Birthing Woman Artist

(By:Patrick Flores)

These women's iconograpies go beyond etnic trinkets, free spirits, goddesses and stereotypical portraits of poverty.

The theme of birthing sustains much of the metaphor with which women artists have conceived the world and, in this season of centennials, the nation.

The problem of rendering the gender as a vital discourse in the transformative practice of art has been dealt with in many ways. But the most significant gains come from that history. This undertaking has made us believe that women are subjects and not only objects of study or bearers of the male look; at the end of the day, women through their art take on meaning as women artists in culture and society. The power to assert identity is the heart of such search. And the field of art has proven to be a rich vineyard from which a harvest of ordeals can be reaped

Sweeping changes

The first woman artist to gain auspice in Philippine art history was Pelagia Mendoza y Gotianquin (1867-1939) who was the first woman student of the Academia de Dibujo y Pintura, the only coeducational institution in Spanish Philippines. Under the mentorship of Agustin Saez and Lorenzo Rocha, she won an award in sculpture for a bust of Columbus during the celebration of the quattrocentenial of the "discovery" of America.

Another artist, Carmen Zaragoza y Rojas (1867- 1943), excelled in painting. She continued on the trail blazed by her uncles, the architect Felix Rojas and the landscapist Felipe. Her work Dos Inteligencias won a prize at the 1892 Columbus celebrations and in 1895 she was awarded a copper medal for her two landscape works at the Exposicion Regional de Filipinas. Many Filipino women painters participated in that exposition. According to art historian Regalado Trota Jose, they were Concha and Adele Paterno (Paz Paterno's step-sisters), Conception de Montilla, Patricia Reyes, Ana Garcia Plana, Josefa Majo, Concepcion Ortiz, Olimpia Teran de Abella, Rafaela Calanta, and Fermina David.

The third important name is Paz Paterno. Not much is known about the artist except that she descended from a family of art patrons from Quiapo and that she came under the tutelage of Lorenzo Gurrero, Feliz Martinez and Teodoro Buenaventura; her teachers were highly regarded for their exemplary work in portraiture, still life and landscape.

The eminent art critic Alice Coseteng describes Paterno's celebrated work, Still Life, sumptuously: "The massive fruit cluster is anchored high up against the large tree on the right foreground. From there the fruits cascade downward plentifully to the ground, forming a half arc; tightly packed at the upper section and at the center, finally spilling out some lanzones and the balimbing on the ground at the tip of the cluster. What a variety of fruits on display for the eyes to feast on: lanzones, bananas, mabolo, atis, balimbing, pili, coconuts."

Paterno died at age 47. Coseteng pays loving tribute to her courage: "This concededly frail woman, by submitting herself to the rigorous discipline of her art, was able to break through the barriers of convention and to make herself felt in the male-dominated world of art."

As modernism began to hold sway in the Philippines after the Pacific War, Anita Magsaysay-Ho was in the forefront of sweeping changes in the art scene. She was a respected member of that brotherhood of Masters called the Thirteen Moderns, with the pioneering modernist Victor Edades at the helm. Later as a legacy of that modern spirit, the first woman abstractionist Nena Saguil, who moved to Paris, stunned the art world with her distinct cosmology of dots and veins.

Flourishing careers

More women came to the fore sooner than expected. Lyd Arguilla, the gracious painter and owner of the Philippine Art Gallery, would channel the bustling the energy of Philippine modernism into flourishing careers. Purita Kalaw Ledesma of the Art Association of the Philippines would continue to carry Arguilla's torch. Finally, former First Lady Imelda Romualdez Marcos would consolidate "culture and the arts" as a sector and endow it with both capital and infrastructure.

The reign of the queens, however, came to an end. But even before the era's waning, a new cycle of artistic lives was already waxing. Print makers and graphic artists Brenda Fajardo, Ofelia Gelvezon-Tequi, and Imelda Cajipe-Endaya started to reconfigure new imagery of identity and struggle in the 1970s and 1980s. Even now they continue to explore new frontiers of art making, venturing into the darker continents of assemblage, mythology and political tableaux.

