After his debut show of paintings last May for Art Fair Philippines, Carlo S. Tanseco's second one-man exhibition puts the spotlight solely on Jose Rizal. Called Alias Elias, it is Tanseco’s exploration of the various facets of Rizal—as hero, son, doctor, lover, religious figure, and cultural icon. The title, of course, references one of the National Hero’s most famous characters in his Noli Me Tangere, Crisostomo Ibarra’s mysterious friend and alter ego.
At the same show, the new edition of National Artist Nick Joaquin’s biography Rizal in Saga: A Life For Student Fans, will also be sold in limited numbers. It features Tanseco’s painting of Rizal entitled “Solo Humano” from his Eyechart Series as its cover art. Initially commissioned by the National Centennial Commision back in 1996, Rizal’s death centenary, Joaquin’s book has now been reissued by Milflores Publishing with an introduction and annotation by Ambeth R. Ocampo, along with additional photos from the historian’s own collection.
The exhibit Alias Elias is composed of several works of acrylic on canvas and is divided into three sub-series: the Stamps, the Matchboxes, and a Fencing Pair that ties in to the Eye Chart series in Tanseco’s previous exhibit. “I was very much drawn to the Rizal Eye Chart series from my last exhibit in May and I had already planned my next exhibit on the concept of Rizal,” Tanseco shares. “And then this show was scheduled in December and we thought, why not relate it all to Rizal Day?”
The first sub-series within the Rizal show are the stamp paintings; with each showing a vibrantly hued portrait of the hero juxtaposed with hyper-realistic renditions of Rizal’s popular themes, recalling the life stories, quotes, and historical situations we know best: the legendary moth from his childhood, a package of tuyo (“Mas mabaho pa sa malansang isda”), ophthalmic equipment, Leonor Rivera’s locket, Rizal’s pen. The postmarks on each stamp—one of the many Easter eggs you could spot in this show—indicate the location and area where each Rizal incident occurred.
“I have an affinity towards stamps; it’s like a message from the past. It’s art, but it’s functional. I’m not a serious philatelist, but I am attracted to the graphic quality of it,” Tanseco admits. “Most of our early stamps were monochromatic; or at best, two colors, but had that cross-hatching from the engraving. Because my style is very linear and detailed, I toyed with the idea where, instead of using intensity of line, I used different shades of the same color to add depth to it.”
These six paintings are of the Rizal stamp paired with an anting-anting, which is a magical amulet or talisman. It is interesting to note there were actual anting-anting amulets that were embossed with Rizal’s image as “Jesus”. In Tanseco’s paintings, the stamp’s postmark encircles the hero’s head like a saint’s halo, and each halo bears a message: Kanino ka sumasampalataya? Idolohiya bilang idolotriya. Tres Persona Solo Diyos (which is one of the prayers of the Rizalistas, and also the name of a registered group of Rizalistas).
Tanseco muses on this side of Rizal. “I believe that ours is a different kind of faith because it’s a mix of Catholicism, animism, and folklore; like a cacophony of various religions that were localized; coexisting, side-by-side.” He adds: “These paintings could be about: Rizal is the patron saint or God of the Rizalistas…or is this just hero worship? We put faith in God, but can we put our faith in people—or in our heroes? Even in our everyday lives, sino ba ang sinasanto mo?”
The third series of paintings uses the same medium of acrylic, only this time painted onto canvas that are shaped like matchboxes. Tanseco’s realistically rendered safety matches peek out of the bottom, tricking the viewer into thinking you could just pick one up and light it. Which is kind of the intention.
“Our language, Tagalog, is one of the most romantic languages in the world,” Tanseco says. “There are countless ways to say ‘flame’ or ‘fire’ in Tagalog.” He writes all these down on the matchbox covers: Maging mitsa ng pagbabago. Magsilbing liwanag sa dilim. Sindihan ang pumanaw ng liyab. Kamtan ang nagbabagang pangarap.
“The matches symbolize igniting a desire for change,” he explains. Is it political? “Yes and no, because for yourself, you can also be part of change or spark change; but mostly, these symbolize patriotism, love of country. Just think, if Rizal were alive now, what would he say about everything that is happening to us? ‘Is this what I died for?’”
The exhibit also touches on the fact that Rizal, almost 125 years after his death, remains relevant to us. “Going back to the matchboxes, his face was used on PHIMCO matchboxes decades ago,” says Tanseco. “Come to think of it, Rizal was the number one endorser, but he didn’t get any royalties—and, he could really sell the product!”
Alias Elias opens December 2 at J Studio in Makati City. The exhibit runs until December 30, 2021, Rizal Day. J Studio is at La Fuerza, Gate 1 Compound, Makati City. You may visit them by appointment: Tuesday to Saturday, 12nn – 7pm or check their Instagram @artjstudio.