KASAMA Vol. 10 No. 4 / October-November-December 1996 / Solidarity Philippines Australia Network

‘Incarnated’ Art or Social Realism?

Correspondent, DEBORAH WALL comments on the work of Filipino artist EMMANUEL GARIBAY who held an exhibition recently in Sydney under the auspices of the Uniting Church.

Emmanuel Garibay (Photo: D. Wall)

Emmanuel Garibay is no run–of–the mill artist. His work expresses the inner strength of Filipino men, women and children engaged in sheer survival. In his paintings, fatigue, powerlessness and despondency are etched on the faces of those trying to eke a living. This depiction contrasts with the ‘smiling Filipina’ model which former First Lady Imelda Marcos would want the world to see. Emmanuel shows what it is like to travel to and from work inside a jeepney as a form of a ‘life sentence’ in Manila’s polluted and crowded environment.

When he first exhibited his work in Metro Manila’s Mega Mall, he noted that 'working class’ type shoppers spent time surveying his paintings while others gave his work a sweeping glance and walked on. Soon his work was noticed by art critics. Perhaps they detected a fresh approach, a different perspective. Rather than emulate paintings of colourful ‘sarimanok’ jeepneys, he worked from the perspective within, prompting viewers to engage with fragments of people’s lives — inside a jeepney, for example.

He calls his approach ‘social realism’. I call it docu–drama, a subset of realism. His work presupposes a continuing story: the newsboy, the cigarette vendor, the tired woman activist, the glue sniffing boy — living characters today from the bottom of Philippine society’s social rung. To get a sense of the ‘soul’ of each character depends on how open the viewer is for a dialogue. Neither the artist nor the viewer is meant to impose a view. Rather the looker ‘listens’ and perceives the view from within. One can argue, however, that the subject is mediated by the artist’s view.

Nonetheless, Emmanuel’s thematic series of paintings unveil not so much the artist's ideological stance but his own commitment. He chooses to be with the poor and gives an open invitation to enter the world of the dispossessed. Those who experience unbearable discomfort can simply walk on.

Emmanuel completed his degree in Fine Arts at the University of the Philippines in 1985 and was involved with a group called Artista ng Bayan (People’s artists). After a stint as an education officer in a cultural division in Malacañang, he commenced work as a full time artist in 1990 and began his studies at the Union Theological Seminary in 1992 completing a Master of Divinity in 1995.

Little wonder that his work is imbued with strong expressions of indigenous Filipino spirituality. He resists what he calls the ‘imposition’ of Western (Spanish) Christendom and tries to let indigenous spirituality emerge from the culture.

Take the painting he calls ‘The Annunciation’. He transforms the angel, Gabriel into a Spanish friar whose hand is represented by a sword and a cross, implying deception while his seductive virgin Mary wears a white mask evoking an aura of mystery. But why a mask? Why a prostituted image? This ‘Mary’ is hardly a gentlewoman. Neither is this simply a madonna/whore cliché. Underneath the mask is a woman engaged in resistance. The real Christ is ‘incarnated’ with Filipino martyrs shown as a backdrop to the central characters. Round the friar’s wrist is a picture of a woman enslaved (oppressed overseas workers in today’s terms).

Emmanuel debates the phenomenon of ‘incarnation’ through his strong rejection of the colonialist/religious model. This model paralyses the mind. It ensures a continuing ambivalence with regard to the two cultures. It is dualistic. It creates an identity crisis. An identity crisis prevents the people from assessing their situation from their own perspective. A confused perspective breeds inertia and impedes action.

Emmanuel distinguishes himself from populist artists who welcome perspectives from all spectrums of society through the question: ‘where can you find realizable directions in your art form?’ Not that he is rejecting the validity of individual views. Rather he believes that art can be an effective medium for awakening consciousness. He thinks a genuine cultural revolution through art can help people pull themselves out of their despondency and feeling of powerlessness. An awakened consciousness through art can help bring about change.

The Annunciation by Emmanuel Garibay