Perhaps I should have read the email more closely when I received news of the Tam-Awan International Art Festival in May. Memories immediately came to mind of the Baguio Art Festivals in the 1990s, important gatherings where artists from around the region came to the mountainous city in the North of the Philippines.
During those days – way before biennales became the most coveted platform – artists converged in the hills of Baguio for a week of exhibitions, performances and discussions, helping to create a definitive Asian aesthetic and a cultural identity grounded in indigenous imagery and communal modes of the production and experience of art. Those times have long since passed and the current discourse in the region has shifted to other topics, but I was intrigued by what could still happen in Baguio.
There are a few art spaces in Baguio, which, I believe, have a critical role to play in nurturing the local art community. The Bencab Museum, founded by National Artist Benedicto Cabrera or Bencab, opened last year in Asin, just outside the city proper. The museum has several galleries spread across four floors. Bencab’s own work, spanning more than four decades from his early days in Manila to his stay in London and his subsequent return to the Philippines and settlement in Baguio, is highlighted, as well as his renowned collection of antique wooden carvings and artifacts from the Cordillera, from bulols to bowls, benches and weapons.
He also has a small but select collection of works by masters of Philippine modern art including Victorio Edades, Cesar Legaspi, Anita Magsaysay-Ho, Fernando Zobel, Arturo Luz, Lee Aguinaldo, and Roberto Chabet. His wider collection of contemporary art represents varied styles by artists such as Junyee, Mark Justiniani, Francesca Enriquez, and Baguio artists Emmanuel Santos, Kawayan De Guia and Leonardo Aguinaldo. While several museums in the country have permanent exhibits of Philippine modern art, almost none have contemporary works on permanent view, which makes the Bencab Museum truly significant.
The more centrally-located Victor Oteyza Community Art Space (VOCAS), owned and run by the De Guia family on the top floor of their building on Session Road, also carries much promise. Kidlat Tahimik, an internationally-acclaimed filmmaker and head of the De Guia family, opened VOCAS in July 2004 in honour of his uncle Victor Oteyza, one of the Philippine Thirteen Moderns. His wife Katrin and three sons Kidlat, Kawayan and Kabunyan, are also artists and take part in the running of the space. With its eccentric architecture, VOCAS is the polar opposite of Bencab’s modern white cube. Part art centre, part vegetarian café, part installation, it is an alternative space for exhibitions, performances, workshops, talks, and screenings, and many local artists, students, and visitors to Baguio frequent the space. VOCAS fills a gap in the arts scene, particularly when Café by the Ruins, the city’s pioneering artists’ space, has gradually become more of a pricey tourist restaurant after the weakening of the Baguio Arts Guild and the deaths of its two pillars Roberto Villanueva and Santiago Bose.
Artists in Baguio also gather at Katipunan, probably the most alternative of alternative art spaces. Located along a backstreet near a Baguio market, Katipunan is actually a hole-in-the-wall restaurant, reminiscent of an old Western saloon, which only serves dog meat dishes. It has been owned for many years by the family of Paolo Sunggay, one of Baguio’s new generation of young artists. When it was Paolo’s turn to manage Katipunan two years ago, he decided to put artworks in the restaurant and turn it into an alternative exhibition space. Paintings by Baguio’s recognized artists such as Willy Mag-Tibay and Rene Acquitania along with upcoming artists, line the walls while Kawayan De Guia’s re-fitted jukebox sits in a corner.
Finally, there is Tam-Awan, an artist village currently being run by solar painter Jordan Mangosan (who coined the term ‘solar painter’ from his method of using a magnifying glass to catch sunlight and burn holes into panels, creating lines like drawing) and former bar owner Chit Asignacion. Initially, Tam-Awan was a kind of utopian project conceptualised by Bencab in the 1990s. Along with other artists, Bencab transplanted native huts from various areas in the Cordillera and re-constructed them here piece-by-piece. They also cleared an area for a dap-ay, where artists and guests could gather for bonfires and other activities, and ran a café and a small village gallery. Artists did not actually live here; rather the huts functioned as guesthouses for transients who wished to experience a night in authentic highland style. Bencab is no longer part of Tam-Awan, he has long since passed on the stewardship of the property to Mangosan and Asignacion, who are seemingly not the most able of heirs.
When I arrived for their festival, I found that it had already finished. Apparently there had been a change in the schedule and this news did not reach me. I first headed to the Baguio Convention Center where I thought there would be some installations, only to find a ramshackle fairground in its grounds that was waiting to be dismantled. At Tam-Awan, an apologetic Asignacion tried to explain the lapses in their organization.
However, from other artists in Baguio I gathered that this was a festival of sham. The international artists listed in the festival’s press release did not appear except for Tibetan photographer Tenzing Paljor who was in the Philippines, not as part of the festival but to observe the recent elections in Mindanao. Other activities were a street parade with graffiti-plastered Volkswagen Beetles, a fashion show at the Convention Center and some craft workshops at Tam-Awan, which Asignacion claimed to be a success. Other artists in Baguio, however, say otherwise. In fact, many are furious about the whole event. And who can blame them? How could this incredibly weak line-up of events be even considered an art festival? How could it claim to be representative of the interests of Baguio’s art community when most of the city’s artists were kept in the shadows about the preparations for the festival and were not even invited to participate? Obviously this is not the Baguio Art Festival that we know and remember with so much admiration.
But there is a greater question here: How could a project so ill-conceived and poorly managed receive state funding from the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA)? The answer is easy: Tam-Awan is a member of NCCA and therefore has a say where the money goes. But since there was hardly any art in the festival, one can only wonder where the money really went. Probably to The Manor, Baguio’s most expensive hotel, where the NCCA contingent along with their horde of press people were said to be billeted.
While this incident would most likely call for uproar or resignations in other countries, it is sadly not at all surprising in the Philippines. The NCCA operates under the Office of the President and enjoys a similar kind of immunity. NCCA’s former director Cecile Guidote-Alvarez had the audacity to lobby to get herself proclaimed as one of the National Artists last year, despite strong protests from the art community. Similarly, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo still ran and won a congressional seat after nine years of presidency – her era was deemed as one of the lowest points in Philippine history.
The new President-elect Noynoy Aquino who assumed office on June 30, 2010 promises to be different. He will not lie, nor steal, and will bring a sense of honour to Philippine politics. At least, this is what I want to believe. Filipinos have lost faith in many things and years of politicking have bred a culture of mistrust. But while it takes more than a leap of faith to propel the country forward, we need to first believe that we can be better than this.
- Thu, 1 Jul 2010