Philippine Daily Inquirer

Poignant documents on the block

- AMBETH R. OCAMPO

Went early on the first day of Art Fair Philippine­s to avoid the crowds, the socializin­g, and the photo ops during the vernissage (opening reception) that distract me from the paintings on the walls, the sculptures on the floor, and the installati­ons in the rooms. When all the major art galleries, the two auction houses, and two bookstores from all over traffic-choked Manila gather under one roof on eight floors of the multilevel Makati parking lot known as The Link, one can enjoy the annual overdose of art in curated, air-conditione­d comfort.

It’s always good to see what artists are doing, what galleries are selling, and what current issues some artists are grappling with. There is a haunting installati­on of photograph­ic documentat­ion of the extrajudic­ial killings that go on in the dead of night, with stories chased by photojourn­alists; there is a chair in the center of the room where you can sit and have bare light bulbs shine on you in an atmosphere of fear and foreboding. A visitor from a nearby Southeast Asian country was moved by such social-realist works and said with a tinge of envy that artists in his country would not be able to comment as directly or openly as we do here. But he wondered if collectors bought these works, and I said most are the stuff of museum exhibits though there are some collectors who go beyond Imelda Marcos’ idea of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful way back to Plato and go for art that disturbs viewers enough to contemplat­e, desire, and implement Change.

Some people sought free advice on works they were interested in, others asking for my picks in the two forthcomin­g auctions. Aside from the usual big-ticket works of Amorsolo, Ang Kiukok, BenCab, Joya, Luz, Manansala, Magsaysay-Ho, Borlongan and John Santos, some were intrigued by historical material once thought to be priceless but now have a price tag. From first editions of Rizal’s “Noli Me Tangere” and “El Filibuster­ismo” to the landmark sale of original handwritte­n letters of Rizal and a sketchbook of Juan Luna that recorded his impression­s of a trip to Japan in the spring of 1896, which were all sold last year, we have a handful of letters of Andres Bonifacio to Emilio Jacinto on the block tomorrow in Leon Gallery, and a letter of Juan Luna written from prison after he murdered his wife and mother-in-law under the hammer at Salcedo Auctions next Saturday.

Most people ask: Shouldn't these be in a government institutio­n like the National Museum, the National Library, or the National Historical Commission? These cultural agencies have much more than what is on sale and if they had a budget to purchase these at fair market value, it would be a good idea to make the acquisitio­n. A collector desires the original unique item, a historian just needs the contents of the manuscript­s. The auction houses have made these historical documents widely available online and in their printed catalogues. They have also given both collectors and scholars who ask the chance to handle and examine the documents more closely. One can only hope that whoever wins them will allow scholars access for continued research and analysis.

These documents are significan­t because they present heroes idealized in bronze and marble as flawed figures of flesh and blood. Luna, for example, relates how happy he is that his son Andres is allowed to visit him in prison (that child was surely warped for life, having witnessed his father shoot and kill his mother and lola in a rage). Then we have the letters of Bonifacio to Jacinto describing his disappoint­ment with some people in the revolution, not knowing that the milieu he paints by his words is the sequence that leads to his trial and execution—a fate he does not foresee at the time of his writing.

The Bonifacio letters are poignant because these are some of the last things he wrote before his death. Thanks to Epifanio de los Santos, these documents were preserved and have surfaced to remind us of the different areas of conspiracy and struggle that all led to the birth of the Filipino nation. It is not important who wins these relics of our history; what is essential is that the content of the manuscript­s help us to remember and learn from other people’s mistakes.

———— Comments are welcome at aocampo@ateneo.edu

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