Re-Membering the Lost: Mapping Philippine Material Culture

The Run-Up
The Run-Up
Fu Yabing Dulo
Petri Dish

Manila-based curator and writer Marian Pastor Roces started to post a series of photos including essayistic texts on Facebook in fall 2020. The pictures of cultural artifacts from the Philippines, scattered in museums and archives all over the world, and her reflections on their meaning and importance started to attract a growing global audience of followers. In January 2021 a new platform was launched by scholar Cristina Martinez-Juan in London, including the objects shared by Roces and more like them in an online collection open to the general public: Mapping Philippine Material Culture. Swiss writer Annette Hug has been amongst the people following Roces’s Facebook-posts, having maintained her connections to the Philippines after studying and living there. Roces’s and Martinez-Juan’s initiative of gathering and re-assembling lost objects and their meanings, she argues, provided a space for international exchange and discourse during an unprecedented time of isolation.

Text Annette Hug
Images Mapping Philippine Material Culture

In September 2020, I came across an unexpected Sunday treat from Manila. The sanitary regime of the Philippine capital has been one of the tightest worldwide up to today, and it is enforced in an atmosphere of increasingly severe authoritarian rule. Restricted to her home, art critic, curator, and writer Marian Pastor Roces started to share condensed insights into Philippine tradition. On her Facebook-account, she published photographs of Philippine artifacts dispersed in museums around the world and took them as a starting point for an array of essays. It became a weekly habit to look for those long posts connecting objects in different places. Roces’s reflections on artistic quality include a political and economic dimension. They could easily have become sprawling had the artifacts under consideration not provided an anchor for my thoughts.

Roces’s reflections on artistic quality include a political and economic dimension. They could easily have become sprawling had the artifacts under consideration not provided an anchor for my thoughts.

On November 15, 2020, Roces featured a tool made of dark wood. A semicircular, almost crescent-shaped blade is attached to its handle at a right angle. “Rice cutter,” reads the caption of the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, where the tool has been stored since 1908. It was used by women in different rice-growing cultures of the Philippine archipelago. Roces writes: “They also had personalized rice baskets, and with knife in hand and basket to their hips or at the back, went into the fields to hand select the grain that will be reserved for planting in the next season. They selected the grain by eye. Their care at selection is still embodied in the ergonomic efficiency of the form of the rice cutter for small hands; in the obvious slow rhythm with which these were wielded with precision eye-hand coordination; and with the future in mind.”

Roces elaborates how the rice-cutter testifies to expert knowledge in a communal life in which sustenance, cultivation, music, verse, and textile art were informing each other. She ends her essay with questions about the introduction of fast-growing varieties of rice, leading to higher revenue but also to the destruction of local biodiversity as well as to new economic power structures.

Rice Cutter; Lepanto Bontoc (old spelling). Collected by S.C. Simms for the E.E. Cummins Expedition 1906. Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago.

I wasn’t the only one awaiting the weekly columns focusing on musical instruments, weapons, and specific methods of weaving. A growing community of interested experts and amateurs followed Marian Pastor Roces’s forays into the treasure trove she compiled on paper between 1995 and 2000. Initiated by a Philippine senator Letitia Ramos Shahani in 1995, the “Global Inventory of Filipiniana Artifacts, Work of Art, and Selected Documents” aimed at recollecting the vast amount of material cultural heritage taken or sent out of the Philippines, starting in the Spanish colonial period and extending well into the present. The inventory was almost forgotten when Marian Pastor Roces, in 2020, went back to her previous work and brought it out on a much more volatile medium than paper: her Facebook-page. At the same time, the project was also given new life in a different place. Cristina Martinez-Juan, Project Head for Philippine Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London, initiated a platform called Mapping Material Philippine Culture – the objects documented in the nineties would now be accessible on the internet. Marian Pastor Roces was a principal collaborator.  

Mapping Material Philippine Culture was launched on January 15, 2021. This was a reason to celebrate, yet the online event for the launch had a mournful undertone. Roces spoke to an international audience about “the scale of loss,” “the scale of impact of this loss,” and the “elusiveness of joy in the experience of quality.” She touched on colonial expeditions, the National Museum in Manila burning down in World War II, and the boom in the international market for antiquities in the seventies that made valuable Philippine artifacts inaccessible to local public collections.

Most of the objects taken out of the country are never put on display. Many of them are not properly identified. I wonder what this invisibility reveals about “the scale of the impact of loss” that Roces talked about. She focussed on the impact on the Philippines: mangled, vague, denigrating, or idealizing images of pre-colonial and high-land cultures too often misinform public policies as well as development projects meant to foster traditional handicraft.

Writing in a western country, I ask myself what impact the massive displacement of artifacts has in the places where they are now hidden. These objects put fundamental concepts like “civilization” into question.

