Philippine Daily Inquirer

Batanes’ artists create great works on their own

ASCO, BATANES—EVER since her husband “Inong” won as councilor in Itbayat last May, Irene Galaga Gonzales’ ramshackle handicraft­s store which displays her world-class hat and bag products along Basco’s national highway has remained closed.

- By Rita R. Festin Contributo­r

BIt’s not that she has stopped weaving. On the contrary, despite her eyesight deteriorat­ing due to cataract, she still weaves at a workaholic’s pace and even personally manned her stall at the Agro Industrial Trade, Technology and Tourism Fair, dubbed as “Wakay (Sweet Potato) Festival” this June during the province’s 227th Foundation day celebratio­n.

At 65 years old, she has reached iconic status as the province’smaster basket maker, and has unselfishl­y trained her provincema­tes in the towns of Itbayat and Batan, and has even been conducted trainings in Laos.

She says her students should not be lazy and should seriously want to learn to weave. “ Hindi makapag sit in sa akin ang tamad (Those who are lazy cannot sit inmy class),” she emphasized. “ Wala kang trabaho (You have no work)? I will teach you to weave.” And she has unselfishl­y trained thousands.

Her hats have been much sought after. No less the CNN’s icon of Style Elsa Klensch learned about Irene’s weaving from a National Geographic team that visited Batanes as part of the world euphoria over a People-Powered Philippine­s.

Tesalonica Vargas Castillejo­s, the provincial head of the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), spoke to Klensch herself over the phone who placed an order of 5,000 hats a month in 1997. Unfortunat­ely, Irene turned it down.

Typical of Ivatan humility, she felt she could not fulfill the order partly due to the tedious process of obtaining the raw materials and the intricate handweavin­g and did not want to put her reputation at stake.

Other big orders, as high as 7,000 per month for the Japanese market, still come Irene’s way and she turned them all down.

It’s not as if she is not in it for the money. Irene narrates that she and her husband were “ walang wala (very poor)” when they got married and she prayed “Lord, give me some livelihood so I can help my husband” who was then a technical staff at the DTI Batanes office. She started knitting, embroidery and finally found her niche in tribal baskets, hats, fans, etc.

Manila-based designers have visited her and have boldly made suggestion­s to her design but she thinks that her traditiona­l designs are better, which have withstood fashion trends. “We can get ideas but the total design is mine,” she says.

She has 10 children, and all are artists. She says it is inherent in them to be artists although she never pushed her children into it. One of her daughters has taken up her weaving skill and patterns her design after her mother’s.

A son, Olan, is now Batanes’ highest paid artist. And just like his mother, he also teaches students and conducts workshops in painting, most of the time, for free.

“ Mabubuhay siya kung ipagpatulo­y niya ang kanyang gawain (he can live off his earnings from paintings if he can sustain his work),” she says of Olan. She recalls how Olan turned down several offers to be trained in Manila in the company of famous painters, only to return to Batanes.

Olan says he felt tense while in Manila, stifling his creative juices and he felt he could not cope with the city bustle. Today, his art pieces command up to P50,000 each and have been shipped to Europe and North America although his lifestyle has remained simple and his demeanor humble, very much like his mother.

All his artworks’ themes are Batanes-inspired, be it a stone home, vakul (Ivatan women headdress), or a tataya boat returning from Batanes’ famously wild seas.

He tells his students “ang means of livelihood natin painting kaya huwag ka kumuha ng ibang tema. Temang Batanes lang (our means of livelihood is painting so don’t use other themes anymore. Just use Batanes themes only).”

His favorite theme is the bayanihan spirit where a community is involved in constructi­ng a stone home. “ Ang daming movement. Sa boat kasi, walang child or woman. Pag roofing, lahat may participat­ion (There’s so much movement. In a boat scene, there are no children nor women. But in a roofing scene, everybody participat­es),” he says. He believes that they should be documentin­g everyday lives of Ivatans because buyers in search of good artists will go to places like Batanes, no matter how far.

Unlike other Batanes-born artists who made good while abroad, he chose to remain in Batanes and promote its heritage. “Everything is here in Batanes; inspiratio­n abounds,” he says. “ Pag andito ka, kahit sino, artist. (If you live here, anybody can be an artist). You won’t lack themes because Batanes is rich in culture,” he boasts.

He even turned down recently a monthlong contract in Frankfurt despite the lure of a good pay because he knew the time frame was too limited. “ Baka mapahiya kami. Para namang di namin kikitain dito iyon na hindi ako mapapahiya. Gagawa ka ng pangalan, huwag mo sirain (We might not be able to meet their deadline and we will lose face. It’s not as if I won’t be able to earn that kind of money here. If you make a name for yourself, don’t ruin it),” he says.

He tells his Ivatan students that they need to have the drive and the interest to be an artist. Anybody can be an artist but the interest has to be there. And to promote Batanes, he believes one has to live in Batanes. He even has a nephew, Marc Roscoe, who grew up in Bulacan but now lives with him as a painter. At 22 years old, the third-generation Gonzales has his own eye for color and detail, even if half-blind.

There is a future for Batanes artists, he says, and very soon they will have a home that will showcase all theirworks. His group, the Yaru Nu Artes Ivatan or Bayanihan of Ivatan Artists, (i.e. Olan, Javier Ponce, Xavier Abelador, and Jaypee Portez), is now “cleaning up,” organizing their files, and awaiting their shipment of tools and equipment to create a home for their works in a permanent Heritage Building in Basco.

With all of Batanes’ natural beauty, tourists will have an additional reason to be drawn to Batanes, this time its rich culture depicted in a work of art.

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