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Stories of Negrense women

EATING a favorite childhood dish, revisiting a pastime in the summer, cleaning out a closet, reliving travel experiences, and confronting socio-political issues are a few activities that have preoccupied eight women artists from Negros over the past year. These stories found their way into works which will go on exhibit in “Istorya Namon Subong (Our Stories Now)” at Salcedo Auctions’ Private View.

“Istorya Namon Subong” is an extension of the exhibit “Istorya conTEXT:Amon Ni” (Story conTEXT: This is Ours) which was held in the Orange Project (Bacolod) booth at last year’s Art Fair Philippines.

Prompted by the question: “How has the lockdown affected your experience as a Negrense artist?,” artists Moreen Austria, Katarina Estrada, Karina Broce Gonzaga, Elwah Gonzales, Erika Mayo, Megumi Miura, Angela Silva, and Josephine Turalba retell childhood tales, and their personal experiences as Negrense women.

According to its curator Georgina Luisa O. Jocson, the exhibit is a “pictorial anthology of stories authored by eight Negrense women artists in their examination of Ilonggo women’s identities within this past year’s setting and plot of the pandemic.”

“Another challenge I posed to the artists  was to refrain from explicitly depicting personal protective equipment (PPE) or alcohol or sanitizer unless these images were vital to the artists commentary on identity,” Ms. Jocson told BusinessWorld in a group interview held via Zoom on April 19.

“The exhibit really is about the identity of Negrense women. They’re not pandemic works per se,” Ms. Jocson noted.

ON SOUP, BABAYLANS, AND FLOWERS
In their works Katarina Estrada, Karina Broce Gonzaga, and Elwah Gonzales recall childhood memories and stories from Visayan mythology.

Stuck in lockdown in Manila, and unable to visit her home, Ms. Estrada dove into her childhood memories of Bacolod, fondly remembering her grandmother’s las-wa soup and moments with the family at the dining table. Her ink sketches with metal leaf details portray the process from picking the vegetables (Puknit), boiling (Buklan), and serving the soup (Las-wa).

“We are big food people on both my mother’s side and father’s side. The act of cooking is really a show of an expression of love in our family,” Ms. Estrada said during the same interview, recalling the act of dining together was a way of reconnecting which she has missed while under lockdown.

As for Ms. Gonzales, she assumed the role as head of the family early in the lockdown since her parents were in the US and she had to provide for her siblings.

In her portraits Sa Panulok ni Dalikmata (Dalikmata’s points of view) and Dungan sang Babaylan (Soul of a Babaylan), she presents herself as Dalikmata, the Visayan goddess of health, and as the babaylan or pre-colonial shaman who specialized in communicating with spirits of the dead and nature.

“[Elwah] chose to portray her newfound identity as a strong, resilient powerful Negrense woman, through an appropriation of characters from Visayan mythology and pre-colonial history,” Ms. Jocson said, speaking on behalf of Ms. Gonzales.

Like many people who suddenly had time on their hands over the last year, Karina Broce Gonzaga cleaned out her closet. The old clothes and discarded fabrics were used as the medium for her flower portraits.

“I ended up… shredding them which was incredibly satisfying and therapeutic,” Ms. Gonzaga said, adding that the idea of arranging the shredded fabric into flowers was inspired by her visits to her paternal grandmother’s garden.

“This was probably the first project in like a really long time where I got to use my hands again,” Ms. Gonzaga said.

Ms. Gonzaga’s works include illustrations of gumamela, santan, and sampaguita f lowers.

STORIES OF TRAVEL
Angela Silva and Josephine Turalba, meanwhile, traced the experiences of their families in the broader context of personal and collective memory.

Being stuck indoors led Ms. Silva reminisced about travel as she unearthed her mother’s passports. “I was thinking about travel and how I’m cooped up,” Ms. Silva said. “Then, I discovered my mother’s nine passports intact. And as I looked through them, I saw that there was a timeline, and it made it very easy to all of a sudden match everything that I had — photographs, documents — and put them together.

“It dawned on me to use the passports [for the exhibit] because they mean something almost immediately to people — it’s a way to travel and then you can’t,” she added.

