GEOGRAPHIC distance can affect the operations of the head, heart and hands either way. Alienation from one’s old environment can lead to another kind of alienation in a new environment. Identity loss impends. A new persona bids entry into one’s old self. Inner conflict results. Resolute must the person be: to cling on to the past, or shake of the previous identity and put on a mask of a person reborn.
Romeo C. MananQuil met an unpaintable culture shock when he decided to relocate his family to Canada in 1985. Everything was alien to him. And he was an alien to everybody. He landed a job as a visual artist - his passport to that subcontinent covering 9,922.33 sq. km. However, he had to grapple with nostalgia. All that he could do to connect with the old country was to reminisce his happy and successful life and career in the third world country of his birth.
Cultural dichotomy identified the old and the new, the third and first worlds. He had to find a connection somewhere. Somehow. And he found it.
Roots embedded on Philippine soil. Roots implanted in the Filipino head. Heart. Soul. Roots that identify the Filipino anywhere, anytime. Such a thematic source naturally sprouted as his connection with the old country.
In Tanghalian is the Filipino enjoying God’s blessings and provisions under a quonset that intimates verve and vitality by reason of the simple dwelling receiving a most selective sunlight in a pollution-free environment. Rugged be the barangay road, yet ubiquitous is the peoples’ testament of their ingenuity for mobility - the tricycle. Personal identities are not for the people to showcase, for they represent the Filipinos in the large.
The culture of temporariness, depicted in Talipapa, has its positive virtue: a social leveler regardless of claims to the contrary. Plain folks and household helps - some carrying cellphones for quick contact with their amo, or for whom they serve as maids - negotiate distances either on foot or aboard the Filipino contraption. The two women at the left typify Filipino women who take life as a shared responsibility.
Inhibition is lost in Morning Bath where at least two things are in progress: a washerwoman feeding a child, while another child is taking a bath au naturel. This sight on specific sites may be alien to citified folks and today’s netizens, but not to the consciousness of MananQuil. He clearly argues in paint that some streams, devoid of domestic clutter and refuse, are a haven for hygiene and washing.
Simple may a repast be - from the viewpoint of the so-called metropolites and cosmopolites - but a breakfast to simple folks comes as a manna from heaven, and therefore must be enjoyed as God’s blessing. The couple in Breakfast by the Beach did not pose for MananQuil, for theirs is unity depicted five times: the plastic basket and the aluminum pot are diagonally arranged to repeat the diagonality of the couple eating, the ubiquitous tricycle partly shown on the right side and the counter-diagonal direction of the blue plastic basket, the woman and the tricycle. The couple unite the shoreline and the sea by reason of their heads reaching the saline water alive with breaking waves. Food is the focus shared by the couple who form a scalene triangle.
Riches the sea keeps, partly gathered by the people for cash and an occasion for filial bonding, shown in Gathering Seashells. The inverted triangular arrangement of the figures establishes gradual distance and calculated tension. Typical in seaside localities, this artwork raises a pressing question that demands an immediate answer: What must the State do to actualize a better, not bitter, life for all?
The sea as a refuge of a tired body serves as an invitation open to all, as in Nay…Hanggang Saan ang Dagat? No modern, high-tech invention is shown calculated to pollute the water and air. All five subjects, no doubt a family, obviously come from the low stratum of society, but are nonetheless endowed with dignity and contentment enjoyed in a life well-lived despite shortfalls.
The boy on the left side is detached from his family and communes with the breaking waves, as in fact with the open sea with unreachable horizon. He must be thinking, like a Western philosopher did, that if he were to fill up a hole on the seashore with saline water, will the water break into waves, complete with a hissing sound and a roar? In MananQuil’s words, “I want the scene to be more deep. Perhaps deeper than the sea. The family is watching…what goes on in a child’s mind as he looks at the vast blue sea. Maybe this child will try to answer his question himself when he grows up…either as an immigrant or an OFW.” Reminiscent of the young Rizal observing the then placid and pristine water of Laguna de Bay.
The sea as leisure site (Pag-iisa) and as life source (Memories of Malabon) cannot be obliterated by today’s parameters of the good life. Structural frameworks are all that stand to tell the story of Philippine life unique in the old country: making do with what obtains and preserving both sea and structures that refuse to relinquish a Filipino identity.
Bonding and love, Filipino version, are clearly delineated in Gigil (Irrepressible thrill) and Munting Ate (Little elder sister). The mother/grandmother in Gigil wraps the baby girl with her arms, like she, the girl, were a live trophy, as she truly is. The child, for her part, returns the compliments, for a reciprocal sharing of a common bloodline. The red dress of the mother/grandmother is darker than the child’s red dress to emphasize the verdict of maturity. Fleeting is the child’s facial expression. This asserts MananQuil’s mastery of human expression, which remains as his identifying “signature” among portraitists in the Philippines, Canada and now US.