Inspired by this resurgence of the woman spirit, brave souls bolted the prison of academia and forayed into the realm of installation, conceptual art and non-traditional sculpture. Agnes Arellano, Julie Lluch, Genara Banzon and Francesca Enriquez have proven the woman question can be best addressed in forms that the defy the deadweight of the belletristic tradition. Painting had to give way to two-dimensional expressions and sculpture was supplanted with multidimensional structures.

Still to pursue the feminist agenda women artists in the 1990s formed collectives. The biggest of these is KASIBULAN (Kababaihan sa Sining at Bagong Sibol na Kamalayan) which mounted two significant exhibits in its early years. The first featured a collaboration between metropolitan artists and nameless weavers in the Cordillera and sought to shatter the primacy of "fine art" or "indigenous" art. The other , "Filipina Migranteng Manggagawa" (Filipino Women Migrant Worker), pushed women artists into the arena of advocacy and exacted from them the commitment to analyze the current diaspora of Philippine women labor across the global ethnoscape . the Australian critic and curator Julie Ewington wrote then that "in the international context, KASIBULAN is remarkable for the isolation of its organized feminist intervention in Southeast Asia cultural politics....[I]ts projects exemplify one of the most vital of the Philippine's currents for cultural change in this sorely embattled society."

Women in the Philippine art history have a narrative to tell and a heritage to share. We are not simply talking of careers but also the politics of representation , both as women in art and art by women.

Three fronts delineate the sites of struggle and inquiry: iconography, practice and criticism.

Women artists must tap deep into history and the radical traditions it has inspired in search of signs and symbols that will give justice to the complexity of women's struggle. This they can do either by refunctioning such icons as the nude, the Mother and Child, Inangbayan (Mother Philippines) into more dynamic images of intervention in the social process, or by weaving pre-figurative scenes that herald an order no longer ordained by patriarchal mandates. Women artists must aspire to think of new iconographies to represent the struggle in multiple forms and think about their lives beyond ethnic trinkets, free spirits, goddesses and stereotypical portraits of poverty.

Second, women ought to revaluate the modes of producing and disseminating their art. Now is the best time to break through the walls of the museum and the market , and once and for all relocate within the more promising womb of cooperatives, cultural organizations and grass roots collectives. As women artists, their commitment must see through the problems imposed by the trade of art and develop the conviction to change the world by changing the art world. Finally, women artists must learn to talk about their art in relation to critical issues; they must become art critics, art historians and curators. Their being artists should not confine them to the traditional roles assigned to artists; rather, they must find new ways of doing and making art, and articulating its political message across diverse constituencies in academe, government, the private sector and media. They must also link up with nonfine-arts artists like papier-macha molders, pastilles (candy)- wrapper designers , muralist, cartoonist, furniture workers, doll decorators and photographers.

Fringes of memory

Pioneering printmaker Ofelia Gelvezon-Tequi's image of a widow standing beside her husband's casket is a picture within a picture- a photograph rendered on canvas. How this picture is taken, seized from a moment of pose in an hour of bereavement, signals a shift of site from film to portrait. The casket is draped in the nation's flag , a mirror-image of which hovers above the woman as if to hold vigil and keep the peace: the husband , one gleans from family mementos, is a military man whose medals of conquest are tarnished by the sepia of recollection . A wash in blue and seemingly floating in dead air, Tequi's captured event partakes of tableau and studio choreography. Stilted and staid, it nevertheless subtly glows with poignancy. After all, art is posthumous and prefigurative, the woman's grief and half-smile aspiring to gain re-presence in mind's time and in posterity's space. As the widow looks into the eye of the camera and is caught by the artist's imagination, we wonder what could have been left suspended in these fleeting instant of stillness and what had been lost in the process of projection. That pictures conceal pain? That art might redeem death? That living means having to leave traces? Flickering and in flux, scenes like this in Tequi's untitled series of acrylic-on-paper works at the Luz Gallery in September 1995 and her previous lively juxtapositions of contemporary realities (Filipino women, former President Corazon Aquino and her husband's assassins, coup plotters) against intimation s of an Apocalypse engineered by pinball machines, flaking Renaissance fresco pigments and Italian painting iconography- all flash in the fringers of memory.

