Sunday, May 30, 2010

Desperately seeking heritage at the Tam-awan arts festival

Held on the higher grounds of Baguio, the event was, quite literally, bringing the arts closer to the clouds
BIRTH PANGS ATTENDED THE TAM-AWAN International Arts Festival. An offshoot of the defunct summer arts festival of Baguio City, it held its first edition May 14-19 as part of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts’ nationwide program in celebration of the Heritage Month, with the theme “Preserving the Gift of Faith.”

The festival’s name was derived from an artists’ consortium based in Tam-awan Village, managed by Chanum Foundation, which led the planning of the festival.

Tam-awan means “viewpoint,” specifically from a high place. Held on the higher grounds of the Summer Capital, the event was billed as “bringing the arts closer to the clouds.”

At Baguio City National High School were conducted workshops on painting (watercolor, acrylic, coffee painting, solar painting), pottery, creative writing, voice, dance, Cordilleran music, theater arts, art as healing.

Plenary sessions were held at Baguio Convention Center, the nerve center of festival activities. There were art exhibitions, film screenings, performances and rituals in various venues.

After the opening ceremony at the Convention Center, a grand parade wended down to Session Road, through Harrison Road, and back. This was followed by a cañao, that bountiful feast in the traditional Benguet way, graced with tribal music and dances.

A delegation of elders from Mountain Province performed on the grounds. On the opposite side, batches of youngsters alternated in performing the characteristic music and dances of the various Cordillera tribes.

The audience was divided between the slow yet authentic dancing and chanting of the elders and the graceful and vigorous movements of gracile and robust bodies of the youths.

This was what inspired Tenzing Paljor, a Tibetan photographer invited to exhibit in the festival, when he attempted to define heritage thus: “The elders are chanting, the young ones are dancing behind.” (This, of course, was similar to what was in Eliot’s mind when he tried to explicate tradition.)

Corruption of culture

The foreign guest, however, was understandably unaware of the corruption of culture, as our highland harmonies were now insidiously infused with pop rhythms. The youngsters’ performance of the courtship dance of the Kankana-ey, for instance, was blended with what were unmistakably strains and movements from “Pamela,” “Ocho-ocho,” even the Wonder Girls’ “Nobody.”

This was precisely the generation that Chanum vice president Chit Arbuel was trying to address when he spoke of ethnic heritage during cocktails in Manor Hotel at Camp John Hay that evening.

“You should be proud of your culture,” he enjoined. “You shouldn’t be ashamed.”

That afternoon, a Bike Heritage Tour brought the visitors to the city’s heritage sites: Bell Amphitheater, Camp John Hay, Baguio Country Club, Mansion House, Wright Park, Oldest Pine Tree in Baguio, Mines View Park, Teachers Camp, University of the Philippines-Baguio.

The art exhibit on the lobby of the Convention Center was inexplicably limited, with only a few of the pieces by established artists.

Charlie Coo had an expressionistic piece in oil on canvas.

Noëll El Farol displayed a wall installation of seven boxes of stabilized fingerprints from different nationalities, called “Software Network.”

Mervy Pueblo had five toylike pieces in modified concrete, called “Modern Fertility Idols.”

Ib’n Saud Salipyasin Ahmad, working like a pointillist but using exquisite repeat lines in vivid watercolor on board, had six Bangsa Moro costumes, three Mother and Child, and “Fern Gatherers.”

Josephine Turalba had two sculptural costumes made of bullet shells, called “Body Armors.”

There was only one international guest artist, Tenzing, with 15 painterly photographs of facets of life in the Indian Himalaya, part of The Vanishing Himalaya project which “seeks to photo-document and archive Himalayan and Tibetan cultural heritage at a time of acute change and potentially radical transformation.”

The rest of the exhibit were workshoppers’ creations in clay, watercolor, acrylic, most of them looking like children’s art.

Absence of notables

Some guests were wondering aloud about the absence of notable Baguio artists such as Kidlat Tahimik, National Artist Benedicto Cabrera, Frank Sabado, Leonardo Aguinaldo, Kawayan de Guia. How could this festival be called “international” without any representation of their art?

(For truly international art, authentic indigenous artifacts, and committed preservation of culture, one has to go to Km 6 Asin Road in Tuba, Benguet, a 15-minute drive from Baguio proper, and find such in the remarkable BenCab Museum.)

In the session hall, speaking on “Heritage Conservation Beyond Nostalgia,” UP-Diliman professor Flaudette May Datuin defined heritage as “a mode of remembering the past that’s romantic.”

