Uplift-ing? : Sculptures of Women in the UP campus

When Ferdinand Cacnio’s three dimensional work entitled Uplift was unvieled to the public, there was initially congratulatory remarks and appreciation because his work can be considered as a female version of the Oblation. A bronze figure of an unclothed woman lies on her back in mid-air, her arms softly outstreched while the ends of her long tresses touched the water in a pool, giving an illusion of bouyancy as if floating and drifting in the air. However, the fervor fizzled when a post in social media revealed that Cacnio’s work is not entirely original and unique for there is another somehow similar to it — The Virgins of Apeldoorn, a public installation in the Netherlands by Dutch artist Elisabet Stienstra. This information was shared and eventually, comments poured criticizing the work as a case of plagiarism. To some legalese it is an infringement of copyright. The work is not the only one criticized as there are also comments deploring the University for lowering its standards on excellence (Manila Times Online Editorial dated July 14, 2017 ). Cacnio, however, strongly stood his ground stating that he never copied Ms. Stienstra,  never traveled to the Netherlands, and never encountered her and her work. While the social media comments may have tried to deflate the artist’s ego and his work as made in bad taste, this may also reveal the public’s level of understanding, perception and judgement on art, and on how the public’s demand for originality and uniquenes correlates to the concept of value and worth — that the original and the unique deserve more value and appreciation. In the age of “post-truth” (especially when we are being fed by media with unvetted news), somehow the reactions can be understandable because as the knowledge gap narrows due to globalization and information technology, research and information are not as difficult to do and acquire as before. Thus, his oversight on the need to research other artists’ work and for similar ideas and execution of work is not acceptable.

However, there lies the question on the creative process. In understanding this, maybe we can be more forgiving of Cacnio’s oversight on research. How far can the creative process go if not due to factors such as the artist’s gender, sexuality, beliefs, education, location, even ethnicity? To quote Pooke and Newall in The Basics of Art History: “The things we see and remember are among the most durable of human experiences.” In the book’s second chapter, it discusses on composition and medium in art.  Ferdinand Cacnio is an engineer by profession, owns a graphic design company, and also does sculpture. According to him, he problematizes the concept of “floating”.  How best can he compose a three dimensional figure floating in the air when dealing with heavy material/medium? His previous works were posted on Facebook to show that this has been his recurring theme  and a problem he endevoured even before Ms. Stienstra’s Virgins.  This was also Abueva’s idea way back in 1951 (National Artist of the Philippines, Anvil:1998, 5). Abueva refrerred his earlier sculptures “as “bouyant sculpture” — sculpture meant to be appreciated from the surface of a  placid pool.” Abueva has thought of this “as a simple gesture of sympathy for his stillborn youngest sister. […] The shape of this crib-base intrigued him and with the idea of the river-borne Baby Moses in his mind, his concept of the bouyant sculpture was born.”  The artist is “formed only in the course of grappling with the task that has been set to him and which he undertakes to solve.” (Hauser, Philosphy of Art History, p. 201) Therefore, if we disregard the “female/woman” subject matter, Uplift is the answer to the problem Cacnio wishes to solve.

Meanwhile, the female form in the works of Cacnio and Abueva shows a rather naturalistic and somewhat idealistic (slim and 20thC idea of beauty) rendering. Created in 1996, Abueva’s Nine Muses in front of the U.P. Faculty Center shows nine females in various poses as muses of painting, dance, music, film/photography, literature, etc.  Such idealistic rendering of the female may be the male artists’ notion of female beauty by focusing on women’s femininity as reflected by visual features of flowing long hair; young, svelte, lithe and fluid bodies; slim and well-propotioned torso and limbs. This rendition may be translated as how the male idealises and maybe even fantasizes about women. And then, there is also the “masculanization” of women  like in Abueva’s Madangal in front of the CAL building. The female figure in a staunch combative stance, a notion that strength and bravery comes from the physical thus reinforcing the masculine and feminine divide.

 

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Sandra Torrijos’ Inang Bayan
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Rita Gudino’s Mebuyan sa Idalmunon

In constrast to Cacnio and Abueva, the female form in the works of Sandra Torrijos and Rita Gudino depicts a different rendering. UPCFA professor Rita Gudino’s Mebuyan sa Idalmunon at the University Lagoon, is a many-breasted woman emerging from a pedestal. The pedestal is the kalawakan or eternity from where Mabuyan rises because she is a goddess who travels the dead to the eternal. The dead children suckle from her breasts until they grow and be able to join Gimokudan and their dead relatives and ancestors for eternity. Mebuyan, though it sounds ironic, is the giver of life for the dead. She is a mother who nourishes the earth and the bringer of life, of children to would-be mothers. As with Sandra, Rita took inspiration from the tradition, a Bagobo mythodology. Her rendition of the female body is as how one could have imagined from the myth. But yet, though somewhat “naturalistic”, the “truth” in representation of a mother’s body — the full heavy breasts and the round full buttocks of a woman who has given birth and breastfed, are far from the “ideal”.

