I always head up to Baguio whenever I want to cool off. A small city located in the Cordillera Mountains north of the Philippines, Baguio is one of the country’s most favoured summer getaways...
With its pine trees and foggy air, it is quite a postcard image that lures both local tourists and foreign backpackers.
In March, just when the temperature was starting to rise in Manila, I took the midnight express bus to Baguio to take part in the twentieth anniversary of the Café By The Ruins, probably the country’s longest-running artist-run space. Founded by members of the Baguio Arts Guild and other friends, the café is literally built upon the ruins of the former residence of the governor of Benguet.
I remember Santiago Bose, one of the café’s co-founders and leaders of the guild, telling me that Baguio locals never paid much attention to artists. They perceived artists as good-for-nothings, just idling away with their drinking and other vices. They were proved wrong when a powerful earthquake hit the city in the early ’90s, flattening everything and causing widespread destruction. The Baguio artists were one of the first groups to mobilize help, opening the café as a soup kitchen for the hungry and homeless. Since then, the artists in Baguio have gained respect and café has become an iconic place for the community.
Almost all of the people who played a part in the café were there on the first day of the celebration. More than an event, it was a get together of artists and friends, a time to unwind, catch up and reminisce — a homecoming. It was so nice to see Su Llamado, the real ‘mama’ of the café, who flew in from the U.S. where she has been living for the past few years, just to organize the anniversary. Just like old times, Su was there, all smiles, offering food, while the sound of brass gongs and bottles of tapuy (homebrewed rice wine) welcomed everybody.
A bulol, the ubiquitous symbol of the Cordillera, carved in pink ice, presided over the dap-ay (an outdoor circular platform where elders meet). There were also collaborative outdoor installations made by young local artists. Works by founding members of the guild lined the wall inside the café. But it was the board full of photos of the café, the artists and the happenings throughout the years that was probably the most meaningful. It was history.
In the evening, Showman Shaman, a documentary on Roberto Villanueva, was shown. Everyone was quiet. In this part of the world, silence does not mean indifference but deep respect. Villanueva was truly one of Baguio’s visionary artists, combining indigenous culture with the contemporary. He played the role of a shaman well, touching lives of people from the lahar-affected Aeta communities in Central Luzon, Philippines, to the well-heeled urbanites in New York. He died in 1995, as he was planning on making a monumental acupuncture needle to heal the earth.
Towards the end of the film, there was an interview with Santiago Bose talking about the profound influence of Villanueva on the Baguio art community. Bose is another pillar of the guild, as instrumental in the organization of the Baguio Arts Festival from the ’80s to early 2000s. The festival was a very successful initiative that drew international participation even before the idea of biennales became common in the Southeast Asian region. Like Villanueva, Bose was able to incorporate traditional leitmotifs in contemporary work, strongly laced with humour and sardonic wit. He died in 2003, a year after the last festival.
On the second day, there was a thanksgiving cañao, a ritual feast involving the sacrifice of a few pigs. It’s a gory affair that was quite difficult to explain to my six-year-old daughter, who asked me why God would be happy with animal killing. Coincidentally, curator Okwui Enwezor was recently questioned for including a work by Adel Abemessed, which showed the image of an animal being beaten to death, in an exhibit in San Francisco. He had to remove the work due to pressure by animal rights activists. Such are examples of cultural differences that need understanding.
Musical performances by two groups capped the evening. It was a good study in contrast: the first group called Open Space Productions, led by Carlo Altamonte and Ferdie Balanag, did a comic repertoire on sex, drugs and rock and roll while the older Pinikpikan group (named after a local dish made, again, with a chicken beaten to death) jammed, mixing traditional and modern instruments to come up with a cross-over global sound.
Unfortunately, I missed Yason Banal’s After Andromeda performance, since I left early. It was a poetic memoir to the café made with recorded narratives and sound played inside the cars parked outside the café’s entrance.
Before heading down to Manila, I took time just to walk around Baguio. Yes, much has changed throughout the years. Even the locals admit it. Overdevelopment is a real threat, represented by the huge SM Mall that stands at the top of Session Road, the city’s main street, overshadowing the Convention Center, which was the venue of the Baguio Arts Festival for many years.
Also on Session Road, the Victor Oteyza Community Art Space (VOCAS), owned by filmmaker Kidlat Tahimik, could be full of promise. There was a photo exhibit by a young artist when I dropped in. But Kidlat was not there and these days his energies are more concentrated in building his home higher up in the mountains far from the city. Everyone seems to be moving on.
One has to realize something particular about Baguio. Traditionally, communities are led by the elders, who gather around the dap-ays, charting and deciding the future of their kin. What happens when the elders are gone? Just like the ice bulol in the café’s dap-ay that melted away even before the celebration ended. All that’s left are the traces and fleeting reminders of what has been. I put on my coat and head to the bus, cooled off, but feeling that I am missing something.
- Thu, 1 May 2008