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Art as History : Philippine Exhibit at Bowers Provides Link to Overlooked Cultural Past

December 21, 1995|ZAN DUBIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA ANA — On a recent trip to scout out historic Philippine art for an exhibition he had in mind, museum administrator J. Weldon Smith briefly shifted his focus to examine contemporary work in a small mountainous city high above Manila. What he saw surprised him.

"Almost without exception," Smith said, "the works made some reference to the tribal past. It was very striking to see the older images present in contemporary work since my primary reason for being in the Philippines was to look at this older material."

The explanation, Smith said, is that the island country is undergoing a cultural revitalization process.

People there are "anxiously trying to understand their heritage and hungry for information" about their past, says Smith, who organized a traveling exhibit to help satisfy this hunger.

"Land of the Morning: Treasures of the Philippines," consists of 75 objects produced by several indigenous cultures from throughout the country. It opened earlier this year at the San Francisco Craft and Folk Art Museum, which Smith directs, and runs through Jan. 21 at Bowers Museum of Cultural Art.

"We have a large Filipino community in San Francisco, at least 300,000 in the Bay Area," Smith said during a recent phone interview from the museum, "and we felt that their art has been out of fashion and deserved a lot more recognition than it has achieved."

(Filipinos make up only 1.3% of Orange County's population, according to the 1990 Census. But more than 200,000 Filipinos live in Los Angeles, and, said a Bowers spokesman, many of them reside just across the Orange County border, in and around Long Beach.)

Only five significant exhibits of Philippine art have been mounted in America this century, and there has been little scholarship on the subject, Smith said. In 1981, UCLA's Fowler Museum of Cultural History (whose title then lacked the Fowler name) produced a major traveling show and catalog.

"But the catalog almost immediately went out of print, so there literally are no books about Philippine traditional art," Smith said.

It's not that the art is inferior, he continued. "It was just neglected, it was not known" outside of the country.

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Stone and wood carvings, ceramics, metalwork, textiles and jewelry dating from 500 to 1900 make up the intimate display. A stylized human figure sits atop a limestone burial jar engraved with geometric patterns by the Manobo culture around 500.

Shells serve as the squinty eyes of an imposing wooden male figure carved by an Ifugao, a group known for its engineering skills in building spectacular terraced rice fields. Butterfly shapes in opalescent mother-of-pearl unite for a beautiful breast adornment of the Isneg.

"We tried to show that there is a rich tradition here--wonderful objects, amazing jewelry, well-carved and beautifully woven works." The museum has also published a catalog, written by the exhibit's curator David Baradas, director of the Malacanang Palace Museum, the country's national museum in Manila.

Filipinos' ancestors were migrants from Indonesia and Malaysia who formed myriad small communities, each group developing its own culture, throughout the Southeast Asian country of 11 main islands.

"The greatest extremes," Smith said, "are between tribal people in the north, the Spanish-influenced, heavily colonized people who have no real conscious connections with the tribes, and the Muslims of the south. So you have three distinctly different groups and all kinds of shades in between."

This broad ethnic diversity, and the nation's long history of foreign contacts--most notably Spain's colonization in the 1500s--has made definition of a cultural identity elusive.

The exhibit, however, attempts to give shape to the island country's culture.

"A visitor to the Philippines," writes curator Baradas, "has to travel far and wide to catch the essence of what is encapsulated in this exhibition. [The works] . . . delineate for future generations the unique elements . . . of Filipino aesthetics in defined contexts."

Muslims living in western Mindanao produced one of the most compelling pieces on view, Smith said, a full suit of armor made in the late 19th century.

"We tried not to make this a show that reflects colonial values, so we didn't include Santos and other colonial objects, but the suit is clearly copied from the conquistadors."

The Spaniards made their armor out of metal; the Muslim's piece is crafted chiefly of flat, rigid strips of carabao (Philippine buffalo) horn.

"It's a wonderful example of using creativity to portray something in a different idiom," Smith said.

The Islamic works "remind us that the Muslims were [in the Philippines several hundred years] before the Spaniards arrived and how provincial we are to say that history starts with the Spaniards," Smith said. In fact, he added, "the Philippines had their own history, then the Muslims brought their heritage in."

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