by Lu Sobredo
"Celebrate the rich diversity of Philippine art with 25 compelling works recently added to the Asian Art Museum’s collection. Expressive indigenous carving, jewelry and textiles; Christian devotional statues from the Spanish colonial period; postwar genre and landscape paintings; and contemporary works come together in this intimate exhibition to tell fascinating and complex stories of the Philippines.” ~ Asian Art Museum
I’m surprised to be hanging out on a Thursday afternoon at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco in the middle of summer. Most times, I am there either appreciating some permanent exhibit or being drawn to a special exhibit or event. Sometimes, I could be found simply sitting at the museum Cafe sipping green tea and lingering over an apple almond tart. It is at these moments when I am moved to write. The writing I do these days is for my blog.
It feels like I have been given a gift every time my husband James participates either in a scheduled meeting in San Francisco. It might be a meeting with the museum staff in the planning of a museum event or exhibit; or a meeting with the Bataan Legacy Society across from the museum in the San Francisco War Memorial Building. The Bataan Legacy Historical Society’s goal is to develop curriculum for World War II which includes the Bataan Death March in the Philippines in teaching U.S. History in our high schools in California and eventually throughout the U.S. When not joining my husband at meetings, I embrace my creative-alone-time. I sit at the Museum Cafe with my laptop. And one Thursday afternoon in August 2017, the focus of my writing is about art.
The title of this essay was influenced by the Movie: Finding Dory, after having watched it recently on Netflix. The fish, Dory has amnesia. The movie revolves around how she forgot that she was separated from her parents while young. The movie takes us on her journey to reunite with her parents after she finally remembered them.
It is the imagery of taking the journey of searching for what’s missing that drew me to the title of the movie. The drive to write on the topic came to me after attending the exquisite reception and a guided tour on July 14, 2017 which ushered the official opening of the small Philippine Art Exhibit: Collecting Art, Collecting Memories at the Asian Art Museum. It is my happy ending for finding the treasure that I thought should have been there all along.
Art and Identity
My exposure to works of art in my youth was limited to what I saw in books. It all changed when I spent my undergraduate years at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). I was thrilled to take a class in art appreciation for one of my electives! Why? It introduced me to art history; mostly Western European art history. But it was the start of my growing fascination with art and at the time, with Impressionism.
Going on a bus ride from campus to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) was a personal field trip. (I never considered myself a nerd, but I might be sounding like one about now). I returned often as I got older. When my husband, our then-toddler son and I lived briefly in San Fernando Valley of Southern California, we would visit the LACMA, and the Fowler Museum on the UCLA campus. Some of the best times ever for me. It is a coming home of sorts, having spent my undergraduate years at UCLA and unabashedly rooting at the Pauley Pavilion for the UCLA Bruins basketball team.
My husband James and I met in Chicago when we both attended a conference. I later found out that he was also at the Art Institute of Chicago to view a traveling exhibit of paintings by Impressionist artists. Imagine that? I was there in the same space, on the same day, but at a different time only two hours earlier. I was entranced with the paintings by Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh and others—works I have mostly seen in books. It was later that evening back at the Conference site when I met James Sobredo.
Little did I know how much art would later become central in our lives. Little did I know how my husband’s scholarly work and civic engagement would also lead to increasing affiliation with museums. Although, it is not surprising that his passion for photography would lead to photo exhibits of his own during the recent five years. For now, the exhibits have been mostly at small galleries, boutique cafe, and museum in Stockton, Oakland and Francisco. And with the grace of the universe, so much more possibilities are in store.
James has visited the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) & Guggenheim Museum in New York City while on his first year as a doctoral student in philosophy at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. This was before he switched his focus of study and transferred to the University of California, Berkeley. In 2010, our then-teenage son and I were with him at the Guggenheim in Bilbao during our time in Spain. It was at that time when I was thrilled to hear my son exclaimed as his gaze rose up to the ceiling while reclined on a round tufted ottoman in the museum: “This is like being inside art.” I would consider it a blessing if we could share more of our time together around art.
Appreciating art is fast becoming a natural part of my own identity. And it is not surprising that in viewing and questioning art, I also questioned why our ethnic and cultural ancestry wasn’t represented in the art that’s on display at major museums I have visited in California, the U.S., or elsewhere in the world outside of the Philippines.
