By Loren Legarda
Amid finely selected furniture, home furnishings, holiday decor, and fashion accessories, a group of artisans garbed in native wear enticed local and foreign visitors alike as they showcased world-class crafts.
At the Hibla Pavilion of Textiles and Weaves at the Manila FAME in 2012, 10 indigenous groups demonstrated their weaving traditions—the Ivatan and Ga’dang traditional weaving, Iraya Mangyan nito basketry, Hanunuo Mangyan weaving, Panay Bukidnon panubok embroidery, Subanen pulaw weaving, Ekam Maguindanao mat weaving, Ata Talaingod liyang weaving, T’boli t’nalak weaving, and B’laan mewel weaving. Seeing in person how indigenous artisans laboriously completed a mat, a basket, a meter of cloth gave Manila FAME visitors a different feel. Each craft told a story and a long history of a heritage well-kept amid the disruptive pace of the modern world.
For the T’boli of Lake Sebu, weaving, embroidery, beadwork, and belt-making are essential skills. Every item they make is a part of their life, like the t’nalak, a cloth made of abaca worn during significant occasions like birth, marriage, death. The embroidery that accentuates their traditional blouses narrates the story of their relationship with nature and the spirits.
Intricate beadwork makes the garments of the Ga’dang community in Paracelis, Mountain Province unique. The elders pass on their traditions to their children to unleash their creativity while incorporating in them the values of hard work, patience, and love of culture.
Meanwhile, the Panay Bukidnon community in Calinog, Iloilo uses intricate handiwork and a unique dyeing system on their traditional wear. Embroiderers emphasize the elaborate pictography of the Panay Bukidnon.
These traditional practices are just some of the many weaving traditions around the country and weaving is just one part of a very rich culture.
The Indigenous and the Contemporary
As a way of living my advocacies, I’ve been promoting our native wear not only through the Philippine Tropical Fabrics Law, which I authored, but also by wearing it every day. I match my traditional garments with contemporary pieces—a Bagobo blouse paired with jeans or a T’boli jacket matched with black slacks. I am glad there are designers now who collaborate with indigenous weavers in contemporizing traditional garments. But this must be done with utter respect for their culture and ensure that we preserve the meaning of their weaves.
At the National Museum, we have the country’s first permanent textile gallery, the Hibla ng Lahing Filipino: The Artistry of Philippine Textiles, which aims to show our common thread as Filipinos.Whenever we have foreign guests, I arrange a visit to the National Museum, especially the Hibla gallery, so that we open our culture to the world. Queen Sofia of Spain, former Timor Leste President Jose Ramos-Horta, Japan First Lady Akie Abe, American-British entrepreneur Lady Lynn Forester de Rothschild, and Ermenegildo Zegna CEO Paolo Zegna were among the visitors who were impressed with our Filipino weavers.
The gallery becomes an interactive exhibition when we invite weavers from different parts of the country to do a lecture or live demonstration. It is encouraging to see groups of young children learning from our weavers and understanding that the indigenous culture is very much alive. Also on display at the National Museum are the Baybayin: Ancient and Traditional Scripts of the Philippines and the Manlilikha ng Bayan exhibition, which features the works and lives of our National Living Treasures.
In 2013, the Philippines was fortunate to have been featured at the Musée du Quai Branly, the premier museum in France for indigenous art and culture. The exhibition titled Philippines: Archipel des Echanges (Philippines: Archipelago of Exchanges), a partnership project between France and the Philippines, was an opportunity to create awareness of the rich Philippine heritage within the international community.
Culture as an Inspiration for Art
By showcasing the cultural capital of our nation through national and international exhibitions, we foster the critical development of Philippine art and the professional growth of the Filipino artists within and outside the Philippines; we strengthen the role of the Philippines in the local and global community as a nation of and destination for contemporary art in the 21st century; and we make people all over the world realize the importance of artistic creativity for sustaining our humanity and distinct cultural identities.
I realized these when, in 2013, I visited the Venice Art Biennale in Italy, where the Philippines had been conspicuously absent, despite our wealth of very talented artists.
This was how the country’s five-decade absence in the world’s oldest, most prestigious contemporary art exhibition ended. It was the start of the collaboration between my office and the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) and the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), which resulted in the comeback participation of the Philippines in the 2015 Venice Art Biennale with the critically acclaimed exhibit “Tie a String around the World” curated by Dr. Patrick Flores.
Today, I am proud that we are on our third consecutive year in the Venice Biennale and our pavilion is housed in the Artiglierie of the Arsenale, one of the main exhibition spaces of the Venice Biennale. What does it mean to participate in the Venice Biennale? There are two ways to see art. The first is to see it as an end to itself where it is deemed to create an experience. Yet another way to look at it is a means to an end—and the end is for art to help us look at the world in a more critical yet holistic way. It challenges the status quo and makes us question our opinions and opens the horizon beyond the familiar.
A lot of us, especially citizens of a developing nation, may seem detached from the ideas floated in artworks, but art is food for the soul, for which the aesthetic experience is an essential condition for its growth.
A Philippine Pavilion in the Venice Biennale is a way for Filipinos to enter the minds of other people and cultures. In the same way, through a pavilion, we tell the countries of our “now,” as we mirror our political and cultural realities.
Our greater vision is for our government to continuously support the development of Philippine arts and culture.
When I became the chairperson of the Senate Committee on Finance, I pushed for stronger funding for our cultural agencies, particularly in the national budgets for 2016 and 2017.
We have introduced various programs for arts and culture promotion: (1) Research, documentation, publication, promotion, exhibition, and film production; (2) Scholarships and grants, such as funding for SLTs, among others; and (3) Cultural and heritage mapping projects.
If we are to determine the fate of Philippine arts and culture, I see a vibrant future ahead with the initiatives we pursue today.
The state-funded Taklub, a film about the stories of Supertyphoon Yolanda survivors and disaster preparedness measures directed by Brillante Mendoza, was part of the official selection under the Un Certain Regard category of the 68th Cannes International Film Festival. It earned a special commendation from the Festival’s Ecumenical Jury.
The 2016 National Arts and Crafts Fair dissolved the divide between arts and craft as it brought together fine examples of craft and design and contemporary art. The government also funded the country’s participation in the Frankfurt Book Fair 2016. Another important initiative was the Curatorial Intensive by the Independent Curators International (ICI) held in Manila in November 2016. Recently, the First Rondalla Music Camp culminated in Baguio City.
We have several other programs that should showcase our rich cultural heritage and encourage Filipinos to hone and share their talent to a wider audience.
The yearly National Indigenous Peoples Cultural Summit brings to light the concerns of various indigenous cultural communities; our state universities and colleges (SUCs) are documenting the indigenous knowledge systems of their regions; the Cinemalaya Independent Film Festival supports the work of independent Filipino filmmakers.
We also continue to highlight the various facets of our traditions and culture through the Dayaw documentary series produced by the NCCA and ANC.
Moreover, I have filed several measures in the Senate that aim to promote arts and culture, such as the Department of Culture Act, Traditional Property Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act, Cultural Education Program Act, The Philippine Independent Film Incentives Act, National Writing System Act, Philippine Handloom Weaving Industry Development Act, Strengthening the National Cultural Heritage Act, and the Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities Conserved Areas Act.
In the order of priorities, there will always be that challenge of setting aside arts and culture. But we have to keep in mind that these are indispensable tools of national integration and international diplomacy. We must no longer put arts and culture, as well as heritage preservation, on the hindquarters of our nation building, because indeed, we are ready to let the world hear our truths, our vision, and significant gifts to the heritage of humanity.