Penman No. 175: Filipinos at the Field Museum

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Penman for Monday, November 23, 2015

 

 

AS MANILA got busy with preparations and lockdowns for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, Beng and I flew out to Chicago for the culmination of a cross-continental initiative of another kind: the Art and Anthropology project hosted by the Field Museum and funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

A few months ago, sometime in August, five Filipino-American artists (Jennifer Buckler, Elisa Racelis Boughner, Cesar Conde, Joel Javier, and Trisha Oralie Martin)?came over to Manila to work with their homegrown counterparts on a large mural (technically a free-standing painting) featuring objects from the Field Museum’s vast collection of Philippine anthropological artifacts. That phase was hosted locally by the Erehwon Art Center in Quezon City, on the board of whose foundation Beng (aka June Poticar Dalisay, the painter and art conservator) sits as Vice President.

This October, the five Filipino artists (Leonardo Aguinaldo, Florentino Impas, Jr., Emmanuel Garibay, Jason Moss, and Othoniel Neri) went to Chicago to do the same thing—working collaboratively with the Fil-Ams on a 28’ x 7’ mural at the Field Museum, locating ancient Filipino artifacts in a more contemporary and inevitably globalized context.

The moving spirit behind this project was the indefatigable Dr. Almira Astudillo Gilles, a Chicago-based Filipino-American cultural scholar and activist who also happens to be a prizewinning writer and presidential awardee for her work as an overseas Filipino. Inspired by the Philippine artifacts at the Field Museum, Almi—the only Filipino research associate at the Field—had secured a grant from the prestigious MacArthur Foundation for the project, which both the foundation and the museum acknowledged to be groundbreaking in many ways.

Better known for its so-called “genius grants” awarded to outstanding individuals, the MacArthur Foundation rarely provides funding for large institutions like the Field Museum, Almi says, but they saw in her proposal an opportunity to spur not just a trans-Pacific collaboration among artists but also a dialogue with the past. And there was no better host in the US for this project than the venerable Field Museum, whose collection of indigenous Philippine archaeological and ethnographic materials—numbering around 10,000 objects, most of them brought over by museum expeditions to the islands at the early part of the 20th century—is one of the world’s most comprehensive.

The mural produced by the artists in Chicago—which will be on display at the Field for six months since its formal unveiling last November 7—is both a celebration and indictment of our rich and complicated history, invoking all manner of element from the archetypal bulol and the revolutionary KKK (a symbol that predictably sparked some controversy, given its American context) to McDonald’s and Tito, Vic & Joey.

For the artists themselves, the collaboration was a rich, if sometimes unavoidably difficult, learning experience—learning about themselves, about each other, about art-making, about the mutable meanings of “Filipino” over time and space. Prior to the project, some of the Fil-Ams had never been to the Philippines, and some of the Filipinos had never been to America; that alone ensured sufficient provocation in their approach to the task at hand. The collaborative aspect itself was a challenge, given the need to manage and balance each artist’s individuality with some overarching purpose or design. But in the end, as Joel Javier would tell me, despite all the dialectics involved, it was “a once-in-a-lifetime experience” that every participant—chosen by a jury in each country—would have signed up for.

Our sortie into the Field Museum—a place I’ve visited quite a few times over the past two decades, but can never exhaust, like the Smithsonian—was made even more special by a private tour arranged for us by Almi Gilles into the heart of the Philippine collection itself, in the underground vaults of the Field. As a certified museum rat and armchair adventurer, I took it as an invitation to die and go to heaven; the closest I hope to get to Indiana Jones was to wear his hat, which I wore on the appointed day.

We were met at the museum by co-curator Alpha Sadcopen, a young Filipino-American woman with roots in the northern highlands; she held the key to the collection, and led us into a large room where shelf upon shelf of tribal and cultural artifacts—baskets, textiles, weapons, utensils, body decorations, etc.—were preserved, most of them never likely to be put on display outside. “I could feel a shiver down my spine,” Beng would tell me later, and I certainly did myself, walking past the priceless objects, and discerning in each one of them a pair of hands, a face, a story.

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As if that peek into our material past wasn’t a treat enough, Almi then led us down a few more corridors to meet with another titan of Philippine studies—the renowned zoologist Dr. Lawrence Heaney, curator and head of the museum’s Division of Mammals. Larry began studying the wildlife of the Philippines in 1981, a lifelong passion that has resulted in the discovery of dozens of previously unknown mammalian species, in many landmark publications, and in the establishment, with Larry’s Filipino colleagues, of the Wildlife Conservation Society of the Philippines.