I remember appreciating the short term display of “The Hinabi Project” at the Resource Center of the Asian Art Museum in October 2016. It celebrated the tradition of Philippine weaving. In this case, it featured fabrics woven from pineapple leaf fibers. Thanks to Anthony Cruz Legarda (creative director) and Edwin Lozada of the Philippine American Writers and Artists, Inc. who led the project that helped educate the public about this cultural practice.
Great news for Fall 2017! The Hinabi Project's "Weaving Peace and Dreams: Textile Arts of Mindanao" is at The Mills Building, 220 Montgomery/220 Bush, San Francisco, CA from September 18, 2017 to November 24, 2017. Come see this very special exhibit. For more information, visit thehinabiproject.org.
Looking for Philippine Art at the Museum
Our family’s affiliation with the Asian Art Museum started with our surrogate honorary mom, Vangie Buell more than 8 years ago in her role as the founding president of Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS) East Bay Chapter. She introduced other founding members and Chapter officers to the museum. Her pioneering partnership with the museum made possible our participation in planning an annual event that celebrates Filipino American History Month in October. My husband James became a founding member of FANHS East Bay Chapter during his years as a doctoral student as UC Berkeley.
This year, James Sobredo was invited to be part of the Filipino American Community Voices featured on a video at the Museum as part of the Philippine Art exhibit. Others who were interviewed were Edwin Lozada, Victoria Santos, Teresita Bautista, Cecilia Gaerlan, Esther Chavez and Vangie Buell. Although Vangie was not able to be present during the interview, you could find her narrative at the exhibit.
The video might still be accessible: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VJbn2YFgAkE&feature=youtu.be
In the past 8 years or so that my family frequented the Museum, we were in awe of the various collection of art representing many Asian histories and cultures. And we celebrated exposure to such significant and rich history of China, Korea, Japan, India and other cultures. Each time we leave the museum, invariably we would lament about how we did not see any Philippine art or artifact; or we wished we saw more than one small item of Philippine origin. We also had stimulating conversations about the Filipino community and our general reticence towards philanthropy or donating to non-profit organizations that support community causes including the purchase of art and artifacts for museums.
These sentiments and observations about Philippine Art missing from the collection were not news to the museum staff and administration. We were also aware that there was an active effort to secure Philippine art. Feeling hopeful, yet I was not fully convinced how this could possibly come to fruition. I didn’t see any wealthy donors from the community coming forward to make this possible. We waited for many years, almost ten years since we first visited this amazing museum.
All I knew was I desperately wanted a visible presence of Philippine Art at the Asian Art Museum. I didn’t want to hear anymore disparaging comments from the community like the one I experienced in 2016. During one of those annual events, an older Filipino woman assumed I was involved with the museum when she launched her complaint. It didn’t matter how many times I told her I did not work for the museum, that I am just a supportive member of the public and my husband just happened to be emcee at that event.
At first I didn’t know what to say when the woman offered to donate her own “maria clara gown.” Maria Clara is a traditional design of a national gown worn by women in the Philippines. It is believed to be named after the leading female character in the novel “Noli Me Tángere” (Latin for Touch Me Not) written by Jose Rizal, the country’s national hero. Although I have not personally read the novel, I understand that the writing exposed the injustices committed by the Spanish ruling class when Spain colonized the Philippines.
In my conversation with the Filipino woman, it became apparent she meant well. But she did not seem to give thought that items of art displayed in a world class museum required careful selection, vetting and thoughtful acquisition. I asked: if there was any historical significance or value to her old dress, in what condition was it, and if she had it appraised? She was stunned. I told her that I could only surmise what a curator would ask when selecting a work of art which merits display. Alright, I got carried away, but I was being realistic. But the encounter told me, there’s a hunger to see Philippine Art on display at a major museum.
Finally, Finding Philippine Art at the Museum
No longer a wish, but a wish that became a reality: finding Philippine art when the exhibit officially opened on July 14, 2017.
