Visitors to Museo de Intramuros’ ongoing two-man exhibition will find themselves in a surreal space. Right by the entrance, Diokno Pasilan’s imposing boat skeleton seems to have run aground in the museum’s sun-bathed courtyard. The main exhibition hall is populated with Ged Merino’s horseless kalesas and dismantled parts of the traditional carriage, all swathed in bursts of colorful yarn and fabric strips.
The show might as well be a narcotic-fueled re-staging of an epic war’s aftermath. Except that it’s not. Through their works – Ged’s Kuwentong Kutsero and Diokno’s Boat Recollections – the artists take viewers on a journey through tender remembrances of vanishing traditions.
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A boat-maker’s son
“The intention of the work is to reconstruct a childhood memory by building a skeleton of two boats in one body,” Diokno said, in explanation of his work’s concept. “It is also an opportunity to revisit the boat-making craftsmanship, and renew the spirit of the tradition as a community art practice.”
Now based in Australia, the artist grew up in a boat-making community in Negros Occidental, the son of a master carpenter who specialized on the crafting of ship bridges. Diokno remembers hanging out with his father to help with the boat-building, as well as creating toy models using his father’s tools. Putting a boat to sea was a festive community event, celebrated with food and drinks by the whole village. “This was in the 70s, when wood was still abundant,” Diokno said.
The artist witnessed his village’s downward turn sometime in the 80s, triggered by the decline of the fishing industry as well as the shortage of wood for boat-building. “The village that I knew as a child became crowded, and most of the men from my generation left to work overseas. My memories became my inspiration to re-examine my roots and search for the collective identity.”
Diokno dramatised his longing for an idyllic past through the dark boat skeleton which is accompanied by an armada of brightly-painted bancas, much like the toy models Diokno built as a child. “They are reminders that we are islanders, and boats are part of our cultural identity.”
Ged’s assemblage -- which include videos by the artist -- appears euphoric and apocalyptic at the same time, symbolic of the conflicted attitude towards an iconic holdover from the Spanish Colonial era. The mantle of fabrics is an attempt by the artist at cocooning collective remembrances of the kalesa.
“My practice focuses on my processing of memory, “ Ged disclosed, “so I like to collect or select objects that are sentimental, or remind me of places I’ve been to. I wrap and bind them to give them new forms, or as if to protect the memory. It’s like archiving sentimentality.”
For the show, Ged retraced the kalesa’s arc, starting from its heyday during the Spanish Colonial era to the present. While researching, he learned about the annual kalesa parade in Plaridel, Bulacan, as well as the last master kalesa-maker, Ben Lingad, from San Fernando, Pampanga. Most of all, a series of interviews (conducted with the help of Ged’s Fil-Am journalist friend from New York, Christian Brazil Bautista) with modern-day kutseros revealed their struggles; the reason the artist expanded his thematic scope to honor not just the kalesa and what it stands for, but its drivers as well.
The artists gathered a few kutseros one balmy afternoon for a casual chat at Museo de Intramuros.
Four members of SAKSI, or Samahan ng mga Kutsero sa Intramuros, arrived at the museum proudly steering their kalesas. Roderick Javier, Cyrill John “Bulo” Sunga, Reynaldo Cruz and 18-year old Dayanara Santos -- the youngest and only female in the group -- are second or third-generation kalesa drivers.
Fifty-five year-old Reynaldo recalls his previous role as a courier for Divisoria’s merchants: “Almost 23 years ako’ng kutsero sa Divisoria. Kinakarga namin nuon asukal, plastic ware, tela, monggo, lahat! Kami taga- deliver ng mga Chinese sa mga palengke sa Balik-balik, sa Blumentritt. Bibigay lang sa amin yung resibo. Tapos pagbayad, ibabalik mo ngayon ‘yon. Pero nung nauso side car, nawala na ang kalesa.”
The smell of horse shit was also an issue. “Takot yung mga tao sa amoy, pero okay lang langhapin nila yung polusyon,” quipped Bulo, smiling.
Unlike his predecessors, the easy-going Reynaldo does not intend to hand over the reigns of his kalesa to his children. “Kasi naramdaman ko yung hirap,at madami ng kumakalaban.”
That includes netizens. A video of Roderick’s fallen horse posted on Facebook garnered negative comments. “Nabale kasi yung baras,” Roderick said in his defense, “hindi naman maiwasan yung aksidente.” His fellow kutseros felt that the criticisms and comments were unfair. Bulo says “hindi naman kami sensitive, pero dapat yung comments true. Tsaka bago sila magalit, tignan muna nila sitwasyon.”