The importance of heritage was underscored by musicologist Benny Sokkong in his lecture “The Harmony of Highland Heritage,” when he remarked that only 10 percent of Filipinos practiced indigenous culture.

Much to the delight of the visitors, he demonstrated with the help of his students how and what to play among numerous Cordilleran musical instruments, ranging from the initiation instruments for children and for teenagers, to those for courtship, harvest, going to the feast, accompanying the maiden, welcoming the warriors. Finally, he played the weeping flute of the unrequited lover.

A riot was the lecture delivered by NCCA’s Noel Ramiscal on copyright infringement, plagiarism, legal stealing, creative appropriation. The hard legalities were made interesting by audiovisual presentation of how a motif from ABBA’s “Gimme” was stolen for Madonna’s “Hung Up,” or how Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You, Baby” became Beyoncé’s “Naughty Girl.”

What made it riotous were Ramiscal’s side comments. After asking if anybody in the audience knew Sonny Bono and getting no response, he exploded: “God! Ibig sabihin ako lang may culture dito?”

When he asked about Joni Mitchell and there was still no response: “Ako lang nakaalam dito? My God! I can’t get it over my head. You should have known these things. Artists kayo, ’di ba?”

Heritage preservation

In the afternoon, the Beetle Graffiti was unveiled, a vintage Volks embellished by student artists led by master painter Egai Fernandez. It was simply spray-painting, but we didn’t see any typical graffito, and the vegetal motif too schematic and decorative to ever resemble Graffiti Art as espoused by Twombly and Basquiat.

What was billed as an Arts Passion Show comprised mainly of recyclables transformed into wearables. Lady Alberto turned campaign tarpaulins from the last elections into edgy and hot items (literally, on both counts). Jing Turalba alluded to election violence with four 16-kilo gowns of bullet shells, part of her collection which would be exhibited in a Belgium museum.

Those creations made potent political and environmental statements—but the only pieces shown on the ramp that could be considered related to the theme of heritage were Freeway’s Ang Kiukok Collection.

After the show, one artist commented aside: “So where’s the heritage? Where’s the gift of faith?”

Ironically, it took a foreigner to define for the locals what this homegrown festival ought to be. Tenzing was in the country to photo-document the elections in Mindanao. He went to Baguio for vacation but had been invited to exhibit his work in the festival.

Based in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, he is an exile from his ancestral home in Lithang, Eastern Tibet, which he visited for the first time only in 2007, when he was already in his 30s. That one-week sojourn he calls a pilgrimage, which to him is “to circumnavigate sacred places.”

In his painterly photographs, one can see how lovingly he has recorded his homeland and people—landscapes, faces, interiors and details masterfully shot, with highlighting and chiaroscuro exceptional.

Tenzing believes his nomadic way of life has given him a global perspective, as he documents “cultures facing the disintegration of their traditional identities and values due to political conflict and encroaching modernization.”

And that should define this festival’s theme for us.

Must-go destination

A major festival venue was Tam-awan Village, a cluster of Igorot huts transported from different parts of the Cordillera and perched on a bluff, with a main structure at the center comprising a resto-bar, art gallery, sketching area.

To guests from the lowlands, it is a must-go destination—a 15-minute drive from downtown Baguio whose vista below is a-twinkle at night (think Metro Manila viewed from Eagle’s Nest in Antipolo). On a clear day, you can see from here the South China Sea in the shimmering distance.

Some critics point out, however, the place has been diminishing its identity, authenticity, ideals and mystique as an artists’ community, thus, losing its “sacredness,” since it started marketing itself as a tourist destination a few years ago. The lowlanders among us made the necessary sojourn, anyway, that is, a “pilgrimage.”

Here are prominently displayed the solar paintings of Chanum president Jordan Mang-osan, along with representative artworks by other Tam-awan artists. For the festival, a dap-ay installation was constructed, a bonfire ceremony held, an interactive dance ritual performed, and a cañao on the last night for the traditional thanksgiving.

With over 1,000 participants converging in Baguio for a week, the NCCA and local officials deemed the festival a success. Datuin suggested this convergence of artists could be held regularly—if not annually, maybe as a biennale, but “not necessarily in the Western mode.”

And here’s hoping any discrepancies and shortcomings this year were just birth pangs. We certainly don’t hope to witness in the festival’s next edition the war dance of the Ibaloi assume even a riff from Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face.”

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