“Inang Bayan” by Sandra Torrijos is a larger-than-life three dimensional mosaic on concrete stylised depiction of a woman wearing the Philippine flag stands proud and resolute in front of the Center for Women’s Studies. Inang Bayan was commissioned in celebration of the U.P. centennial and the 20th anniversary of the University Center for Women’s Studies in December 8, 2008. The center’s objective is to promote feminist scholarship and activism which may have guided Sandra to look for insipration from the traditional, the Babaylan. The Babaylan is a traditional healer and a spiritual leader in many “indigenous” or ethnolinguistic groups in the country. The Babaylan officiates rituals and the keeper of local knowledge. They are the go-to  in local communities for illness, blessings, and birth-giving. Most times the female Babaylan is also the paltera, the manghihilot, and the manggagamot. They consider themselves stewards of Mother Earth and so they take care of the forest where their livelihood depends on. In her work, she depicts the woman in her entirety, enriched with symbolisms to show us the woman’s many roles as healer, mother, teacher, and activist; all these embodied and connected to Mother Nature and the many aspects of herself — the “physical, emotional, mental, psychic and spiritual self.” Inang Bayan is the representation of Mother Nature depicted as an ancient tree of life and knowledge that, to borrow the indigenous’ favorite phrase, “has been there since time immemorial”, standing there looking stoic and static… as though it seems. But no, she is digging her roots deep down into the earth, holding tightly unto the land that nourishes her and gave her her identity and her purpose. She is also branching out, where the leaves become her crown, and the sprouting leaf at her feet symbolising new knowledge and a new evolving self. Inang Bayan is the representation of Feminist Scholarship. A feminist paradigm is lived experience, a concretely grounding of one’s self, a continuously interacting and learning from others, from what’s new and re-learning from our past; promotes dialogue and reflexivity by being inclusive of other identities, ethnicity, race, class. (Denzin and Lincoln, Qualitative Research, Sage:1998)  Inang Bayan branches and reaches out with an open book in her left hand, while the right  hand is placed on her heart as a gesture of love and concern. On the book’s page shows a woman dancing, celebrating the complex roles and nature of women. Colors dazzle and radiate as light touches on the mosaic tiles covering Inang Bayan’s body and her platform, mesmerizing the looker while reflecting on a wise, discerning, evolving and passionate woman. If we try to look closer, we might just see our reflection on her, identify with her, and even become her.

The narrative in the works of Cacnio, Abueva, Torrijos, and Gudino is a celebration of women and her power: the transcending of women’s role beyond domesticity and acknowledging her strength and powerful role as noursisher of the mind, body, soul, and the earth; she is resilient, fights back, and able to struggle and rise from the confines that bind her; she is capable of giving life and even taking away life. However differing in their rendition, which can be quite strikingly blatant, the difference between the male and female artists is their concept on the female, the feminine and femininity, therefore it shows how the woman, her body and identity are being situated, signified and re-presented in a creative form.

Feminism has become a grand narrative but it is dynamic and evolving, and has gone beyond the call for gender equality — beyond simple recognition and acceptance on the difference and value of the feminine. It is not just seeking equality within the present patriarchal structure. Feminism, in its essence, is breaking down regressive and oppressive structures, rejecting taboos and constricting spaces. Feminism is creating a world that is inclusive, progressive, reflexive, emphatic and nurturing as opposed to the present-day neoliberal and patriarchal characteristics that promotes competitiveness, exclusivity, disenfranchisement, exploitation and discrimination on women, other identities, class, ethnicity, and race.

Lastly, feminism is not only a theory or narrative, but also praxis. The attacks and threats on women, ethnic groups, the vulnerable and the marginalised by world leaders and our own president are frighteningly real. Even more frightening is the thought of how these attacks will influence the minds of children. How can we speak of and limit our call for gender equality when there is even a re-definition by the state on what is to be human? Women are objects, the destitutes and people who use drugs are not human. Therefore, artists, art critics/historians, curators, the academe, art and cultural institutions have an important task in pointing out and grappling these problems and contradictions in art and society while engaging with the public; and actively endorse a feminist and humanistic stance and practice not only in art but also in our everyday life.