Post-Colonial Re-Reading and Re-Writing of Philippine Colonial Painting History

by: Maria Portia Olenka C. Placino

Estrangulación de los Caudillos Insurgentes, the thirteenth panel of Esteban Villanueva’s Basi Revolt Series ushers a post-colonial and materialist reading of Philippine colonial art history, particularly of painting and the visual arts. The amalgamation of the opposing truths of reality and catechism is presented through a representation of the Basi Revolt, a revolutionary movement of colonial Filipinos; chronicled by a colonial iconography, the narrative of Via Crusis. This colonial work anticipates the post-colonial Philippines, the salvation after the passion of the revolutionaries from colonialism and hegemony. This spectacle of the way of the cross directs the re-enaction of pain that results to eventual resurrection. (Flores, 291-93)

Painting History: Revisions in Philippine Colonial Art is a book published by Patrick D. Flores in 1998 through the UP Office Research Coordination and the National Commission for Culture and the Arts. The book originated as his MA Art History thesis entitled The history of Philippine colonial painting from its beginnings to the establishment of the Academia de Dibujo y Pintura : towards a theory of colonial art history. The two-volume unpublished thesis was condensed and reconstructed into a four-chapter book with less than four hundred pages.

A foreword is contributed by Alice G. Guillermo, summarizing the important aspects of the book and providing the key ideas presented in each chapter. The four chapters of the book are entitled Going Past the Present, Presenting the Past, (“Is) Art History?”: The History of Colonial Art as History of Colonial Transformation, and Art History as Art Criticism. Flores also includes in the appedices the Prescriptions for the Foundation of Hispanic Colonial Towns by Philip II, July 3, 1573, San Lorenzo, Spain; Philippine Art Scholars in Europe (1858-1898) and the Emblems, Symbols and Saintly Attributes.

The first chapter entitled Going Past the Present summarizes the world view of the colonial enterprise. The colonialists claim their rights of conquest, situated within the reformation and conter-reformation of the “self” while they civilize and create the identity of the colonial “other” (Flores, 13-6). The earliest form of post-colonial theory came of Edward Said‘s Orientalism wherein the western colonizer creates the identity of the “self” and subjugates the oriental “other.” With this system of established identification, the hegemonic power of the western “self” oppresses, through the colonial imperialist enterprise, the heterogeneity of the oriental “other” (Said, 126-27; Childs & Williams, 98-103).

The chapter also introduces the problems of painting as a colonial technology that inculcates a colonial imagination and a hegemonic way of seeing, yet it also enables the post-colonial resistance and contradiction. Painting, during the time, is a humanistic discipline and is part of the creation of the hegemony of nationalism (Flores, 17-24). Flores points out the need of transcoding the picture from this colonial point of view by looking into the grassroots of language, society and forms of reception of the Filipinos (35-8). This would enable the post-colonial Filipinos understand the Philippine colonial art history without being entrenched into the trappings of the hegemonic colonial perception.

The second chapter entitled Presenting the Past focuses on the actual colonial cultural product—the painting. Flores echoes Terry Eagleton in discounting the dichotomy of the “form” and “content.” Instead, he deepens Eagleton’s cultural materialism by considering painting as both a practice and product yet qualifying it in terms of the signifying practice it is situated in. For him, Philippine colonial painting produces meaning through its historical circumstances yet it is still situated within various contradictions of Philippine social formations (53-8).

Such contradictions of Philippine social formations include the concept of power within society, particularly the interaction of dominance and resistances. This is articulated by Flores in his analysis of painting as both a colonial and post-colonial product. In particular, he employs the post-colonial theory of Homi Bhabha, the concept of hybridity—mimicry and ambivalence. The post-colonial “other” does not rest within the power and dominance of the “self”. Instead, the “other” mimics the “self” in the “other’s” desire to be reformed, yet the result of the “other’s” mimicry of the “self” is an ambivalent resistance which is the “other’s” continual slippage and opposition of the “self” (Flores, 65-57; Bhabba, 170-2; Childs & Williams, 124-137). In the Philippine context, the hybridity of the technology of painting exists in mimicry of the colonial medium, at the same time being an ambivalent resistance against that same colonial power.

In this chapter, Flores also critiques the historiographical and archival methods of placing the art product and writing art history. He utilizes a cultural materialistic analysis by articulating the colonial modes of production, distribution and reception of the artistic product. At the same time, he also recognizes the legitimization and institutionalization of the artistic product by the colonial art world, which is the location of the hybridity of submission and subversion (Flores, 78-105). Historiographical and archival research lacks the perspective in locating the Philippine colonial art product such as painting, within the colonial institution of the church and the state. The product’s creation as a service to the church for pedagogic utilization or as a commercial product for the nouveaux riche cannot be expressed without a cultural materialistic perspective.