Writing in a western country, I ask myself what impact the massive displacement of artifacts has in the places where they are now hidden. These objects put fundamental concepts like “civilization” into question. They don’t fit the spectacular categories attracting public attention. They neither evoke ancient kingdoms of bygone grandeur, nor do they confirm entrenched colonial imagery of the “archaic” and the “wild.” Having the opportunity, for the first time, to meaningfully recreate the attire of a Mandaya warrior by linking museum pieces from New York, Madrid, and Indiana, the interested public gains insight into traditions of art that defy nineteenth-century western hierarchies of cultural value. By dislocating the objects, the digital exhibits create a space where “understanding” remains an unfulfilled and utopian desire. They also stimulate reflections on geographies of shame and how they change: after centuries of systematic shaming so-called uncivilized people, has the shame finally doubled back on the centers and auxiliaries of former empires? The question of reparations arises and complicated discussions could explode this text, but the artifacts provide focus:

Abaka by Fu Yabing Masalon Dulo. Collection of Arjho Cariño Turner, 2006. Photo: Cocoy Sexicon.

A warp-ikat dyed abaka called tabih amlatu. Oscillating between structure and irregular flow, the constellation of motives calls for more than a quick glance. Marian Pastor Roces presents it to introduce an obituary. The foremost, maybe the last surviving master weaver of the B’laan language group, Fu Yabing Dulo, died on January 26, 2021. She was born and raised before World War II in a world under severe pressure – a pressure that has intensified over time. “The small Blaan groups moved, through multi-generational time spans, from one to another clearing in the triple canopy rainforest of southern Mindanao of the early twentieth century. They wore abaka textiles with minute embroidery, so fine, the extant specimens in museums in Europe and United States verily require magnifying lenses to take full measure of,” writes Roces. At the end of her life, Fu Yabing Dulo was a “Living National Treasure,” acclaimed and financially supported by the National Commission on Culture and the Arts of the Philippines. Her work was collected nationally and internationally. Yet her artistic practice had its source in a way of life and in spiritual practices that cannot be preserved in a museum. It is also hard to envision a transition into economically feasible production, when we read that the everchanging composition, within a traditional iconography, was “made possible by prior negotiations with divinities malefic, maladroit, munificent, during states for which the word ‘dream’ is an inadequate equivalent. Fu Yabing’s mother, whose mother before her, passed on more than the aesthetic and technical wherewithal to make these textiles – often, a tour de force – but more importantly the stoutness of heart to negotiate with unseen forces.”   

How hard it is to comprehend the impact of this departure when sitting in front of a screen, in another lockdown of this global pandemic – trying to understand the concurrent surge in interest for objects that have been stored away for decades. Asked whether her weekly posts had been planned as a run-up to the launch of Mapping Philippine Material Culture, Marian Pastor Roces smiles and shakes her head: “No.” It was a surprise both to her and to Cristina Juan in London how these texts created a space for discussion. How a warrior shield with ancient inscriptions became a riddle to be solved collectively – opening connections from Muslim incantations of guardian angels to animist practices and globalized elements of both Muslim and Christian devotion. How it involved people from the region where the shield was made and a scholar from Indonesia – making it obvious that the traditions on display both predate and transgress today’s national boundaries.   

Wooden Shield from Mindanao. Purchased by the British Museum in 1894.

After the successful launch of the website, Cristina Juan observes with particular satisfaction that people “spend hours” moving from one object to another, following one of the myriad threads laid out by ancient artists and by the travelling collectors. She speaks of “digital repatriation” and leaves the visitor to wonder: what kind of “patria” is this digital space? By its simplicity, the website opens new entries into complex worlds. Yet boundaries don’t disappear completely. Financial constraints and border control have been a constant obstacle to researchers from the global South wanting to see and study objects in European and North-American collections. While there is no visa needed to access the Mapping website, institutions are in a position to decide how far their collaboration will go. Museums in Geneva, St. Gallen, Neuchâtel, Berlin, and Stockholm are invited to open their doors by providing good quality photographs – putting themselves on a new map. This map needs to be financially sustained, however, and that brings back the discussion of reparations: Who is going to pay?

In an older essay, “Cross-Translating Myself,” Marian Pastor Roces points out that the Tagalog word for meaning, kahulugan, stems from the root-word hulug, to fall. “Thus kahulugan transliterates as ‘as it falls [into place]’ or ‘when/where it falls into place’.” In my own version of international English, I have always associated this “falling into place” as a strangely magnetic attraction of dispersed pieces, a puzzle assembling itself – or disintegrated particles miraculously forming a pattern, completing an image. Cristina Juan envisions a “collaborative production of knowledge” taking place on and trough the digital inventory of Mapping Philippine Material Culture. What meaning, what understanding of the phenomenon of “tradition,” will emerge in this effort? What will the specific artistic traditions mean to different visitors and what can we learn about the digital space where they are now reassembled?  

Cristina Martinez-Juan

Cristina Martinez-Juan is the project head for Philippine Studies at SOAS (PSS), a non-degree granting entity, under the Centre of South East Asian Studies at SOAS. PSS is an interdisciplinary forum for Philippine-related teaching, research, and cultural production in the UK. 

Marian Pastor Roces

Marian Pastor Roces is based in Manila and presently curating the Philippine pavilion at the Expo in Dubai. She has conceptualized a number of museums in the Philippines and intervened in many international exhibits of contemporary art. Her publications include: “Sinaunang Habi. Philippine Ancestral Weave” (1991) and “Gathering. Writing on Art and Culture” (2019).

Cet article paraîtra en français dans l’édition d’automne [39] du journal Suisse la couleur des jours.

The Run-Up
Fu Yabing Dulo
Petri Dish