It is in the fragile moment right before the ashes from a fire would disintegrate, be blown away and be one with nature that artist Leslie De Chavez would like to bring the viewers in his recently concluded exhibition at the Ateneo Art Gallery. With this metaphor that operates through his pieces, the artist discloses the trend within Filipino society: big, controversial events would happen, which would linger for a time; but soon after, the blaze of the issue will die down, and it will be forgotten and neglected, still unsolved and left hanging without any conclusion. Using his bitterly sophisticated installations and paintings, he attempted to recover whatever ember that can be saved, and with that, he stirred the memories of the seemingly forgetful viewers.
Named after the name of the military mission in Mamasapano, Maguindanao, Operation Exodus (2015) epitomize the aim of the artist to memorialize seemingly forgotten stories, as the objects in the frames hanged are already memorials in their most physical sense. An offshoot of the mission to eliminate an international terrorist last year, a bloody clash occurred between the Philippine police forces against the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), resulting to 44 police officers killed. It is considered to be the biggest loss of government elite force in [Philippine] history. Then president Aquino admitted that there was a lack of coordination between the police forces and the MILF, and there was a mistake not to inform then Department of Interior and Local Government secretary Mar Roxas of the operation. The incident derailed the peace processes on the Bangsamoro Basic Law; some groups blame Aquino for still letting US militarization influences in the country. With 44 lasercut wood, each with the initials of one of the 44 fallen officers, Leslie de Chavez made into a tangible object the memory of the bravery of these people.
Forty-four years have passed since the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos signed Proclamation 1081, suspending the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus, and bringing the country in the state of Martial Law. In his self-proclaimed “New Society”, which will be endured for the succeeding nine years, thousands of citizens went missing, were abducted, tortured and killed. With no free press, the government was able to easily filter and manipulate what the citizens read, see and hear from the news. Thus, majority of the citizens were — and perhaps still currently are — whitewashed and blinded from realizing that it was one of the dark eras, if not the darkest era, this country has ever been in.
Up until now, the family of the late dictator, still in denial of the atrocities that they have done to Filipinos during that time, is still persistent in painting a rosy image for the Martial Law period. Perhaps, this proverbial deed of ‘washing one’s hands from the sins committed’ is what pushed Leslie De Chavez to create UTI (2016), an installation composed of a wash basin, and a figure easily recognizable as the crucified feet of Jesus Christ, made from soap. On the wall, it is written: “laging maghugas ng kamay” (“always wash your hands”), further pushing the metaphor. Should we just simply move on and continue to be indifferent of the vileness during that era and the deaths and sacrifices of our brave countrymen, since we were able to improve some of our infrastructure and we experienced some economic growth, which is apparently debt-driven?
Pushing the passion narrative of Jesus Christ further, the artist created a scourging whip, with the head of the dictator cemented as the blades of the whip. Martial Law was a tool that abuses, destroys, and kills. We are well aware of that (hopefully), but why are we still willing to go through the same dark era? Palingenesis (2016), which means rebirth, cautions us with the possibility of bringing us back to those claws of dictatorship.
In Craft-Mine-Crap (2016), Leslie De Chavez unites our past colonial experience with our present experience in the territorial disputes in the West Philippine Sea. With the controversial ‘Mother of all Philippine Maps’ 1734 Murillo Velarde map printed on found galvanized iron sheets, the artist possibly reminds us of two things: the colonial conquests of the Westerners , discovering and chartering the lands of the East; and the fact that this map is currently used as an evidence against China’s claim for the Scarborough Shoal. In both moments, the Philippines, as a nation, is treated as the underdog. As the battle for the territorial claim was keenly kept within the radar of the previous administration, it is alarming that the current government do not share the same level of concern over it.
In exchange, the current administration has been focusing on the ‘war on drugs’ during the first few months of the new presidency. In Tension-Attention-Retention (2016), glass sheets were placed on top of one another, portraying the figure of a building, with bullets as pillars. In here, Leslie De Chavez perhaps is criticizing how this society is being built upon the foundations of violence and fear. The goal of eliminating the issue on drug abuse is correct, but is the method being employed proper? It is notable that the same way that the installation work tackling the war on drugs is only one of the many installations in the exhibition, the issue on drugs is only one of the many problems that the government should concern itself with.
The mixed media painting Subjugating the Nuclear (2016) delivers a straightforward message to the viewer: “Hanapin mo ang Katotohanan, Kaalaman at Unawa. Pahalagahan mo and mga ito at huwag pababayaang mawala.” (literally translated to “Find Truth, Knowledge and Understanding. Treat them with importance and don’t lose them.”). In this modern society well-immersed into influences, such as social media, which are easily manipulated by groups, it is easy to just follow the flow of turning a blind eye over things that matter. It is easy and convenient to join the majority. This might also be the reason for the curious rotation of the head of the national hero, Jose Rizal, in the installation Anggulo (2016). Perhaps, the artist is asking the viewers to look at another perspective — maybe introspect through a mirror and think critically and individually first, instead of always following what they see outside. Anyway, as what the cliche says, true change and reform starts within the self.
A friend once said that the easiest way to forget something is to not acknowledge that you will eventually. This transient yet sophisticated reminder of artist Leslie De Chavez did, and now that it has ended, it passed the torch to its audience to further spread the embers of the almost forgotten.
The exhibition ran from 23rd of July to 17th of September 2016, at the Ateneo Art Gallery, Quezon City.