The third chapter entitled (“Is) Art History?”: The History of Colonial Art as History of Colonial Transformation re-tells the history of Philippine colonial art through the various perspectives explained in the first two chapters, particularly that of post-colonialism and cultural materialism. Flores divides the chapter into three general thematic clusters—the introduction of painting to the Philippine culture; the artifacticity of colonial painting; and the institutionalization of painting. He presents social forces of the time as a heuristic device to create the categories of examination (Flores, 125).

Painting and the visual arts in the colonial sense are introduced to the Philippines as a catechetical devices of the colonial enterprise. Pre-colonial Filipinos show signs of partiality for pictoriality as seen in pre-colonial art and this is taken to advantage with the introduction of colonial religion. The colonizers use drama and spectacle in the inculcation of the colonial religion thus solidifying superstition and fear among the Filipinos. The politics of conversion and salvation enters the mind-set of the Filipinos through the visual arts as the lic-has and larauanes are stigmatized as the “other” replaced by canonical religious figures (Flores, 125-139).

Flores points out that the early artists who practiced in the Philippines were mostly colonial priests and the early apprentices were Chinese residing in the Philippines. Before the institutionalization of art, particularly of painting, visual arts are considered as a vocational practice. The medium that reached early popularity was printmaking which resulted not only to its usage for catechetical purposes but also for the formation of Philippine iconography in the visual arts (Flores, 139-163). Printmaking in the colonial Philippines is one of the earliest expression of hybridity—printmaking is a technology mimicked from the colonizers yet the unsuing product is that of ambivalence as the iconography of Philippine painting is formed.

The artifacticity of painting is illustrated by placing them categorically through the text. Flores points out the general formal classifications of early colonial painting—the non-portable architectual painting and the portable framed or panel painting. Unlike the early prints, these paintings are unnamed. The Chinese connection in the visual arts demonstrated as both material and iconography is not only indigenized but also carries strong Chinese influences. Flores positions the plasticity of painting, not just in its formalistic categorization, but more importantly through its location in Philippine transformation. He points out that painting is not a “progressive” development along history as it may either corroborate or contradict it. Instead, Flores gives an alternative stylistic classification of visual arts—salvational, ethnographic, self-representational and modern (Flores, 163-187).

The institutionalization of painting became an inevitability as the colonial enterprise developed and strengthened its hold on the colonial Philippines. Flores also considered the problem related to currently known art history as it is not supported by actual archival documents and existing archival records show some historical inconsistencies. Despite the inconsistencies in archival details, it is clear that painting and the visual arts became institutionalized through the foundation of academias dedicated for the purpose of artistic education. Humanism and the “establishment” supported the institutionalization of the arts. The artists fell into individualization of humanism and became separated as the artistic genius. The local elite will come to rule within the institution though the institution itself is open to the educated population. Eventually, such enlightened elite will grow into the reformists and revisionists (Flores, 258-65).

The artifactuality of art and the examination of its plasticity are important to confirm its status as an art object in the artworld. This status makes the formal categorization possible and makes the artwork understandable to the audience. The artifactuality of the plasticity of an art object makes the claimant for appreciation and confirmation by the artworld possible (Dickie, 207-218). The colonial artworld in the Philippines, especially during the early period of colonization is mainly comprised of the religious institution, in turn, it is the one who institutionalizes art into the catechetical art world. Eventually, the colonial art world became its own institution with the foundation of the Academias. This expanded the concept and definition of what art is. Flores’ analysis uses formalistic categorization but avoids the limiting aspects of such practice by using thematic categories that are not dictated by the canonical art world.

The deteriorating colonial economy gave an opportunity to the local Societies to gain more control over local politics and economy. This changing political-economic framework of the colonial Philippines eventually gave rise to the middle class and nouveaux riche. Catechetical goals and humanistic tendencies are joined by commercialization and capitalism. The new capitalists—the middle class and nouveaux riche grew into the patrons of the arts. This trend ensues a changing trend in painting styles to cater to expanding consumers. Instead of catechism of conversion and salvation or humanism of the individual genius, paintings became an expression of the changing lifestyles and demonstration of wealth. This became another facet of the development of Philippine colonial painting (Flores, 265-77).