Illumined by shafts and auras of gold and suffused with folk imagery, Brenda Fajardo's Labaw Donggon Series in mixed media brings us to the ancient world of the people of Sulod in Panay, to the epic of their history. In Gibalik ni Anggoy Ginbitinan kag anngoy Doronoon an Kaisog ni Labaw Donggon, two women clad in patadyong (long skirt) strike a man with bolts of lightning emanating from their magical hands. The lore written on cogon (grass) paper tells of courage changing custody amid the sea , the trees the golden sun the earth. What power these women have as they ordain the landscape; what energies they charge when they bring forth the worlds dominant, residual and emergent. For the epic recalls the archetypal of a warrior seized by pride and prowess and caught up in a struggle with nature, here embodied by his wives and its physical, soul and spiritual dimensions. On the surface on the earth and into the light, Fajardo fleshes the world of Labaw Donggon in the highly imaginative and insightful motifs , tableaux and narratives of mythical consciousness still to be cast in the mold of ideological engagement.

Parisienne Nena Saguil, one of the last of the revered Filipino modern artist-expatriates, weaves a cosmos of cosmos of forms ion pen and ink. At first looking like cross-section explorations of plant parts or unicellular organisms under the scrutiny of a microscope , the images later transform into the organs of the elements, the fiber of the universe: dots, bubbles vortices, rays all delicately drawn to create the vital system of order, of nature congealing in imaginative schemes , in the shape of ecology. Although Saguil, who died in 1994, worked in the abstract mode , her other works tell us that she had other concerns as well. Two 1950 works show the artist's range of figurative reportoire as she portrays an enlarged hymen and a woman cleaning a toilet bowl splattered with human waste. These two paintings sustain the vitality of Saguil's oeuvre, which was the focus of renewed attention in September 1995 at the Lopez Memorial Museum and will be subjected for further scrutiny at6 a major exhibit at the Cultural Center of the Philippines in 1997. Saguil's world, indeed, is all her own and ours as well.

As if to build a home in a strange land and to keep house for strangers , the Filipina Domestic helper- wife, mother, daughter- labors in the spirit of violent toil. Imelda Cajipe-Endaya's installation Filipina DH at the National Commission for Culture and the Arts Galleries usher us into fragmented scenes of her solitude and her mangled, dispersed body: "To create the installation , I have recycled old curtains and bed covers (objects of my own sewing and mending) and arranged them with other household implements. Mostly rags petrified into, black roughly textured domestic artifacts, I interspersed them with mementos of familial and religious devotion. A craggy sack-cloth pillow on tiles laid out as a cold bed, an iron board adorned with Mater Dolorosa's ray, a flat-iron hanging over worn-out slippers, an empty dish on a microwave oven, a hand reaching out, prickly mittens clipped with sentimental cassette tapes, a native mat, a fatigue suitcase, a faded flag, an arm cleaning a high rise window, a grass broom, a vacuum cleaner, images of the Virgin Mary, maid's uniforms, a rope, a chain, a knife.

As we are about to succumb to the sight of emotional ravage, an isolation box confronts us point blank. Small and obviously airtight when closed, we find here a metal chain, a flashlight, and the absent "object" of incarceration. We suddenly realize that this thing is suspended, hanged like the criminal it must contain.

This unrelieved misery in a stark black and white is broken only by the pastel colors of the uniforms, an inscription of identification and regulation, strung together as if on a clothesline. Surreptitiously sneaking out of the pockets of these work clothes are letters for home- remittances perhaps? -whose mute witnessing to local-global conversations (the traffic of people, the exchange of human capital) inevitably resonates with the sad silence of luggage snaking across the cold vinyl floor at the sigh of the solidarity among Filipinos huddled in the intersections and interstices of transnational space. " To complete my installation, viewers participate by writing out a good wish or prayer and tying this as baggage tag to symbolize their advocacy of rights and welfare of OCW's (Overseas Contract Workers)," Cajipe-Endaya says.

Ofelia Gelvezon-Tequi, Brenda Fajardo, Nena Saguil and Imelda Cajipe-Endaya offer images that seek to awaken the will of women to change the places, locations grounds, borders and make different the lives and art they live. They uncover new roots and itineraries, new cartographies to map out the roots not toward a room of their own, but toward a network of worlds of other women and other comrades in struggle. They-we-must divine a future that, because more humane and no longer ruled by patriarchal monarchies, lasts forever.

*From Sulyap Kultura, a publication of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (1996).