And in Munting Ate, Filipino indeed is the blood that runs in the veins of the two girls as the chubby girl feeds her little brother with noodles and rice with a spoon- not with a fork.
The tricycle is as Filipino as the jeepney. Like the latter, the tricycle - pedalized or motorized - is a virtual king of the road. And pray that the drivers of airconditioned and window-tinted vehicles from Japan and South Korea decelerate to avoid hitting the tricycle drivers without crash helmets. The tri-wheeled contraption may be speeding at 70 kph alongside a cargo truck or an 18-wheeler behemoth (Hi-way David); used as a status symbol to impress a damsel (Ligaw-tingin) with the front wheel also turned toward the long-tressed lady. It could be an icon to humor the tricycle driver with the feeling of being
a Prince Charming (Pa-charming). And always, the “almighty” tricycle can be parked anywhere, at least in many localities and cities (Park King). Of late, tricycles have doubled as ambulant, open stores for knick-knacks like bananacue, barbecue, camotecue, fishball, bibingka, puto, chicklets, cigarettes, and cellphone chargers (Pedal Peddlers).
CASTING his eyes, head and heart primarily on unique Pinoy roots, MananQuil approached his subjects from the Filipino vantage point, effusing as they are with positive traits, some of which witty. Concept and technique, the latter being at times a la Amorsolo, or quasi-impressionistic, are locked in a synergistic relationship. And where a major period in Philippine history is the demanding theme - brutality, carnage, weapons of mass destruction, a city all but reduced to ashes by enemy fire, and the final waving of the Philippine flag atop the allegorical Philippines highlighted by the sun shining brightly on the right side - are scenes that tell the story of the Filipinos’ fights for freedom (Sa Ating Paglaya).
This minimural is an expansive pictorial discourse on the horrors of the Katipunan uprising, Fil-Am War and WW II when demonic forces reduced men and women into pathetic carcasses, but are real heroes vested with the virtue of valor. The crisscrossing diagonals at the edge of the quasi-concentric figural formation underscore the brutality and bestiality of war. But righteous is the position of the metaphorical Philippines, for the figure rises on the right side, her forehead (seat of wisdom) illumined by the sun as light source. MananQuil explains: “I decided to include this to remind us of the values of our hard-fought freedom and how we have now messed it up.” The fallen soldiers are strewn on the foreground, their arms spread out, and challenge the viewer to read their gripping visual-ideational impact: the extreme sacrifice they gave to their country and people.
Cyclic is the grinding poverty that grips the lives of the marginal people including the middle middle class in the social pyramid. Instead of stating the obvious, MananQuil used metaphors with intimations for action, as depicted in Sampung Kahig, Isang Tuka and Askal Asleep.The old euphemism was “Isang Kahig, Isang Tuka,” meaning a scratch on the ground was all it took to find food. Now 10 scratches must be done to find food – no doubt a scathing statement on poverty that has spread exponentially 10 times.
Only the mother hen has her beak shown - for determination. But central she is among he chicks forming an open circle around her on their rocky environment. With the mother hen’s rightward direction, determination and the search for food continue- a parallel of the way we read and write: from left to right. A mongrel may be emaciated (Askal Asleep), but the rightward turn of its head paralleled by the crushed plastic bottle of mineral water (yes, Inyang or Virginia, gone are the days when a glass of water could be had for the asking), points toward the continuous struggle to survive penury. The three parallel diagonal brushworks at the right bottom corner allude to the Triune God: the source of strength and hope in the Filipinos’ belief system.
Not to him is the lure of a technologized world calculated to bring him down to identity loss. On the contrary, his are incisive readings on the thinking and feeling of Filipinos living under the spell of diaspora.
MananQuil’s present works delineate unique Pinoy roots that continue to transcend the dictates of a “neticized” world gone berserk with the internet and other insensate products of technology.
Paul Blanco Zafaralla
(BFA ’63; MA ’73; Ph.D. ’90) won the 2004 National Book Award (Art Studies, a new category), given by the prestigious Manila Critics Circle for the book Rice in the Seven Arts which he edited; and the 2005 UP Alumni Association Professional Achievement Award in Arts and Letters (Art Criticism). He is a retired
Professor 10 of Humanities in the Department of Humanities, College of Arts and Sciences, UP Los Banos where he is presently a Professorial Lecturer 1. He has written 2 books as sole author; 1 book as sole editor; 1 book as coeditor and chapter writer; 2 books as coauthor (together with National Artist Nick Joaquin and National Artist Cesar Legaspi); and 8 books as chapter writer. He is presently doing 2 books. His brochures total 22; his critiques on the visual arts, dance, music, architecture, literature, and play total 596. He is a former Grand Knight of the Knights of Columbus, Council 5377, College Laguna; Formation Steward (with his wife Charity) of the Bukas-Loob sa Diyos Covenant Community, San Pablo District; and present president of the Parish Pastoral Council, St. Therese of the Child Jesus Parish, College, Laguna.