The fourth chapter is entitled Art History as Art Criticism. In the last chapter of the book, Flores focused on the current researches being conducted on Philippine colonial art and the various areas where there is still a need to focus on. He looks into the existing reviews of Philippine colonial paintings and demistifies the canon of looking. Flores reveals the intersection of influences such as medieval iconography and renaissance techniques, as well as the Mexican influence on the Spanish colonial enterprise. He reiterates the need to demistify the colonial canon and infuse contemporary context with the writing of art history. Flores also presents the various perspective that can be taken to further the studies of Philippine colonial art such as iconography, hybridity and materiality (Flores, 305-52).

New Historicism, Cultural Materialism and Post-Colonial Studies

Flores seeks a re-reading and re-writing of Philippine colonial art particularly that of painting. He uses various perpectives, blending and merging them to express the unique development of Philippine colonial painting, away from the formalistic and canonical point of view that is found in existing texts. He exhibits various social, political and economic movements that influenced the modes of production, distribution and reception of colonial art, broadening the view point of the colonial enterprise instead of narrowing it down to the formalistic religious experience. Flores quotes Imannuel Kant:

“I have placed the main point of Enlightenment—the escape of men from their self-incurred tutelage—chiefly in matters of religion because our rulers have no interest in playing the guardian with respect to the arts and sciences and also because religious incompetence is not only the most harmful but also the most degrading of all.”

Flores re-writes Philippine colonial art history through a new historicism, particularly that of cultural materialism, as he delves into the relationships between material and cultural production. He specifically looks into painting as a material and cultural product then examines it through the developing, changing and even conflicting modes of production, distribution and reception. He examines painting as a new medium to Filipino sensibilities and follows it through its location as a catechetical object, as a humanistic enterprise, as an institutionalized practice and eventually as a commercial product. Through the articulation of new historicism and cultural materialism, Flores managed to present this movement not as a linear development along history but as something that either corroborates or contradict history. The emergence of one mode does not necessarily result to the end of another as they may move together, merge or contradict one another (Castle, 72-8; 129-134).

The previously mentioned perspectives rely to a certain degree on marxist theories and can be considered as neo-marxists. For Terry Eagleton, the text is not a product of ideology, instead, the text is the production of ideology. Similarly, painting and the visual arts of the colonial Philippines are not solely the product of the existing ideologies of the time, instead, painting and the visual arts are the production of colonial idealogies. This perspective would be further developed into a post-colonial ideology, particularly that of hybridity. As mentioned earlier, painting and the visual arts did not develop synchronically with history, instead, it is a production of the various prevailing thoughts, and the political-economic framework of the colonial Philippines—the a corroboration or a contradiction of such (Castle, 108-114).

Post-colonial studies is one of the key terms in Flores’ text. The concept of the post-colonial cannot be simplified to refer to the time after the colonial enterprise. More appropriately, it is an always present phenomenon that affects cultures which underwent the imperialist process of colonial enterprise. Post-coloniality is always a persistent situation of the once-colonized nation in their acceptance and resistance of the colonial. It is pointed out by Childs and Williams that a nations may be the colonizer, the colonial and the post-colonial at the same time. In the case of the Philippines, particularly in the writing of history, there exists the colonizer, the colonial and the post-colonial (Childs &Williams, 1-23).

Initially, the inculcation of the norms of painting as visual arts is done by the Spanish colonial enterprise, eventually, such colonization is done by the elite and the educated Filipinos as opposed to their fellow Filipinos, this is very visible to the dynamics of the members of the Academia and those who are not, such as the members of the guilds. Aside from this, there is also the central Intramuros/Manila as opposed to the peripheral regional artists. Though Flores attempts at a sweeping survey of regional artists during the time, there are very few information gathered and no information as to how the peripheral interacted with the center. There is an inter-change of the roles of the colonizer and the colonial. But in the present time, all of which are the post-colonial as it is necessary to look into these developments, not only through the telos of the colonial Philippines but also through the present existing modes of production, distribution and reception. Recent studies and writings, including Flores’ text, explores this (Flores, 1-47; 258-302).

Another recurring concept in the text is the of hybridity by Homi Bhabha. As mentioned earlier, it consists of mimicry and ambivalence of the “self” by the colonial “other.” Earlier post-colonial texts, particularly of Edward Said, focuses on the difference and opposition of the colonizer and the colonized, the disjunction of the “self” and the “other.” Bhabha did not end the discourse there, instead, he expanded on it (Bhabba, 170-2; Childs & Williams, 124-137). The colonial enterprise brought about hegemonic canons, in the visual arts—colonial painting. Colonized Filipinos mimicked this technology but did not conclude with the mimicry, instead, the created ambivalence by using the mimicry of the canonical medium and creating various resistances in the usage of that same canonical medium. This includes the usage of the colonial medium and narrative of the Via Crusis in creating the ambivalent Basi Revolt Series by Esteban Villanueva (Flores, 65-57; 291-93).

