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‘Nagbabadyang Unos’: As First Quarter Storm turns 50, the youth can learn vigilance and resistance through Toym Imao’s works

/ 09:00 AM February 25, 2020

From afar, it could almost be mistaken for a crown of thorns. But it isn’t.

Suspended twelve feet off the ground, sixty feet across and bathed in red light, the structure that hovered above the historic steps of the University of the Philippines’ Palma Hall is actually, upon close inspection, a heap of retired chairs and the ever resilient kawayan and buho assembled together to form an ominous cloud of barricades.

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Artist Toym Imao unveiled “Nagbabadyang Unos” last Feb. 7 in U.P. Diliman, in line with the konsyertong bayan to mark the 50th anniversary of the First Quarter Storm.

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It’s a striking installation that could be mistaken as mere eye candy by those unknowing of the bloody struggle that preceded its creation. But as explained by Imao, it is a two-faced visual metaphor of one of the darkest times of the nation: Martial Law under the Marcos regime. It is at once a searing reminder of the beginning of the First Quarter Storm in Jan. 30, 1970 and the Diliman Commune, the nine-day siege of U.P., in 1971, harking back to the stirring “ferment and dissent” of the times that eventually led to the toppling of a dictator.

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“We wanted it, itong Nagbabadyang Unos, to remind people that Edsa didn’t happen within those few days [when people barricaded] along Edsa,” said Imao.

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“It was earned through the hard work of several sectors in society, all the way to the early 1970s during the First Quarter Storm, which eventually built up to the Edsa Revolution,” he stressed. “Edsa Revolution was a victory. It was not a complete victory and it can be considered also a small victory, but [we cannot rest] on our laurels, that we were able to put out a dictator and everything will be okay.”

Path of resistance

Imao had always wanted to go into public art since he graduated from UP Diliman in 1992 with a bachelor’s degree in architecture. So he accepted government commissions, mostly for monuments of heroes and shrines, and for a time this helped pay the bills and maintain his Marikina studio.

But Imao eventually found himself at a precipice, caught between the burnout in creating government-commissioned monuments and the desire to pursue the artworks he really wanted to create.

“Four out of five projects, [the] local government official or [the] engineer [asks for] kickback, [they want to earn money from the] project [but] you’re imaging heroes. The irony of it, you know?” he said.

“I’ve received death threats for not cooperating, we got headlined [at] some point, and for me, these people create these public art works out of public funds just for ribbon cutting opportunities without necessarily really appreciating what the representation stands for. Kaya medyo na-bad trip ako ‘nun (I was turned off by that),” he admitted. “Is this all that I can do?… But the historical narrative that I wanted to portray, [would not be funded by the] government, [right]?”

The projects he had in mind were controversial, ones that he knows would unearth painful stories of the past, tackling historical and social subjects such as the Filipino-American War, the plight of the Filipino comfort women, certain massacres committed by the state against Muslim Filipinos, and the victims of Martial Law.

“You don’t expect that [the] government would readily fund this. So, there was a void, there was a gap,” he said. “And what happened was that I wanted to really, really address this gap, but [it was] very clear [in my] mind [that] I will not do it in a traditional way.”

This reckoning came to fruition when Imao returned to the Philippines after finishing his Fulbright scholarship for an M.F.A. in Sculpture at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore.

Imao was doing a serendipity walk around the campus in 2013 when it dawned on him that it would be Andres Bonifacio’s 150th birthday that year. He noticed there was no public art commemorating the occasion, which almost seemed uncanny, for if U.P. had a patron saint, he vouched it would be Bonifacio. He thought of creating a work for Bonifacio’s 150th, but after having the idea rejected by galleries and museums, he figured the Palma Hall steps would be the perfect avenue to showcase it.

But his idea was also met with apprehensiveness by some U.P. officials. He experienced being given the runaround and felt frustrated by the bureaucracy, prompting him to ask, “Teka, U.P. ito ah, diba? (Wait, aren’t we in U.P.?) We’re known for taking risks. We’re known for academic freedom, artistic freedom at that.”

Imao was eventually advised to write to the dean of the College of Social Sciences and Philosophy for permission. The dean, then, happened to be Dr. Michael Tan, the now outgoing chancellor of U.P. Diliman. Tan, as attested by Imao, was supportive of his idea and even planned a formal launching for the installation to introduce it to the public.

“Head of State”, which grabbed the public’s attention in its unveiling, features two 9-foot headless figures holding up ballot boxes with the head of Andres Bonifacio inside. Imao left the interpretation to his viewers; it may mean the people are perhaps looking for leaders with Bonifacio’s qualities or, simply, that Imao believes Bonifacio should have been declared the country’s first President.