“Sasabihan pa kaming tanga,” said Dayanara.
“Itatanung ko sa mga taong nagvi-viral,” Reynaldo added, “ano ba ang nagawa nyo na para sa turismo? Kami nandito, frontliner, ginagawa ang lahat. Dapat bago niyo i-post yan tignan nyo muna ang pangyayari. Imbes na tulungan nyo ang industriya, tulungan niyo ang kapwa niyo Pilipino, nilalagpak nyo.”
What hurt the most were accusations that the kutseros’ horses were mistreated. “Hindi nila alam yung hirap ng pag-alaga ng mga kabayo,” Dayanara protested. Apart from regular check-ups by a veterinarian, the horses require meticulous everyday care. “Apat na beses sila pinapakain, kasi pag nalipasan ng gutom, hindi na kakain yung kabayo,” added Roderick.
“Yung nararamdaman ng tao,” explained Reynaldo, nararamdaman din ng kabayo. Nauuna pa ‘yan sa amin mag-almusal; tapos laging malinis, bawal sila kumain ng mamantika. Yung kinakainan nila, kailangan sinasabon yon. Mahirap mag-alaga ng kabayo, akala nyo.”
“Papagupitan mo pa,” according to Dayanara.
“Tsaka di mo kasi sinasagad ito [referring to his horse],” Roderick said. “Tatlo ginagamit ko na kabayo, kasi mahirapan kung laging siya lang. Pag araw ng kalakasan, kawawa naman siya. Tulad ng bagong taon, madaming tao.”
“Yung asawa ko nga di ko pina-liniliguan eh, di ko pinag-aalmusal. Eto, pagka-gising ko, sa kanya na kagad ako,“ Reynaldo deadpanned, eliciting loud laughter from everyone. “Isa pa naming problema, yung ibang mga drayber. Mga addict yung mga truck drayber eh, mga nagsha-shabu.”
The kutseros also lament the lack of support from local officials. Bulo says “walang [Manila] mayor na nagmahal ng kalesa. Galit pa nga sila eh. Buti pa sa Ilocos at sa Pampanga.”
Former Dept. of Tourism Secretary Richard Gordon is an exception. “Unang-una, tumatanaw kami ng utang na loob kay Richard Gordon,” Bulo exclaimed, “kasi siya ang pinakamagaling na secretary ng tourism. Nung time nya, malinis ang Intramuros. Sa loob ng Intramuros, pati tambay nagkatrabaho. Magwalis ka lang meron ka ng P450, libre pagkain. Tsaka ang Intramuros talaga naging number one nung 2003 hanggang 2004. Si Gordon kasi pri-nomote niya Manila. Damang-dama namin yon.”
The kutseros recalled Richard Gordon’s time when Intramuros was alive with events and activities, such as live bands, street art, etc., happening all around the Walled City. “Tsaka panay Philippine products nuon ang binebenta, kahit sombrero,” Reynaldo revealed, “ngayon, may mga imported na.”
Intramuros Administrator Atty. Guiller Asido is another beloved personality. “Actually madali siyang kausap, mabait pa,” Bulo said. “ Sobrang bait. Di siya naniniwala sa hearsay-hearsay. Tinitignan niya muna kung ano talaga ang istorya, o ano nangyari. Di katulad ng ibang opisyales namin dito.“
The kutseros’ most tender affections, though, are reserved for their horses. “Kaibigan.” is how Roderick considers his horse. “ Kung di dahil sa kanya, wala kaming kakainin.” For the others, their horses are considered as family.
Among the sculptures on show, Bulo pointed out his favorite - an unrecognizable cannibalized carriage. Ged chose to monumentalize the piece, which was tightly and entirely covered in yellow yarn, atop a simple wooden scaffolding. Secured beneath the mantel are the memories of the kalesa, as the artist intended. Alongside those, Ged accomodated the frustrations, pains, and hopeful dreams of the kutseros of Intramuros.
Diokno imagines adventures aboard his boat skeleton, “with myself as the captain.” In one video, Ged fantasizes as a kutsero, musing on life while navigating the streets on a kalesa. A viewer can choose to take their lead and be whimsical too. The exhibition’s forceful message though, comes from the looming realization that Boat Recollections and Kuwentong Kutsero aren’t joy rides, but journeys to imminent oblivion.
Boat Recollections and Kuwentong Kutsero runs up to June 2019, Museo de Intramuros.
Photographs by Daniel Soriano