Heartfelt thanks go to the museum curatorial team, staff and leadership for their work and persistence. “Philippine Art: Collecting Art, Collecting Memories is organized by the Asian Art Museum. Presentation is made possible with the generous support of Dinny Winsor Chase, Consuelo Hall McHugh, Crisanto and Evelyn Raimundo, and Glenn Vinson and Claire Vinson.” (Asian Art Museum, http://www.asianart.org/exhibitions/philippine-art).
“This unprecedented exhibition — one of the first in the United States to present Philippine art from the precolonial period to the present ~ is the result of more than a decade of study and collecting by the museum’s curatorial team.” (Asian Art Museum. Philippine Art Exhibit: Collecting Art, Collecting Memories. 2017. http://www.asianart.org/exhibitions/philippine-art).
Although this essay only features select photos of art pieces that appealed to my family and friends, anyone could view the Philippine Art exhibit which will continue until March 11, 2018. It makes a huge difference to see the art and artifacts in person. Make it a day trip, except Monday when the Museum is closed. Please note that the narrative below that describes the photos is not in anyway an art review. If interested in more details, you might want to check out the article, At Last A Space for the Philippines at the Asian Art Museum, from kqed.com.
I chose six to feature here, out of 25 of the Philippine art pieces on display:
1. Ceremonial Deity (Bulul, pronounced; Bul - ul), estimated 1930
The carved artifact hails from the Ifugao people in the highlands of Northern Luzon in the Philippines. Estimated to be from 1930, the carving is made of wood and shell. Funded by the Asian Art Museum Filipino Fund for Acquisitions and a museum Top purchase, it is in a place of honor in the exhibit.
The Bulul is one of our favorites. James talks about it on the video of Community Voices in the Exhibit. For our wedding, my husband’s best man, Antonio De Castro, brought back from the Philippines a Bulul as his gift for us. Considered a god of fertility, it is often carried to the fields during harvest by the Ifugao people. Our son, Adrian likes to refer to it as “Rice god,” the way our dear Vangie Buell describes the statue.
2. Painting: Saint Isidore the Farmer and worshippers in the field, approx. 1750 ~ 1800
Oil on wood panel is a gift of Consuelo Hall McHugh; the work is unsigned. Saint Isidore is known in the Philippines as a patron saint of farmers. Clearly, the scenery is a confluence of both Philippine and Spanish cultures during Spain’s presence and period of colonization.
From the Community Voice video in the exhibit, my husband James Sobredo said: “The colonial experience of the Philippines has a strong connection to its artwork. This painting fascinates me because the architecture is very clearly Spanish. But if you look at the landscape, it’s painted in the Chocolate Hills of Bohol. The soldiers in the back are very clearly Asian, particularly with their hats. The farm animals in the front are Filipino carabaos (water buffalo). Then there is this Saint from Madrid, who's the patron saint of farmers…”
3. Devotional Statue: The Virgin Mary, perhaps 1650 ~ 1800
“Catholicism has been the cornerstone of Filipino identity for millions in the Philippines.” (Demarais, Charles. Asian Art Museum Works to Overcome Neglect of Philippine Art).
The spread of Catholicism by Spanish friars is the root of the predominant religious practice in the Philippines. This particular statue is a representation of Mary of the Immaculate Conception. The devotional statue of the blessed Mary could be found in most homes in the Philippines. It is as familiar as the presence of the crucified Jesus on the cross in catholic churches. Made of wood, pigments, metal, ivory, and human hair, the statue was a gift of Taylor and Julia Moore.
According to the description of this statue at the Asian Art Museum: “The tradition of making santo (saint) images of angels, saints and Mary and Jesus was common in Spain and spread to many of the colonized territories.”
Being a practicing Catholic, I have a couple of religious symbols gracing our home. I have nesting wood dolls, nestled images of Mary, Mother of Perpetual Help, a gift from a friend whose family visited Russia. The other piece is a colorful representation of Jesus on the cross painted on wood, a piece made in El Salvador. We acquired this religious item at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Northridge, while living in Los Angeles County years before. So the appeal of the devotional statue didn’t come as a surprise.
4. Painting: Native Song by Santiago Bose, 1949 ~ 2002
This large scale painting captured by 22-year-old son’s interest that he insisted on taking a photo of it for his smartphone wallpapers. Born in the U.S., my son wouldn’t have much intimate knowledge of the subjects depicted in the painting. Well, he has talked with his dad, the professor whose political leanings were freely shared with our son. Nevertheless, it evoked something in him. When I asked why, he told me that the appeal is mostly because the painting comes from the modern era.