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In 2019, Imao was asked by the Cultural Center of the Philippines to create a giant pailaw in its facade for its 50th anniversary. In a bid to recontextualize history, Imao paid homage to artist David Medalla, who protested against the Marcoses during the inauguration of the CCP in 1969. At the time, Medalla, along with painter Marciano Galang and poet Jose Lansang Jr., unfurled protest banners inside the CCP for all the guests to see, including the late former United States President Ronald Reagan and his family.

Imao’s work for CCP’s 50th anniversary involved a pailaw that spelled three Ks in Baybayin and a sundial that festooned the center’s facade. The three Ks stood for Katotohanan, Kabutihan, and Kagandahan (truth, goodness and beauty), tenets often associated with Imelda Marcos, which Imao aimed to reclaim through his work.

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“It pays homage to what David Medalla did in 1969 when the CCP opened… And for me, those were [writings] on the wall, so why not [re]contextualize [what is referred to as the] tenets [of] CCP, which is [always associated with] Imelda, [but] it’s not,” he said.

“These are the transcendentals, [this is] Plato. It says about the highest attainment of human condition when you somehow embody those three qualities. So [we] recontextualize(d) [it], we did it in Baybayin… There cannot be beauty if there is no kindness and compassion, and without the truth.”

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Threat to life

Imao remembers full well the first time he ever got “trolled.” It was when he joined Loretta Rosales, former human rights commissioner, and twelve others, in filing before the Supreme Court the third petition against the burial of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the Libingan ng mga Bayani.

And he had good reason to be there. The Libingan ng mga Bayani is the cradle of the brave and the resting place of his father, the late Abdulmari Imao, a National Artist for Sculpture. And so were Imao’s two mentors, the late National Artists Alejandro Roces and Napoleon Abueva, who he also considered grandfathers.

Around this time, during the oral arguments surrounding Marcos’ burial, Imao experienced having motorcycle-riding figures monitoring his studio.

“Merong nagmamanman doon sa studio namin, mga motorcycle-riding na naka-black na parang policemen or army na wala naman dati, napansin ng mga neighbors namin,” he said.

(There were men monitoring outside our studio. They wore black and rode motorcycles. They looked like policemen or army men. There were none of them before. Our neighbors noticed.)

These days, he still gets his fair share of trolls who would slip into his messages whenever his political artworks would garner attention on social media. But being in this line of work, it seems Imao has already accepted the dangers involved.

“I think you have to [understand] you’re already marked. There’s several friends who have shifted to the dark side,” he broke off, laughing. “[They] also told me na mag-ingat (Be careful). Syempre nakakatakot, sana kung may mangyari man, mangyari sa akin, wag sa pamilya ko.” (Of course it can be scary. If anything should happen, I hope it just happens to me, not to my family.)

“There’s always the risk, pero I think my family, they’re afraid, but they also support what I wanna do. [It cannot be helped, right? It will all be lost if] they win. They win if we don’t move.”

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How to continue fighting

Imao said he only moves within the confines of what he can do as an artist, using his art as a weapon against lies, deception and suppression. But he does not do it alone, as he collaborates and allies himself with other artists who also share the same convictions. Unfortunately, he said, some of these artists have already been slapped with sedition cases.

Despite all of this, however, Imao hangs on to a saying he often repeats to himself.

“There is this quote that I always say. When the truth is under siege, and the press is pinned down by the state, the arts [become] our second line of defense because it is so difficult for [the] fabricators [of] lies and revisionism to twist artistic expression,” he said.

He also added artists would be doing a disservice to their honesty should they choose the other way and just be comfortable about it.

“[As said by] Bertolt Brecht, will there be singing in the dark times? Yes, there will be singing. About dark times,” he said. “You can suppress expression, but eventually, like water, [it will find a path and it will flow no matter what].”

Imao also continues to stand by the younger generation. Being a father to three kids and a teacher to undergraduate students of the College of Fine Arts, he had expressed his concern about how politicians today are reaching the youth.

“We had the dark time and it’s being whitewashed right now, unfortunately. The leaders are also using the language of the young people in order to make themselves accessible,” he said. “It’s as dangerous as 50 years ago when Martial Law was declared. No [difference]. We have tyrants ruling the country and we never imagined that my kids would be experiencing the kinds of leaders we experienced before. They’ve staged a comeback and they’re here and we need to be very vigilant than ever [to protect our freedom and children], so [there needs to be] intergenerational communication [still].”

“Learn from the past, stand by our kids right now, they need our help. They’re no different from us, they’re also victims of what time and, for them, in their case, technology has to offer. [That is why the] vigilance, [it does not go away].” JB

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TAGS: 1986 Edsa Revolution, Democracy, Desaparecidos, human rights violations, Martial law, protest art, social awareness, Special Report, Toym Imao, youth activism
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