Reimagining the Urna: A Review of Urna 2.0 | Wilfredo Offemaria, Jr.

Christianity is a religion filled with, and built on significations. The Bible and the Eucharist—for instance—two among the religion’s most central traditions, hold and employ narratives and rituals, which resist from being understood at a superficial level. They demand an examination and interpretation of a critical eye to reveal the deeper and sublime meanings they possess, majority of which deal with the manner in which the faithful is supposed to live. It is in this metaphorical tendency of the religion that Wilfredo Offemaria, Jr. couches his latest solo exhibition on. Entitled URNA 2.0, the exhibition hints on the artist’s shift from his previous exhibition where he reimagined the retablo—the grandiose centerpiece of the church interior, to refiguring the urna—similarly an altar, but used in smaller and more intimate traditions, frequently at home.

An urna is a wooden receptacle, replete with deeply-carved naturalistic ornamentation, that is used to shelter a miniature religious scuplture or image, usually that of saints. The structure stands on a wider base which provides it stability. It turns narrower as it leads to the central compartment, where the figure is kept. The compartment is attached with a sliding or a hinged door painted or carved with a religious icon, such as a chalice. The sculpture inside is elevated on a simple stand, signifying the reverence given to it.

There exists a dearth of scholarship on the urna, most especially on its origins; but sources trace the tradition as having two distinctive veins: that of the Boholano vein, and the Ilocano one. Given the abundance of molave trees in Bohol, the Boholanos tend to use it as the material for their urna; whilst Ilocanos use narra. Both are hardwood, yet Ilocano urnas tend to have a more delicate finish. Both apply paint to coat the wood with vivid colors, but Ilocanos prime the surface with gesso first, and they tend to apply goldleaf more generously—a rather curious tendency, given the frugality they are widely known for.

There are several ways of “reading” an urna, especially along the process of an intimate prayer ritual upon which it often participates in. With respect to the figure that resides in it, the urna can be read as a house—the door of which is kept shut while a ritual hasn’t been initiated. At the beginning or upon the invocation of a ritual, the door is opened to activate the role of the figure, metaphorically acting as an opening to the virtuous life. During the ritual, the narrative and Christian values the figure represents are revealed, and subsequently contextualized within the life of the faithful. The faithful hopes that he/she may be able to emulate the saintly life of the figure. With this desire for sameness, the urna then can be read to assume the role of a mirror frame—as the tool where the faithful finds himself/herself in the image of the figure. Finally, with the degree of reverence placed upon the figure and on the ideas it represents, there is an intrinsic power inherited by the urna: that it is consequently and inevitably made into a pedestal, upstaging the figure that is adored and venerated.

In his works in the exhibition, Offemaria brings forth and cultivates the multiplicity of metaphors proffered by the urna as the door, frame, and pedestal of the saintly life; but instead of replicating the tradition fully, he dares to transform it. The urna was bared of the ornate elaborateness of its materiality, and was rendered in the artist’s iconic aesthetic. Such was performed to foreground the very gestures it fundamentally performs: that of exhibiting, of framing, and of upstaging. Hence, the focal of the exhibition rests on the figures housed in the urnas: the ideas they bring forward, and the insights the viewers find in and through them.

Utilizing this fertile and tradition-rooted platform, Offemaria invokes popular imageries from the highly-commercialized and digital world to initiate reflections on and rethinking about different thought-provoking issues in the contemporary time. The religious images were done in their classic style, yet were embellished with brilliant-colored abstract shapes and modernized grunged textures—highly-reminiscent of the artist’s oeuvre. Furthermore, religious imageries were made to resemble characters and objects in popular shows and movies, the elements of which are familiar to the majority.

In Salvador Mundi, the central character of the celebrity-level price tag record-snatching painting by Italian artist Leonardo da Vinci was made to hold a Dragonball. Hitching on the widespread familiarity on the particular series of anime, which is about how the world is repeatedly saved from the earthly desires and greed of evil characters, the work educates the viewer on the signification of the classic work referenced, which is a depiction of Jesus as the Messiah or the Savior of the World. Also centered in an image of Jesus, the painting Lamb of God is superimposed with the social media notification most youth are bombarded with on a daily basis. Perhaps the artist tries to pique the interest of the viewers and to play with them in a guessing game, asking: What does this ‘one’ heart represent? Who could these ‘twelve’ tagged people be? What are these ‘seven’ comments? Questions like these attempt to stimulate their memory, specifically with regards to what they know about the life of Jesus.

Another dominant artistic impulse present in the exhibition is the gesture of replacing symbols from relatively-known religious images with those of commercial brands—resembling memes that are prevalent nowadays. Such playful gesture is apparent in Sacred Heart and Guadalupe, both of which are popular images of devotion in the country. In the former, Jesus’ heart, which stands for His divine love for all of humanity, was replaced with the logo of a fashion brand.  In the latter, the Virgin Mother is garbed with the extravagance of commercial luxury, instead of her usual simple yet elegant blue robe. In these arguably obscured references, the artist’s works can be read as attempts to ask the viewers to look into and reflect upon who or what they are actually placing on their pedestals, and venerating these days.

Relevant to this subject, the work Immaculate Conception cleverly changes Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens’ depiction of the trampled serpent to that of the snake logo of another famous luxury brand. The customary presence of the serpent in depictions of the Virgin Mother as the Immaculate Conception relates Mary with Eve—the first Woman, who committed the Original Sin. Mary’s life is exemplary for she was able to retain her purity by rejecting temptation. Framing the logo as a representative of the commercial, and looking back at the other works which comprise the exhibition, this painting may serve as a reminder that commercialism and consumerism are modern, and are rather tempting forms of idolatry, which the viewers have to be vigilant about.

Another interesting work is the painting entitled Moises, which takes off from Dutch artist Rembrandt’s Moses Breaking the Tablet of the Law, a rather startling image of the prophet as he descended from Mount Sinai where he received from God the stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments. Rembrandt’s depiction shows Moses at the verge of destroying the gifts, as he was enraged when he saw the Israelites worshipping a fake idol. The superimposition of the brand directly relates with the value of obedience demanded by the commandments. However, such may be considered as quite a superficial way of reading the work. Popular with the youth, Obey is a progressive clothing company envisioned by American street artist Shepard Fairey as a channel to express activism and dissent. With this information at-hand, the question lies then on how this mentality of dissent, consciously or unconsciously participated in by the younger generations through the support of the brand, challenges and/or reinforces our existing notions of faith.

It is in the multiplicity and tentativeness of signification in Offemaria’s works that the exhibition gains its potency and relevance to the contemporary time. Also, through the overlapping of the old and the new and its resulting dynamics—which are the artist’s foremost artistic contributions to the dialogue of faith, heritage, and art—the exhibition URNA 2.0 refigures the urna as a platform for attempts to open discussions, frame questions, and bring up reflections that will enable and engage the different and differing perceptions on faith, and the institutions and traditions that build it and build from it. 

The exhibition ran from the 14th of February to the 31st of March, 2018 at Museo de la Salle, in De La Salle University-Dasmariñas, Cavite.

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