You may initially be intimidated by the academic-sounding title of Antoni Muntadas’ ongoing exhibit at Ateneo Art Gallery (Exercises on Past and Present Memories), but don’t be. It’s a fertile ground of ideas, overlaid histories, and reimagined artifacts that attempt to take back and psychically “decolonize” the Philippines.
You will find, in the upstairs three rooms of Muntadas’ exhibit, Spanish ceramic plates decorated with green line drawings of “malas hierbas,” the invasive weeds accidentally introduced here by the Spanish when they came to plant their own crops. You will see everyday OFWs from all manner of jobs and services abroad depicted in specially minted Portable Monuments to Anonymous Emigrant Filipino Workers. And you will see richly embroidered manton de Manila shawls inscribed with key moments in modern Filipino history—everything from the Balingiga Massacre of 1901 to Imelda’s shoes. Far from dry, there’s a playful spirit in Muntadas’ work, and a generous one.
“I wanted to contemporize this idea of the Galleon de Manila with objects that are not only related to the past, but also to the present and the future,” says the Barcelona-born conceptual artist who got his early academic training at MIT but gravitated to New York. “I want to call them ‘artifacts,’ in the anthropological sense. The idea is of creating certain kinds of artifacts that are a response to Manila 2023 with a vision of the past, but produced now with a contemporized perspective of the Galleon de Manila.”
The Galleon de Manila linked the world through trade, all passing through these hub ports that, even today, are steeped in the world’s culture. Not much changes—today we just call it “globalization.”
For this project—begun during the Quincentennial Year with Ateneo Art Gallery and the curatorial help of its director Boots Herrera; finally staged in March this year, though somewhat restricted by COVID guidelines; and now remounted until July—Muntadas wanted to give viewers a simultaneous view of past and present, and introduce certain decolonizing energies.
I think of these (pieces) as ‘research projects.’ [...] The work is more about ideas through the time that the project is developed. It’s a very organic thing.
Take those plates, for example. In the opening “green” room, Muntadas displays what he calls “critical tableware”: ceramics that bear flower images. But these aren’t the lovely bouquets shown on Seville plates from the Galleon Trade era; they’re grim outlines of Agave Americana and Lantan camara and other fast-growing foreign weeds that tend to disrupt and choke local ecosystems. In other words, a great metaphor for the forced spread of culture through colonizers.
In the adjoining “red” room, Muntadas worked with Filipino communities living and working abroad in places like Rome, Athens, Barcelona, and Dubai to nominate Pinoy candidates among themselves who were worthy of “tribute.” These regular sailors, teachers, nurses, and chefs are then immortalized on special coins bearing their faces and job descriptions. It’s important that these monuments are “portable,” since they represent workers whose lives have become transitory. And it’s a great upending of the idea of public monuments and edifices, things that Muntadas feels are often “imposed” on urban spaces. He doodles an upright monolith on a piece of scrap paper, one of those monuments “with plinths and pedestals‘‘ erected in a public park. “When you impose a work in a permanent way, in a public place, with no dialogue, it’s the idea of a vertical monument. I propose a horizontal monument…” He draws a row of medallion shapes below the monolith to illustrate.
Muntadas really does think about how we consider public art, how it tends to control the narrative through oppressive gestures. What if, instead, history was portrayed and represented from the bottom up?
“The contrary is to have a horizontal work with anonymous workers, immigrants that have decided to live in another country and deserve tribute.”
For the final “black” room, Muntadas looks at the way the manton de Manila was first imported from China, passing through Filipino culture, only to become “appropriated” by Spanish society and festivals, mainly in flamenco dance rituals. This part of the exhibit attempts to “cut the connection” from Spanish trade and repurpose the manton through vivid, often provocative images drawn from Filipino political and cultural history, hand-embroidered by Lumban, Laguna artisans, with fringes sewn and outsourced from India. (He describes the embroidered imagery as “a kind of acupuncture.”)
Prominent in the room is one shawl bearing a poster from the Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier Thrilla in Manila fight held in 1975. Watching the televised boxing match in New York at the time, Muntadas recalls: “I think it was the first time many in the United States know where Manila is.”
Other historical moments depicted on the 15 shawls, whittled down from an initial 80 sketches by the artist, include an AP news photo titled Imelda Marcos’ Shoe Collection Gathers Mold After Years of Neglect. Other shawls, beautifully detailed, depict the plight of comfort women, the assassination of Ninoy Aquino, a political cartoon aimed at Duterte’s drug war, the Makapili collaborators during WW2 Japanese occupation, the peaceful EDSA Revolution. (Some that didn’t make the final cut: ticket stubs from the Beatles‘ 1966 Manila tour; an image of the Boxer Codex; a photo of the 2020 protest against the Anti-Terrorism Bill.)
True to its scholarly title, Exercises on Past and Present Memories is the result of a kind of scientific method. “I think of these (pieces) as ‘research projects.’ I do not systematically do objects in a traditional way of an artist, painter, sculptor. I am not a studio person. The work is more about ideas through the time that the project is developed. It’s a very organic thing.” To present the multiple layers of such an exhibit, it’s necessary to cut out and curate, not overwhelm with data. “Editing is very important, it’s where the work is made,” says Muntadas. “Not to clean the cloth, but not present the dirty cloth. To make laundry.” Laundry that, we hope, results in the opposite of whitewashing.
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Exercises on Past and Present Memories by Muntadas is ongoing until July 29 at Ateneo Art Gallery. Visit ateneoartgallery.com for details.