We often think of world-class scientists as surly, self-absorbed individuals who can’t relate to anything beyond what they see in their microscopes and telescopes, but Larry defies that stereotype. You couldn’t have met a nicer man, and one who chose not only to sound the usual alarm about our threatened environment, but also to emphasize the positive and the possible. “Hectare for hectare, the Philippines is the world’s richest place for endemism,” he told us, cradling what seemed to be a huge rat saved from a 1946 expedition to Luzon, “and there certainly are serious threats to Philippine wildlife, but we’ve also noticed some bright spots. For example, the growth of overseas jobs for many Filipinos—despite its social costs—has also eased the pressures on the environment and on wildlife in many rural communities.” Dr. Heaney is coming over to Manila next year to launch another book, and I’ll be sure to be there.

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And what’s next for Almi Gilles? She’s looking skyward, into the connections between Philippine anthropology and astronomy. Her colleagues at the museum seem thrilled by the idea, and so are we.

For more pictures of the Philippine collection at the Field Museum, see here:?https://www.flickr.com/photos/penmanila/albums/72157660699359089.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Penman No. 174: What Women Remember

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Penman for Monday, 16 November 2015

 

 

I WAS?very pleased and much relieved—and, as one of the convenors—immensely proud for the Philippines to have successfully hosted this year’s conference of the Asia Pacific Writers and Translators (APWT) late last month in Manila.

Among the highlights of the conference was a keynote talk given on the last day by none other than one of our foremost fictionists and critics, Dr. Cristina “Jing” Pantoja-Hidalgo, now the Director of UST’s Center for Creative Writing and Literary Studies, who spoke on a subject even her fellow Filipino writers like me know very little about or pay only minor attention to—the journals, memoirs, and autobiographies of Filipino women. I found her lecture (titled “The Subversive Memory: Women Tell What Happened”) so informative that I asked her permission to excerpt parts of it to share with my readers, so here:

Several generations are represented in the seven women who are the subject of my new book, which I called To Remember to Remember…. t today is referred to as multi- er, is available at the UST Publshing Housee so informative that I asked her permission to exce

The oldest, Paz Policarpio-Mendez, was born in a small town in the province of Nueva Ecija in 1903, and was among the first children to enter the American public school system, and one of the first women to go all the way to college in UP. But, to get there and to stay there, she had to fight her father – who did not hesitate to beat her when he objected to her behavior or her opinions. Always painfully aware of her father’s preference for his sons, she strove to win honors in school, to merit his approval. But he never gave it. Later, she married a journalist who eventually became a diplomat, and finally the Secretary of Foreign Affairs. But Paz went right on studying and teaching, while raising a family, and attending to the duties of a diplomat’s lady.

The youngest, Rica Bolipata-Santos, was born in Manila, and educated entirely in Catholic schools, until she decided to get a PhD in Creative Writing in UP. She is sister to the three famous Bolipata brothers, musical child prodigies. This doomed her to play second fiddle to them, to grow up feeling unimportant, untalented, even ugly. Kept back from developing her own musical talent (she could sing!), not deliberately or maliciously, but through neglect, she found her voice in writing and in teaching. Now she is also an academic administrator. But the biggest trial in her life has been her special child, and her memoir is the story of her struggle to cope with anger, sorrow, sometimes despair.

In between there is Solita Camara-Besa, a woman who describes herself as a battered child – this abuse by her father did not let up even after she was married, until her husband, demanded that she choose between himself and her parents. For all this, she became one of the country’s first women doctors—though again, she experienced appalling gender discrimination in the UP College of Medicine, of all places—and was part of the heroic little band of UP faculty members who kept UP and its teaching hospital, the Philippine General Hospital – running throughout World War II.

The remaining four writers who are part of the book took for granted their right to an education and to careers of their own. But they had their own battles to fight. For Gilda Cordero-Fernando (b. 1930), maker of baby bags, keeper of antique shop, fashion designer, publisher, and one of the country’s finest writers of fiction and nonfiction, the battle was against her mother and the convent school education that she felt trapped in; against her husband who resented her writing, her writer friends, and the many worlds that her numerous gifts opened up to her, but kept a mistress for most of their life together; and against conventional ideas about what constitutes accomplishment and success.

