Antique, the western province on Panay island so named because of the large black “hantik” ants found there by the Augustinian friar missionaries, who promptly named the place accordingly but spelling it into the Latin “antiquus,” has hardly been associated with arts and crafts, much less with the contemporary art scene. This is surprising because Antique is noted for its pottery, ceramics, bamboo ware, and of course, the famous hand-woven patadyong skirt. Moreover, National Artist for the Visual Arts J. Elizalde Navarro (1924-1999) hailed from San Jose Buenavista, the capital of Antique.
In a way, Antique is both ancient and new, old and young.
Those two dimensions of Antique are on full display at the NCCA Gallery’s “Iraya: Beyond Limits,” featuring the Rahmag visual arts group. The exhibit is one of two contributions of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) for the celebration of October as Museums and Galleries Month. (The other is the annual ManilART fair.)
Iraya means “mountain” in Kinaray-a, the Austronesian language spoken in Antique; and karay-a, the ethnolinguistic group of people living there, is from the root word iraya. It is similar to the Tagalog “ilaya,” referring to people living in the uplands.
Founded in 2000, Rahmag groups together Antiqueño artists engaged in painting, sculpting, photography, engraving, graphic arts, and design. “Rahmag” is from the kinaray-a word “Ramag,” which means “light.”
“It is also a term used to describe flickering lights emitted by small sea creatures and flying insects like the aninipot or ipot-ipot or fireflies,” said exhibit curator Delan Robillos. “This is exactly the inspiration for the group’s vision — to serve as a ‘ray of guiding light’ in the community’s collaborative efforts to preserve their culture through art and artistry in Antique.”
Arts and crafts
Many towns in Antique are known for their locally crafted products, added Robillos. San Jose is known for its bamboo ware, Tibiao for its pottery, Sibalom for its ceramics, Libertad and Pandan for its handicrafts, and Belison for its sawali and salakot. And course, the province is known for the famous hand-woven patadyong or plaid barrel skirts from Bagtason in Bugasong.
“The exhibition is Rahmag’s attempt to present what the province has been and what it is now — the union of the traditional and contemporary Antique, and finding its cultural relevance amid the province’s urbanization and modernization programs,” explained Robillos.
Rahmag was originally the recipient of an exhibition grant for the 2020 calendar of the NCCA Gallery, but the Covid-19 pandemic derailed that.
“However, in the midst of fright and uncertainty brought by the pandemic, they found an unwavering peace and a glimmer of hope through art and fellowship,” wrote Robillos in his curator’s notes. “In December 2020, the group presented ‘Strive: Representations and Reflections on Antique.’ Strive, from the Anglo-French estrif — strife, implies struggle or fight. The artworks showcased in the said exhibition were depictions of strain and struggle in the time of Covid-19.
“Early in 2021, in collaboration with the Antique Provincial Tourism and Cultural Affairs Office and the Department of Tourism-Region VI, Rahmag launched the exhibit ‘Metanoia.’ This time, the message was about conversion. Whether mental, emotional, or spiritual transformation, Rahmag was just simply telling the story of survival.”
Now in October, “Iraya: Beyond Limits” should show Rahmag’s determination to further train their art at making meaning from the pandemic and cultivating hope that would see everyone out of the ordeal.
Robillos quotes Michael Wesch’s “The Art of Being Human”: that “all cultures are dynamic and constantly changing as individuals navigate and negotiate the beliefs, values, ideas, ideals, norms, and meaning systems that make up the cultural environment in which they live.”
Artists as cultural conservators
“Although Rahmag (artists) agree that culture is not static,” Robillos said, “they also recognize the ability of culture to withstand and/or adapt to change through the community’s conservation initiatives.”
Participating artists are Rey Aurelio, Ramon “Monet” de los Santos, Jr., Christine Marie Delgado, Raz Laude, Morris Alfred Lavega, Bryan Liao, Kwesi Pearl Faith Magdato, Cezar Gregorio “Saru” Ramales, Jr., Ramuel Vego, Evan “Tibong” Veñegas, and Marienell Veñegas.
Aurelio does large monochromatic canvases of human figures. He had started with charcoal then went on to colors; now he’s back to sepia and monochrome. His figures seem to disintegrate and vanish as if they were being pulverized. Depending on how one sees it, his technique seems to prefigure the evisceration of humanity or, since most of the figures are nude, their purgation and spiritualization. Aurelio’s works are striking meditative pieces.
