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Negotiating the Postcolonial: Land of the Morning – The Philippines and Its People

In contrast with the antecedent international exhibitions which attempted—or at least, claimed to attempt—to present the image of the Philippines and its peoples to the world, Asian Civilisations Museum’s Land of the Morning: The Philippines and Its People, and its accompanying publication have reached great lengths in terms of portraying an inclusive image of the peoples, and their cultures, (deliberately plural) who inhabited, and currently inhabits on what we now know as the Philippines. These antecedents were accused of exoticism, which is the rendering of maligned, specifically backward, image of the peoples; and insufficiency, that is, the presence of lacks in certain areas or components of the cultures being depicted. Seen as redemptive endeavors, the publication and the exhibition sought to address these. As the essays in the publication were written with the collection to be exhibited in mind, the critique of the survey knowingly involves the exhibition: the acquisition and other related curatorial limitations.

In touch with the latter discussions on Philippine culture, the arguments in the publication traces the idea of heterogeneity of Philippine identity, framed within post-colonial thought. In curator David Henkel’s essay, the concept of cultural purity was implicitly mythicized by recognizing that it is only a fruit of the ideas of the modernist past, and the urge to Filipinize after centuries of colonization, and turmoil. There is no one, homogenous, pure culture; it inevitably evolves as the people interact with their environment. The plurality, hybridity, and fluidity of culture is made prominent in the publication and exhibition through the inclusion of material objects and creative forms that visually exemplify the influence—transferred to, and translated by the peoples—from outsiders, and still labelling them as “Filipino” or “Philippine”. These include those that were results of contact with the Indianized Southeast Asia and other neighbors through trade (which includes the spread of Islam), and Spain through colonization. In fact, a large portion of the exhibition was outlined following these points of contact alongside breaks in history, specifically “The Pre-colonial Philippines,” and “The Foundation of the Fil-Hispanic Philippines,” and their corresponding subsections.

However, Henkel’s acceptance of the point on the confluence of streams that make up the Filipino culture seems to be in contradiction with the preoccupation of the immediately adjacent essay on tracing the source of the “original,” thus pure, Southeast Asian culture. In it, professor Purissima Benitez-Johannot attempts to disprove the claim that such roots can be traced from the period of Indian influence in the region. The Neolithic material culture that she wrote about, which were displayed in the exhibition, proffer an alternative answer. This is symptomatic probably due to the nature of the subject matter being analyzed.

Although there exists a general sense of acceptance to these cultural changes in the exhibition and publication, especially those from the Spaniards, the contributors in the publication turn towards a postcolonial tendency in how their essays were written. These are efforts to refute the idea that these peoples were inferior to the West, a thought enforced by Othering the former. Tackling the precolonial period, Benitez-Johannot expounds on the wealth of the peoples, and the visual complexity of the artefacts they produced even prior the arrival of the conquistadors. Professor Julius Bautista bannered the transformation of folk Catholicism, as Filipinos’ own translation of the religion, slipping from the original intent of the Spanish colonizers. It shows how “culturally insistent” pre-colonial beliefs are in the process of reception of new culture. Resonating Reynaldo Ileto’s effort to unearth a history-from-below, differing interpretations of faith were utilized by the locals as a tool for revolution against the very people who taught it for the purpose of colonizing them. Lastly, Lou Janssen Dangzalan points out that the stability of the Moro political system prior the colonial period is the primary factor that they were able to repel the Spaniards from colonizing them. Viewed as emancipatory, these writers brought to light a more dignified and active (as opposed to passively receiving) image of the peoples, which consequently grew into the kind of contemporary Filipinos who fight for their democracy, seen in the “People Power” section of the exhibition.

All “attempts” to survey inclusively fundamentally face a similar impasse: that it may never reach the point of exhaustivity, especially when talking about non-quantitative, non-exact elements, such as culture. The publication and exhibition aimed to paint an inclusive picture of an entire nation—a nation composed of different ethnic groups and religions, thus cultures, which had existed for centuries, and many more centuries before it has seen itself as a ‘nation’. Thus, the attempt, though not futile, is a feat as itself, and the emergence of cracks in the timeline is of understandable certainty.

The exhibition’s effort to juxtapose the ‘then’ with the ‘now’ by presenting EDSA Revolution materials and contemporary artworks, in the “People Power” and “Re-exploring Filipino Culture” sections respectively, left a massive hole in the timeline of the exhibition. It missed the potential of elaborating on American and Japanese occupation, which not only can smoothly link the revolutionary stance of the Katipuneros to that of the People Power, but also ground deeper the point on the Filipino’s propensity to revolt against oppressive forces. Post-colonial thought asserts that post-colonialism does not essentially refer to the chronological period after the point of liberation from the colonial; instead, it is “an engagement with and contestation of, colonialism’s discourses, power structures, and social hierarchies”. It is an action, a contestation, actively performed by the former colony. And to keep that vacuum between the end of the 19th century to the 1980s is to forego the crucial revolutionary acts undertaken by the Filipinos during these breaks in the nation’s history.

The inclusion of material culture from these periods, such as protest editorial cartoons, can successfully deliver the point. Such will also further expand the perception of art to include not only what scholar Felipe de Leon considers as ‘specialist art’ (art-for-art’s sake) and ‘people’s art’ (traditional arts), but also more modern creative forms of expression (illustration).

Compounding to these historical periods missed, Western modernism in the fine arts, introduced and developed around the period of American Commonwealth (and looking at a neo-colonialist lens, even after they “officially” left the country) can also serve as a jump-off point to ground the contemporary works, especially because they try to tackle personal and national identity. Modernism is an important art historical period in this regard, as it is when the artists were essentially problematizing and developing what is Philippine in their art. Also, this period can better justify the claim in the catalogue, which states that “the Philippines [was] a frontrunner in Southeast Asian visual arts”.

Clearly, the publication and the exhibition are underpinned on postcolonial thought, emphasizing the power struggle in between nations. Through this, they were able to respond, at some level, to the criticisms of the previous exhibitions that came before them. However, theorists Amritjit Singh and Peter Schmidt stressed that postcolonial thought examines, and attempts to understand borders—”not just the lines dividing one country from another, but also the ways in which difference is deployed across societies and cultures to mark distinctions of power”. The experience of colonialism in the Philippines shook the dynamics within its society. Upon the arrival of the colonial machinery in the country, which led to the introduction of the encomienda system—the progenitor of today’s unjust hacienda system—the basis of power shifted from physical strength to material wealth and political influence. With the introduction of formal education by the Spanish, power was also granted to those who were educated; the stratification swelled upon the democratization of education spearheaded by the Americans. Nowadays, opportunities are skewed towards these people who had access to such.

These shifts, and their foreshadowing to the state of the society in the contemporary time could have been emphasized in the exhibition section “Ideal Filipino Identities,” and reflected in the other sections, as well. These will open up the exhibition to other possible dimensions of the discussion, such as those that tackle culture and art with power dynamics and material condition within the society, effectively demystifying the idea of culture and arts as neutral, and tempering a sharper edge also in its intranational political stand. 

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The exhibition ran from October 2009 to January 2010 at the Asian Civilisations Museum, Empress Place, Singapore. The catalog is the accompanying publication of the exhibition. 

2 thoughts on “Negotiating the Postcolonial: Land of the Morning – The Philippines and Its People

    1. Hi Nikki! As far as I know, the book is not available for purchase here in the country. But you may contact http://artbooks.ph if they can order it for you from Singapore. If you wish to view the actual book, it is usually available in the museum/university libraries around Metro Manila. Thanks!

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