For the prize-winning poet and academic, Merlie Alunan (b. 1943), it was the battle to hold it all together when she became a single parent, seeing herself and her children through school, teaching in college, holding workshops for struggling young writers, and picking up poetry awards along the way.

Jennifer Ortuoste (b. 1968) trained as an apprentice racehorse jockey, married a professional jockey and raised her babies in the Santa Ana Racetrack. Hers is the story of a battered wife; and the story of the collapse of her marriage is told against the backdrop of the demise of the racetrack that she loved. When her marriage fell apart, she picked herself up, became a journalist, got an M.A., and is now writing prizewinning fiction and nonfiction.

Criselda Yabes (b. 1964) chose a profession, which until the generation before hers was not considered quite respectable for women—journalism. The most independent, unconventional and alienated of the seven, her story is focused on 16 months of her life, the period after she had been abandoned by her lover of seven years. And, to keep a hold on sanity, she went to Europe, first on a scholarship, then as a war correspondent in different countries, until, in a borrowed apartment in Athens, she began to write about the year she had just lived through, and so found her way home.

In life, these women broke from the mold. They would not settle for what was expected of and from them as women. They wanted different things. In writing their memoirs, they, again, transgressed. For in the Philippines, family matters are kept private, particularly matters which will make the family lose face; one’s personal memoirs inevitably include other members of the family. They may not have been flaming radicals, marching down streets, waving banners and chanting slogans, or being hauled off to jail, being tortured and even killed, as some of their sisters were. But, in their own quiet way, they were rebels….

I read the memoirs of the three older writers as variations on a theme, the theme being the education of the modern Filipino woman, and her transformation, from sheltered schoolgirl into formidable, professional woman without relinquishing the role of wife and mother. I do not claim for this narrative that it applies to all modern Filipino women, nor even all modern Filipino women of the middle class (to which all three belong). But I do believe that it is a pattern that many Filipinas aspire to, and can therefore identify with. And I suggest that in telling their own life stories, these writers are creating a different myth, to replace the older narratives about the Filipina and her role in society….

These are the narratives that we, the next generation of Filipino women writers inherited. Most of our mothers had college degrees and careers. After they married, those who lived in extended families, or could afford reliable yayas went on working, and became quite expert at juggling their several roles, what today is referred to as multitasking, and they trained their daughters to do the same.

The memoirs of the younger writers are, in a sense, their response to these narratives. I take them as signposts. They mark the latest paths taken by Filipinas and what they reveal is the distance they have travelled, but not a change of direction. Those pioneers, some of them already so bold for their time, but working in relative obscurity, had pointed the way….

What these women have done is take the personal narrative—either the full-length autobiography or the memoir—and use it to open doors previously kept firmly locked, and to explore their own thoughts and feelings about the monsters lurking in its shadowy corners. This they have done in language both precise and elegant. Thus have they contributed to the story of their country, and the place in it of Filipino women.

(Jing Hidalgo’s new book, To Remember to Remember, is available at the UST Publishing House for P400.)

 

 

 

 

Penman No. 173: Lines and Letters

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Penman for Monday, November 2, 2015

IT’S BEEN?a while since I’ve written about my favorite pastime (aside from my weekly poker binges and my foot-massage-and-movie dates with Beng), so indulge me this break from the headaches of literature and politics and let me talk about those obscure objects of my writerly desire—pens and all things appurtenant thereto, as my lawyer friends would say.

We have, not incidentally, a good many lawyers among our members at the Fountain Pen Network-Philippines (FPN-P), which isn’t surprising, given how lawyers have traditionally used pens in their work, and at least in taking their bar examinations. Those pen-wielding members of the Philippine bar include Undersecretaries Albert Muyot, Ronnie Geron, and Rey Cruz; SEC Chairperson Tess Herbosa and SEC lawyer Joanne Ranada; pro-gun advocate Ticky Tabujara; former ACCRA lawyer Elsa Divinagracia; and Aboitiz lawyer Anthony Goquingco. While he hasn’t formally signed up with FPN-P, Supreme Court Justice Marvic Leonen, an avid pen user, has turned up at a meeting or two.