Elena Ledesma Silva, whose family had a Negrense haciendero background, used those nine passports as she traveled via cruise ship from the Philippines to the US in the 1930s.

For the exhibit, Ms. Silva came up with a special All About Her collection, composed of two collages and a set of seven artist books to tell the story of her mother and her travels (https://angelasilva.com/all-about-her).

A Manileña, Josephine Turalba revisits the mahjong games which were played to pass the time during summers spent in Negros. Ms. Turalba created a Tawhay (the Hiligaynon term for “tranquility” and “calmness”) mahjong set made up of 146 digital laser-engraved and UV printed tiles. Each tile illustration symbolizes a detail in the history of Sugarlandia.

Mahjong is a past-time… played by many in Negros for generations. It was most popular during a glorious era when the one-crop economy based on the planting, harvesting, and milling of sugar resulted in windfalls for local landowners,” Ms. Turalba wrote of her Tawhay tile guide. “The game has resurfaced during the COVID-19 lockdown, as many families enjoyed playing endless rounds of mahjong in the comfort of their own homes. When playing with the Tawhay set, history is retold and re-learned.”

Aside from the mahjong set, Ms. Turalba created prints (Escalera and Secret Kang) and a mixed medium illustration, Nadumduman mo na? (Do You Remember Now?) depicting Negrense history during the Second World War.

THE REALITY OF NEGROS
As for sculptors Megumi Miura and Moreen Austria and multi-media artist Erika Mayo, they focused on depicting socio-cultural experiences specific to Negros, such as the sudden popularity of online bartering, the plight of sugarcane farmers, and the harsh reality of political activists.

A Filipino-Japanese artist, Ms. Miura pays tribute to the sacadas (migrant sugarcane workers) who would work in the province’s vast sugar plantations during harvest season. Her sculptures also touch on the women sacadas’ other roles such as mothers, and providers. She highlights the workers’ colorful headgear which serves a dual purpose as a protective mask from the harsh sunlight in the field as well, today, as protection from the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) virus. The logos of luxury brands printed on the headgear is Ms. Miura’s way of showing that despite the sacadas’ toil in the plantations, their roles are often overlooked.

“Before, during, and after the pandemic, their identity remains the same,” Ms. Jocson said of Ms. Muira’s sculptures.

Erika Mayo’s canvasses, Sino Dasun? (Who’s Next?), and Dakpan! Ikaw taya! (Langit Lupa) (Tag! You’re it!) depict the realities faced by political activists.

The red, black, and white portraits represent how women are often silenced when speaking their minds about their oppression.

“When people start to speak out. They [are] immediately called out,” Ms. Mayo said. “When all of these powerful women show their power or leadership, they would call them aswang (an evil mythological creature). Now, they are called terrorists.”

Meanwhile, Ms. Mayo’s Batano ni Inday (Inday’s Weapon), is a metaphor for a woman’s strength and ability to surpass challenges thrown at them.

The inspiration for Moreen Austria’s sculptures began with a mother’s post on a Facebook barter page, offering to trade her extra eyeliner for vegetables during the strict lockdown. The barter page gained traction, eventually gaining over 20,000 members.

“The people just suddenly went crazy over this. It was a phenomenon that had to be captured,” Ms. Austria said. The artist herself traded 12 koi fishes in exchange for a sack of rice.

Ms. Austria’s sculptures show the sense of community in trading goods such as vegetables, plants, and bread.

“It gave me a sense of community [since] all of [you] were just exchanging the goods that you did not want for something that somebody has. So, I just thought that this should be one phenomenon that should be caught in an art form,” she said.

All these works and more are now accessible to people all over the archipelago and beyond because it is online. Ms. Jocson noted that the digitalization of exhibits “kind of levels the playing field for artworks from outside the center (Metro Manila).”

“All of these can be shared from person to person, and post to post. So, that is a very big plus for [other] regions,” she said.

“Istorya Namon Subong (Our Stories Now)” runs both as a limited in-person exhibit at the NEX Tower, Ayala Ave, in Makati City and as an online exhibition until May 8. Safety protocols and social distancing will be strictly enforced while in the gallery. To view the exhibition online, visit https://salcedoauctions.com/exhibition/78/istorya-namon-subong-our-stories-now. — Michelle Anne P. Soliman

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