Delgado’s works transfer to large canvases batik prints and ethnic patterns that are noted for their graphic and pictorial qualities.
De los Santos paints monochromatic oil and acrylic canvases that appear to evoke childhood nostalgia. They have a dreamlike quality to them. He’s also a wood sculptor taking after his father and grandfather who were craftsmen and did wooden toys. His favorite wood mediums are santol, calachuchi, and mahogany. He also does sculptures in bamboo, clay, and metal. He’s done 26 toy figures to represent the “Iraya” ethnolinguistic group. The toys should be played together like toy soldiers. “The point is to unite,” he said.
Lavega does stark monochromatic works depicting landscapes, forests, and trees. Meanwhile to Ray Lande, “Art keeps insanity at bay.” He said his painting, “Pitik Kalmado,” depicts an old man, with his long hair blown by the wind, confronting the viewer and admonishing him to “remain calm despite being surrounded by toxicity.”
Geometric wood sculptures
Bryan Liao is noted for his geometric wood sculptures. “I am particularly curious how light and shadow play in geometric figures, and how they change when light also changes,” he said. He’s lately taken to experimenting with Japanese joinery, in which slats of wood are connected to each other. “Focus is to highlight the joints that connect each piece of wood,” he said. “The philosophy of my work has always been connecting one block of wood to another.” “Many connections were extinguished by the pandemic,” he added ruefully, “and there’s a need to treasure these connections.”
Magdato is studying abroad and cannot come home because of travel restrictions; she’s featured in the exhibit via her experiments in women’s portraiture. “Art helps me cope with these times,” she said in a video message. “Art is not only a skill and talent but a bridge to connect people. It is also a form of healing for those who are suffering depression due to isolation and social distancing.”
Ramalles’ brilliantly colored canvases of florals are inspired by Vincent Van Gogh. “I dream of painting and then I paint my dream,” he quoted the legendary impressionist. Ramuel Vego paints endearing folk scenes and folk landscapes. In one work he paints the legend of the “Trabungko”: it depicts a local legend about a lizard that carries a magical stone on its back. Evan Veñegas does striking stoneware paintings, with such whimsical titles as “Smagol” and “Graffiti.”
Marienell Veñegas depicts Antique icons, such as the patadyong hanging by a branch, the red of the fabric set off against the tropical greenery around it. A painting of a half-nude woman with her back turned to the audience and ostensibly facing the future, shows quiet defiance against the pandemic. Its initial title she said was “Uncertain,” but for the NCCA Gallery exhibit she has changed it to “Unfazed.”
Since this is the NCCA, which promotes cultural mapping especially in the regions, the exhibition documents the tangible and intangible heritage of Antique via the visual arts. “Iraya: Beyond Limits” showcases folktales and spiritual healing practices, traditions in pottery and ceramic creations, loom weaving, and woodcraft.
According to Mario Manzano of Bagtason Loom Weavers Association, loom weaving is a vocation to the Antiquenos. The manughabul or loom weaver starts learning to use the tiral or wooden loom at a young age, “fusing different colors of threads to capture the colors of nature,” he said.
The manughabul’s reverence for their chosen shades and hues are mirrored by the exhibition design’s overall palette, according to exhibit curator Robillos.
“In essence, one may say that the patadyongs are stories from the skies, mountains, rivers, forests, or even flowers,” said Robillos. “One variety of this indigenous textile is called the pinilian (a patadyong with embroidery) and one of the most popular embroidery patterns, the Sampaguita, is actually patented. The exhibition design pays homage to this iconic symbol by making it a grand focal point on one of the NCCA Gallery’s walls.”
“Blown-up photos of the artists also accent the back wall taking design inspiration from K-pop concert walls as if to say that despite the market gap, art from the regions should and does take up the same cultural space that you do,” added Robillos.
“In the setting of a modern-day pandemic, this group of artists has become an essential and integral part not only of art-making in their region but also of its cultural heritage preservation,” the exhibit notes said.
“It is the hope of the RAHMAG artists that “IRAYA: Beyond Limits” be seen as a statement of resilience through cultural evolution.”
“Iraya: Beyond Limits” is running till October 31, 2021 at the NCCA Gallery, 633 General Luna Street, Intramuros, Manila. Call 8257 2205 or email email@example.com for more details.
[All photos by Jilson Tiu]