We also have a sizeable representation of doctors—among others, Novartis executive Aileeen Dualan, surgeons Jojo Hosaka, Joy Grace Jerusalem, and Leo Ona III, Healthway Medical head Eleanor Bengco-Tan, barrio doctors Edrie Alcanzare and Jim Lopez, Dagupan-based rehab specialist Hazel Gazmen, company physician Kristine Arabaca, and new Med graduate Mark del Rosario. Predictably, there’s a special thread in our forum devoted to providing specimens of our doctors’ handwriting—the more unreadable, the more impressive.

Alongside these professionals come teachers, writers, artists, businessmen, bankers, students, and all manner of writing enthusiast, drawn to the group if not by pens then by inks, papers, calligraphy, or drawing. What started out in my front yard in Diliman seven years ago with less than 20 people has grown to over 500 members on our dedicated website at http://www.fpn-p.org/, and more than 2,000 on our Facebook page (being FB-averse, I stay out of that group, but you’re welcome to sign up there if FB’s your thing).

Once or twice a month, we get together—typically for a long Saturday lunch in a Makati or Ortigas restaurant—to play with our pens and to doodle away in wild abandon. While we may talk politics in the corners of the meeting and devote some attention to tangential interests like watches and knives (you’d be surprised how many pen people have one or the other or even both as secondary hobbies), the focus is clearly on fountain pens, inks, and papers.

Whatever for? There’s no better way I can explain it than group therapy. As I’ve said in this column many times, it’s the sheer tactile pleasure of laying down lines and letters on a page, of watching the ink spread through the paper’s fibers, creating networks of meaning, or otherwise an impression of beauty, an entirely handmade beauty at that. This is what you can’t get from a ballpoint or a rollerball—a soft or shaped nib that can create breathtaking line variations from from extra-fine to triple-broad, that can be so sensitive to the touch that the merest tremor can betray some deep-seated emotion. With every stroke of the pen, another worldly care is banished, another rampant anxiety quelled. There’s nothing more intimate yet more revealing than that stroke, the physical commitment of thought to paper.

Fountain pen collectors (among other creatures infected by the same virus of compulsive acquisition) often speak of their “grail” pen, that one elusive, near-unattainable pen that calls to them in their dreams and shimmers like a mirage on the horizon of their consciousness. That pen could be as simple as a Parker 51 that they recall their father used, or as weighty as the Montblanc 149 favored by Supreme Court Justices, or as uncommon as a custom-made Nakaya or Hakase epitomizing the finest of Japanese craftsmanship.

Over the past 30 years of immersing myself in the hobby, I’ve had many such “grail” pens cross my fevered brain, and have actually had the good fortune of realizing most of them—a 1938 Parker Vacumatic Oversize in burgundy, a Parker “Big Red” Duofold from 1926, a Montblanc Agatha Christie from 1993, and, most recently, a Montblanc Ernest Hemingway from 1992. Almost as interesting as the pens themselves, each of these pens has a story behind it, a near-mythical chase across decades and continents.

Unlike many collectors, I don’t keep my best pens in a case, under lock and key. I rotate them for daily use, praying that I’ll never lose one, although that’s almost a statistical certainty. It isn’t ostentation that impels me to do this, but rather an acute and growing awareness of time passing—of the sense that, at my age, I probably have another ten good years left, and what a waste they would be if I let my happiest acquisitions moulder away in some dark drawer, never having kissed paper.

If all this talk of pens makes you want to reach for one—whether in memory of a long-forgotten practice or in anticipation of a novel experience—then join us this Saturday, November 7, at the Cinema VIP Lounge of Century City Mall on Kalayaan Avenue in Makati as we celebrate International Fountain Pen Day (yes, such a day exists) around the theme of “Celebrating Analog Writing in a Digital Age.”

Open to the general public, the day’s events will include a pen-and-ink art exhibit, a calligraphy workshop, a sketching session, as well as an introduction to fountain pens for children. Guests may also avail themselves of services such as vintage pen restoration, appraisals, and nib tuning.

For supporting this project, FPN-P would like to thank Manila’s leading purveyors of quality writing instruments such as Everything Calligraphy, Faber‐Castell, Lamy, Parker, Scribe Writing Essentials, Sheaffer and Wahl‐Eversharp/PenGrafik. Our special thanks go as well to Asia Brewery for their assistance.

Entrance is free, so take those leaky old pens out of your grandfather’s desk drawer and bring them to us for a cleaning and a good chat. But I warn you: fountain pen use can be highly addictive, and leave your fingers stained in the most wonderful colors.