are a less politicized lot. More worldly and laid back in their attitude toward faith in the supernatural, they do not confine themselves to conventional Christian imagery but also include the folk-belief system of the rural and urban poor grappling with subhuman housing, malnutrition, disease, boredom, vice and violence. Hardly touched by the benefits of a free-market economy in the age, the poor have little recourse, besides political activism, other than prayer, magic, faith healing and taking their chances with luck (sweepstakes, lotto, jueteng). Hard times explain the upsurge of populist charismatic movements like El Shaddai, which draws legions of followers to their prayer rallies at Luneta Park.

Easy enough to see: where the basket cases are, there faith goes also as a way of coping and surviving.

So pervasive is the faith/prayer/hope theme in Philippine art that it's not surprising that Valentine Willie Fine Art has organized a Philippine theme exhibition built around it. In postmodern Metro Manila and elsewhere in the archipelago, young visual artists aged 40 and under are finding several uses for folk belief that radically departs from the conventional Christian parameters references of early modernists. One of these is its deployment as a means of establishing cultural identity.

Among the younger artists, the religious theme reflects a diversity of concerns from the social to the transcendental as well as a diversity of responses from the documentary to the critical, from the skeptical and whimsical to the surreal and purely aesthetic. Also, they tend to resort to oblique rather than direct expressive devices; synecdoche (where a part represents the whole) rather than a depiction of the whole image (as in works by Santiago Bose, Alfredo Esquillo, Mark Justiniani).

For ex-seminarian Norberto Roldan, a leading light of the Social Realist movement in Negros Island known as the Black Artists of Asia, the response takes on a documentary attitude. In his Faith and Sorcery series of wall assemblages, he juxtaposes crucifixes, medals and estampitas with bottles of native herbal remedies and anting-anting: a compendium of panaceas to the oppressed masses. Interesting is what he does in the works chosen for Kuala Lumpur: by taking into account similarities and differences of color and tone in the multiple items he arranges in grid formation - such as a downpour of crucifixes or a miscellany of holy pictures and medicine bottles - there emerges a large cruciform at the center of each assemblage. Worth noting here, as in the works of some others, is the use of repeat-forms like visual mantras. The meticulous care with which Roldan brings a subtle symmetry to these forms connotes that his art is no indictment of superstition and ignorance but one of empathy with the hopes of the rural masses.

Not so Gerry Tan's installation of open crates filled with Catholic icons. "Get all this pious junk outta here!" appears to be the cynical message of his assembly of cheap, mass-produced, devotional stuff, ready to be stowed away like so much landfill for empty graves.

As for some others included in the Faith exhibition, none are about to throw away just yet the tokens of folk spiritualism, certainly not those anting-anting. There's a whole slew of them for all occasions to choose from. One such is referred to in a mysterious piece with erotic overtones by Bose, gayuma or love charm, believed to empower a man to win the affection of a woman he desires.

For Jose Legaspi, institutional religion is a bad trip, bringing memories as utterly bleak as his drawings. These black-and-gray monochromes vent bile at a repressive Church and its members with closed minds concerning homosexuality and the institution of marriage. Autobiographical alienation and angst by this gay artist, maligned by family and associates for his gender preference, nonetheless does the religious sensibility a service by showing us how neo-Gothic demons should be depicted in art - with ferocious clarity, precision and immediacy.

Taking liberties with traditional representations of heaven and salvation, as much as with God and His angels, is apparent in the wryly whimsical works of Justiniani. In Stairway to Heaven, the evangelical missionary with a crooked stone stairway beside him is treated with tongue-in-cheek relish. And in the solo figure in the painting he incongruously titles Christ/Icarus, he downsizes Christ's redemptive mission to the hubris of Icarus of Western mythology; but take away the title and what emerges is a character outfitted with wings, more like a falling alien than the Man-God nailed to a cross that isn't there at all.

More than half the works on display are about angels or allude to them, and why not? Attractively luminous spirits with winged bodies, they serve as a link between God and man, heaven and earth - not to mention what has become the drinking man's patron saint hereabouts, the archangel San Miguel seen slaying the dragon Satan on the label of every bottle of a popular brand of gin.

These celestial beings are part of every Pinoy's childhood memories of catechism. Joy Mallari's angels as church sentinels are a dreamy if forlorn homage to them. But angels also serve as metaphors in statements on contemporary social and metaphysical issues. One such is the lone figure falling headfirst in Esquillo's Angelito (the name means little angel), with a wing ripped from his back; it evokes the loss of innocence among the youth in a secular world.

Another is Armando Bacaltos Angels Ascending, which look more like angels abandoning the world, with only their legs showing, their heads and torsos cropped out by the painting's upper edge. In a class by themselves are Ofelia Gelvezon-Tequi's visions of the combat between good and evil in her Pinball Machine print series, incorporating angels and demons of her own invention with allusions to space-age astronauts and missiles, drawn with childlike simplicity in a neo-primitive style. In contrast, and evincing a purely aesthetic preoccupation, is Juan Tence Ruiz's jagged improvisations on Roger van der Weyden's Renaissance angels.

No Philippine religious exhibition of course is complete without a resurrected Christ as integral to the Lenten season. And the Vatican's recent addition of the Resurrection to the traditional Fourteen Stations of the Cross suits the Pinoy spiritual sensibility just fine and love of glorious endings. As depicted in Daniel Coquilla's Fifteenth Station, it's the only one in color among the 14 other Stations, which are in stark black and white. As in the 14 others, the Fifteenth displays that peculiar Coquilla aerial perspective and quirky humor of having his wall-eyed people, in this case the followers of Jesus, looking straight up at their resurrected Savior, Who in turn is floating straight toward us, the viewers.

Most characteristically Pinoy of all perhaps is Neil Manalo's Influence as just what the doctor ordered: celebratory in a representational style oozing with exuberance, homely charm and naive optimism replete with festive balloons. Significantly, all the figures in Manalo's microcosmos, both angelic and demonic, are looking at a television set, as if that is all it takes to escape from the perils and contradictions of the human condition.