Filipino Catholics start the year by renewing their faith in the two biggest processions in the country: the Black Nazarene procession in Manila and the Sinulog in Cebu. The number of devotees participating in these events often reaches more than a million. Many of them had to travel far (in the case of the Nazarene, some even come barefoot) and camp out in “tent cities” or even sleep in the streets just to be there. They had to come yearly because they had promised God to do so.
The Nazarene procession is a strange mix of piety and chaos, with the devotee risking his life swimming through the huge crowd just to be able to touch the image of the dark Christ on the carosa. Sinulog devotees express their faith in less violent ways but, given the same crowd density, it still has the risk of pandemonium or stampede waiting to happen.
One wonders what urges the devotee, many of them old and sickly, to go through a lot of trouble to fulfill a promise. This urge to absolve oneself through self-inflicted pain and sacrifice or by gambling with death in crowd hysteria is a mystery in itself.
This thought inspired us, artists in the group Wawart, to come up with an exhibit during the Sinulog season entitled “Tahas”, the Cebuano word that at once can mean “task”, “duty” or “mission”. The exhibit is sponsored by Persimmon, the condominium in Mabolo, whose function room is being lent to us for use as a gallery.
The exhibit opened last Friday night simultaneously with the launching of the e-book of poetry by the Cebuano literary group Bathalad. A mixed crowd of literary and artist types gathered in the venue to witness the double treat, a celebration of art and poetry in one place.
Let me share with you the exhibit statement of “Tahas” which I wrote being its curator.
“When Death appeared to him to announce that his time has come, the knight Antonius Block tried to buy time to by engaging the specter in a game of chess. Weary and disillusioned from the Crusades, he declared that he wanted to use the respite to fulfill a strong sense errand that he admits he still doesn’t know.
“Given this little time that he has, he sets out to overcome his doubts regarding his faith, desperately seeking God and the true meaning of happiness.
“This strong sense of personal errand that one has to make in life as the ultimate measure of one’s worth is implied in the Cebuano word “tahas”, which can mean “task”, “duty”, or “mission” at the same time. The native faith is seen as some kind of a pledge or promise to God that we make or impose upon ourselves.
“Tahas can be strategic and tactical. While we look at our whole life as a great journey towards fulfilling a mission whose meaning can only be defined by death, we try to mark how far we have gone with a series of smaller goals. Thus, we structure our lives according to a sequence or cycle of errands that we pledge to do.
“Our calendars are marked by the cycle of religious obligations, festivals, and celebrations or recollections of important events in family and social life: births, deaths, marriages, etc. They are the seasons that mark our lives, the ‘rotation of crops’ that, according to Kierkegaard, has been a way of coping with the inescapable problem of boredom.
“In the spirit of the Sinulog, when once again Cebuanos renew their pledges to the God-Child, the group WAWART interrogates through contemporary art the many ways by which we interpret this deep down urge to do something that would justify our lives.
“Art itself has been a way for us to cope with the boredom, emptiness, and disillusionment of modern life as well as the terror of death. “The aim of art,” the Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky said, “is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow the soul, rendering it capable of turning to good.”
“Art then is like that game of chess that allows Antonius Block to buy time before Death declares checkmate.”