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The Oriental stain

/ 07:36 AM July 28, 2013

The following is a speech I prepared for a discussion on Southeast Asian Art during the China-ASEAN Expo Art Exchange Program, to be held in Nanning City, China, this weekend. I will be representing the Philippines in this gathering of 10 artists from Southeast Asia invited by China to collaborate on a big ink painting of national flowers.

For lack of material evidence, we assume today that people in the Philippines during the precolonial times were not much of painters. What we had that came close to painting was tattoo, which the natives used to adorn their bodies to make them look like a permanent dress. The first Spanish explorers to reach the country were amazed by this intricate body art which they described in their chronicles.

As soon as they established themselves in the archipelago, the Spaniards launched a campaign to destroy pagan and animist culture, among them the great ancestral sculptures that resembled those in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and other Southeast Asian neighbors.

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Spared from this iconoclastic campaign were the art of the Muslims in the South, which resisted the Spanish colonization, and the tribal communities living in the rugged mountains of the Cordilleras in the North. Those in the South produced intricate carving of abstract natural forms and avoided the human figure. Those in the North continue to produce wooden deities such as the bulol or rice god which also abstracts the human figure into basic geometric form.

This proves the dynamic exchange between peoples in the Southeast Asian region long before the advent of colonization. Of course, there was China as a common trading partner. The many antique porcelain and other artifacts that archaeologists continue to discover today attest to the steady influx of Chinese products in the Philippines, something that predates today’s active trading between the two countries.

One can only imagine how the ancient Filipinos must have reacted seeing the intricate brush paintings glazed on the porcelain wares brought here by Chinese traders. It’s not unlikely that aside from pottery, the Chinese merchants also brought ink paintings and calligraphy on paper, or  made demonstrations of the technique to the Filipinos.

In fact, traces of bamboo brushes and inks that date back to precolonial times were later found by archaeologists in the Philippines, which indicate that we have long been exposed to ink painting or were probably practicing it before the Europeans came.

Still this is all conjecture as nothing survived, paper being more ephemeral than painting on wooden panel, which the Spaniards introduced as soon as they saw a need for religious art to decorate the newly-built churches.

But the Chinese influence also persisted in the “Chinese-looking” features of Christ and the Christian saints which the natives carved on ivory   or wood for their Spanish clients during the 17th century. Scholars also noted the speed by which the Filipinos learned to paint in oils and other Western medium hinting that they had been earlier trained in some kind of brush work, probably ink painting.

Thus, for the modern and contemporary Filipino artists, ink painting is more of a rediscovery, a return to an ancient tradition that we probably used to share with other Asian neighbors.

Artists like Lao Lian Ben and the National Artist Ang Kiukok were among the Chinese-Filipino artists who contributed to the growth of modern art in the Philippines. Others who were not really Chinese, like Rafael Cusi, was tremendously inspired by Chinese ink painting in his own work.

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“The Europeans invented oils, the Americans introduced acrylic,” Cusi said. “But for centuries, artists of the Orient have been painting with ink. We are Asians and this is what we have contributed to the world. And this is where I, as a Filipino painter, have chosen to draw my strength.”

Like Cusi, the rich heritage of ink painting remains for other Filipino artists to rediscover and, in doing so, be able to reestablish a common Oriental aesthetics.

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