Sunday, March 8, 2009

Folk Motif in Social-Realist Art

"The Pulling Game," and "Speedster"

By Constantino C. Tejero
(Article published in the Lifestyle section of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, June 10, 2002)

Anyone who has been to the public market of Tacloban, Leyte would have seen these richly colored, lavishly decorated mats. Made of buri or buntal, they’re cool to the skin, so soft in texture and fine in craftsmanship one would think only infants are fit to lay their heads on them.
These intricate mat patterns dominated the 17 pieces of pen and ink on paper in Raul Agner’s recent exhibit “Drawings” at the Drawing Room, Metrostar Building, 1007 Metropolitan Ave., Makati City.
“Since I come from a region that produces richly decorated mats, I have been using the mat as a folk artistic motif and symbol for my community’s ever changing and challenging social conditions,” says Agner, who hails from Palo, Leyte.
The pieces are carefully composed and finely detailed, with symmetry, exquisite patterns and formal elegance that make them look like illustrations on playing cards. This is not quite folk art, but social realism utilizing folk motif, reminiscent of the book illustrations done by Diego Rivera.
“The drawings are about the ordinary people in the community where I live,” says the artist. “They focus on people’s continuing pursuit of a better life, the forces that control them, the issues that affect them, their best and worst qualities.”

Flat statements
The pieces are often hortatory, and sometimes they border on satire with a surrealist edge. The flat statements would be boring if not for the masterful draftsmanship.
In “Magtaralwas” (Liberator), three men and two women are strapped to a mat while a central figure of a man with a halo, a yoke on his shoulders, and a sheathed bolo on his hip, is breaking his own straps. He is obviously the pesante as Christ figure.
In “Plataporma” (Platform), a man in barong with a flowery heart is gesturing like the Sagrado Corazon in a niche, with the folk as audience. Beneath is a TV set showing a dancing pair, while on the sides are subliminal images of hands grasping beer bottle, chainsaw, money bundle, wine bottle, armalite, and a scantily clad woman. This is obviously a portrait of a politico.
“Hukip” (Bribe) has small human figures queuing up to a looming central figure and receiving money bills from him, while below is a figure strapped upside down with arms outstretched as if crucified.
“Biyahe” (Trip) shows a tricycle overburdened with seven passengers, while overhead is a picture of the San Juanico Bridge, and four men in barong talking of cable cars and clouds, obviously government officials and bureaucrats.
The most platitudinous in this series is “Pagsalikway” (Betrayal), a portrait of a tearful woman with all limbs strapped and surrounded by subliminal images of fish, wildlife, trees, nipa huts, while overhead a row of figures with backs turned are waving to a huge hand coming out of the sky and proffering a money bill. This is obviously a portrait of Mother Philippines.
“The drawings attempt to appreciate and understand as well as criticize what is going on in their economic, political and social life, “explains the artist.

Surrealist edge
We like better the plain portraits, the small vignettes, or those with the surrealist edge, such as “Kontra-Sulog” Countercurrent), a family portrait in which the man and wife are rowing a fishing boat while their four grownup children are sleeping on mats beneath the outriggers.
Or “The News Next Door,” where a quarrelling couple and a cat and dog tear up and burst out of the newspaper being read by a man supine on a mat. The startled man is surrounded by flowering vines and crawling buglike object such as beer bottle, coconut shredder, microphone, which could be part of the mat’s pattern.
Or “Paspasero” (Speedster), a close up an ever-so-cool Jeepney driver with the smaller figures of his anxious passengers, the image notable for the cropping and arrangement of figures.
Then there’s “Magsinggiton” (Hecklers), a menacing yet funny portrait of three brawny punks heckling at someone or something, shouting and giving the finger.
The more charming pieces are the smaller ones, such as “Guitar Man,” a hawker of guitars. Or “High Note,” a videoke king with all the screaming and gyration.
“Kangkong Woman” shows a robust woman peddling a bundle of kangkong, who appears rather menacing for the bolo on her side, the water canteen on her hip looking like a hand grenade, the strap across her chest looking like a bandoleer, and her boots looking like the footwear of fascists.
“Father’s Day” depicts a potbellied man smoking a cigarette and quaffing from a beer bottle while carrying a child in one arm, obviously a husband left to tend the house while the wife is at work.
The most charming in this series is “Shopaholic,” showing a woman overdressed and overburdened with goodies, sipping drink through a straw. With her sturdy legs, striped skirt and determined face, she looks like a woman of the Cordillera stepping down from the rice terraces.

Deep sympathy
Agner took up philosophy at Adamson University, and his master’s degree in anthropology at the University of San Carlos in Cebu City.
For 16 years he worked as curator of the Divine Word University Museum in Tacloban. For three years he represented Eastern Visayas at the National Committee on Visual Arts of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts.
He has had no formal art studies aside from numerous workshops he attended, ranging from installation art to basic drawing, printmaking, paper sculpture, photographic silkscreen printing. This was his first solo exhibit.
“Ordinary people’s struggle for a better life and how this can be conveyed subtly and meaningfully, in a folk artistic way, are my simple concerns as artists,” he says.
This is not lip service, as it can be readily gleaned from his art and years of community service. The images in the exhibit could not but come from someone who had deep sympathy for the common folk and a deeper antipathy toward their exploiters.
“I think art is about connecting to people,” Agner continues, “learning from them and, in return, creating works that can be sources of insight, inspiration and empowerment.”
Here’s one artist who’s not just a keen observer and a sharp critic of society but is actually close to the heartbeats of his people.

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