Charles Demarais wrote in SFGate: The museum’s choices of contemporary art tend to the political. “1081,” an etching made in 1975 by Benedicto Reyes Cabrera, is a bracing evocation of the era of martial law proclaimed three years earlier by Ferdinand Marcos as Proclamation 1081 (Not featured in this photo essay). Santiago Bose’s “Native Song” (1999) is more ambitious, taking on the topic of subjugation, whether by Spain, the U.S. or the Catholic Church.
This oil on canvas with mixed media by Filipino artist Santiago Bose is a gift of Malou Babilonia.
5. Clothing: Barong
The Filipino men’s dress shirt is popularly called Barong. It is a formal wear in the Philippines and usually and mostly made from pineapple or pina silk. It is worn often at events by government officials in the country and abroad when representing the Philippines. Growing up, I have seen the item of clothing worn at weddings and other special occasions.
Although there are other pieces of clothing exhibited, Charles Desmarais wrote on SFGate: “But the quiet star of the entire exhibition hangs in a different part of the same display case: a wispy men’s shirt, woven in the 19th century of pineapple leaf fibers (“piña”), silk and cotton. A shirt that, just by being, lays claim to elegance, national identity and masculine confidence.”
6. Farmers Working and Resting, Fernando Amorsolo (1892 - 1955)
I vaguely remember in my youth hearing my elders refer to the artist only by his last name: Amorsolo. I wasn’t curious enough to have wanted to hear more about him; that is, not until I found out that one of his paintings would be featured at the Asian Art Museum. His use of light and colors reminded me of Impressionism, but I don’t know exactly how he categorized his own paintings. I gather he is considered one of the most important artists of the Philippines, known for his paintings of rural life as well as portraiture.
Now that the Philippine Art exhibit has been widely publicized on social media and elsewhere, I have read some of the reviews. The comments from the public are mostly appreciative. There are outliers who commented that s(he) "felt insulted because the small collection reinforced colonization…” Granted, everyone is entitled to his/her opinion. However, the person who wrote the comment had not even bothered to visit the collection in person. The bitter words seemed to appear as a reflection of personal anger and hurt. On the other hand, I and those in my circle, considered the exhibit as crucial progress for our Filipino American community in the Bay Area. Our ever increasing presence could no longer be denied, and we are finding our place even in places formerly reserved for the influential few. The exhibit achieved a balance of pre-colonial, colonial to modern & contemporary period. It is after all, the first major display of Philippine art at the museum. I am hopeful for the future.
The staff and management at the museum are fully aware of their challenges. As stated in a recent article in SFGate: “The Asian Art Museum acknowledges its own challenge with regard to the art of Southeast Asia — particularly the Philippines — in plain language on a large gallery sign: “The donations that formed the core of the ... original collection did not include this island nation.” There’s also the problem of stereotype expectations: objects from a culture with strong Christian traditions and Spanish colonial influence just feel out of place to scholars looking for Buddhist or Hindu sources.” (Desmarais, Charles. Asian Museum Works to Overcome Neglect of Filipino Art).
After many years, Philippine art has claimed its rightful place at the museum. I encourage one and all to visit the exhibit which ends on March 11, 2018. When you go, do so with optimism that this is only the beginning of something grander. After all, finally finding Philippine Art at the Asian Art Museum is cause for celebration.
Asian Art Museum, “Philippine Art Exhibit: Collecting Art, Collecting Memories.” 2017. http://www.asianart.org/exhibitions/philippine-art, Web. 30 August. 2017.
“Catholicism in the Philippines.” Harvard Divinity School. 2017. https://rlp.hds.harvard.edu/faq/catholicism-philippines. Web. 3 September. 2017.
Desmarais, Charles. “Asian Museum Works to Overcome Neglect of Filipino Art.” 23 August.2017. http://www.sfgate.com/news/article/Asian-Museum-works-to-overcome-neglect-of-11953253.php. Web. 30 August. 2017.
Essay ©Lu Sobredo
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.