Lagang, the lost artBy Jobers Bersales
Ask in the city anyone who was born after the 1970s what the word lagang means and you will get a quizzical look. If you were born to an old, well-off family in Carcar, Argao, Dalaguete and Boljoon towns, then you just might have an inkling of what it means.
Lagang is the Cebuano word for the chambered nautilus. Only fishermen today can readily tell you this. If my memory is right, Antonio Pigafetta, chronicler of the Magellan expedition of 1521, wrote this down as laghan (in the Italian practice of the silent “h”) and described it as one of the more important products of the sea that Cebuanos loved to eat.
This week Museo Sugbo unveils at its newest gallery with an exhibit of the fine art of lagang, showing not just the raw shell but how its chambers were transformed sometime in the late 1920s into floral renditions ensconced in shadow boxes. There are 24 of these framed wonders that now line the 13th gallery located at the second floor of the once-dreaded bartolinas or isolation cells of the old provincial prison, home to the province’s main repository of tangible Cebuano cultural heritage. These are from the collections of the longest-serving mayor of Dalaguete Conrada “Nang Dading” Almagro (now in her 90s), Barili Heritage and Folklife Museum owner and curator Azucena Pace (daughter of the equally long-serving mayor of Barili, the late Librada Pace) and Lucris Tan, the young dean of the College of Nursing of Southwestern University. Two others are an imitation of tree branches loaned from the Cathedral Museum of Cebu, clearly used as accents in the processional carrozas of old.
My first glimpse of the lagang was through a visit to one of the houses of the old, landed families of Argao years ago. It was a centerpiece placed above the piano, an extremely large shadow box containing floral sprays with a photo of the family matriarch right at the center of them all. The framed floral arrangement was a sight to behold. I have not tired of wondering since then the historical background behind this art form.
Today I personally know of only one, Lucris Tan, who has singularly devoted time and money into this art that has been lost through time. There may be others out there who still remember their grandmothers doing this painstaking and meticulous artwork but it is only Cris, as he is known to many, who has studied the art form and carried out his own renditions of the different petals, leaves and even birds that are made out of the shell.
The exhibit is quite timely as the Province of Cebu will host an exchange with some 80 Singaporeans representing that island-nation’s creative industries this weekend. I am most certain the lagang will not fail to awe them.
Cris Tan will also be holding a lecture about this lost art form on Sunday at around 5:30 p.m. at the museum quadrangle. Seats are limited as this is an unusual Sunday when the museum will open only in the late afternoon and only to accommodate the Singaporean delegation. Those interested had better e-mail me or drop me a note so we can arrange their entry.
Suffice to say that there are many more collections out there in Carcar, Argao and Dalaguete that remain in the salas of old families. The ones on display will only last until the first week of April and will be returned promptly to their owners.
In the late 1920s, it cost P12 to P15 to buy one of these framed artworks, quite a fortune then given that the annual salary of a government employee at the time was about P300. No wonder it is rare to find these today. Part of the reason may also be that skill was never taught in schools, as young girls in the parishes of the southeastern Cebu towns as well as others in Bohol learned these from some undetermined teacher or teachers. My suspicion is that the skill was handed down briefly (and only while the supply of the precious chambered nautilus lasted) by Belgian or Spanish nuns. I think Cris also suspects this as much.
What is known is that by the mid-1930s, the art form was in decline and could only be seen hanging on walls in the salas of large poblacion houses or as accents to the church retablo or the processional carroza.
Take time to glimpse at one art form now lost in memory. Museo Sugbo is open from nine in the morning to six in the evening, with the last visitors accepted only until 5:30 p.m., Monday to Saturday. Admission for this exhibit is part of the general admission fee for all the other 12 museum galleries. See you there!
More from this Column:
- Rejoinder from non-pigs in the pigsty
- Cebuanos in a pigsty
- Culture and heritage: The unfinished agenda
- Ka Bino’s diapers
- Digging San Remigio anew