Philippine Artworld and Institution—Articulation and Silences

Art as bellas artes or fine arts is not part of the pre-colonial Filipino sensibilities. Artistic production before the imperialist colonial enterprise is not an individualistic and humanistic practice but a communal practice wherein there is no ownership or authorship of the particular art product. With the introduction of the colonial enterprise, the concept of fine arts entered the Filipino sensibilities and the medium of painting became the canon of artistic production (Flores, 1-47; Wolff, 26-48). This shift in the modes of production, distribution and reception became a point of subjugation of the Filipinos. The artist and the audience would be limited and subjugated under the confinement of the colonial enterprise. Later, they would be subject to the academism and institutionalization of the Academia. Eventually, this point of subjugation will also be the core of the resistance. Flores reiterates and problematizes this point of subjugation throughout the text, particularly with the changing roles of the colonizers and the colonized as well as with the changing political-economic framwork of the Philippines (Danto, 199-207; Dickie, 207-218; Blizek, 219-224)

Key in the problematization of the Philippine colonial art world is not the question of who is included but more on who is excluded. Flores makes a good point in the illustration of the colonial artists and teachers of the religious colonial enterprise, to the artists involved in the secular institutions such as the Academias, and even to the Chinese apprentices and printmakers who are often ignored and unmentioned. Though it is noted that Flores made a sweeping survey of the Filipino regional painters, there are so few mentions and there was hardly any information on them or any analysis on their works. Only Esteban Villanueva’s Basi Revolt Series is particularly problematized by the text. This silence is articulated by Flores and is recognized as part of the research that still needs to be conducted.

Another key problem is the usual silence on the Filipino women artist. Though this is answered by Flores in another text published with Flaudette May Datuin, Home, Body and Memory and also illustrated by Eloisa May Hernandez in Homebound, the silence is glaring in the text. Only Pelagia Mendoza, as the first woman artist to be enrolled in the Academia is mentioned, and this is to reiterate that the Academia is the first co-educational institution in the country. The issue of women artists, particularly in the colonial women artists, is another expansive topic on its own, but it must not be considered as a separate topic from the history of colonial art in the Philippines. This silence of the subaltern is expressed by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak in Can the Subaltern Speak?:

“In seeking to learn to speak to (rather than listen to or speak for) the historically muted subject of the subaltern woman, the postcolonial intellectual ‘systematically’ ‘unlearns’ female privilege. This systematic unlearning involves learning to critique postcolonial discourse with the best tools it can provide and not simply substituting the lost figure of the colonized (91).”

Institutional art theory is both useful and limiting. On one hand, it helps with the easier understanding and presentation of the arts, once its artistic status is conferred upon it. It articulates the art object as art and it helps upon the recognition and acceptance of society. On the other hand, this reading of the arts is prone to various silences that is suffered by peripheral artists and art objects. It becomes too easy to do a sweeping reading that ignores and keeps silent about artists and art objects that are rendered invisible by the institutionalized artworld. This happens often in the accepted art histories, resulting to the difficulty of placing artists without institutional training, regional artists, and women artists inside the accepted and recognized artworld. Due to these silences, they remain unknown to the Filipino population and knowledge of them is limited to academics and art researchers. This problem persisted from the colonial times until the present post-colonial world (Danto, 199-207; Dickie, 207-218; Blizek, 219-224).

(Post-Post)–Colonial, Marxist, Feminist Art Studies?

Patrick Flores’ text has an impressive impact upon Art Studies in the Philippines. He develops a new way of seeing which is not bound by the formalist historicism. He also provides a fresh perspective of a Philippine colonial world which is not the dictated text that previous histories provide. Flores goes back to the basics and examines the existing archival records, written histories and even the existing blood relatives of these Filipino colonial artists. He cross-checks histories as written and critically examines its references. This initiates numerous new historiographies in Philippine Art Studies.

Flores also uses and merges various perspectives that would apply to the Philippine setting. Though most of the critical theories are written by non-Filipinos, it does not stop it from being relevant to the Filipinos. His particular usage of cultural materialism—by not separating form and content, instead, his seeing art as a production of ideology is key to a non-linear take on art history. Art movements do not necessarily coincide with history as it sometimes contradicts history. Post-colonialism also plays a part in the analysis of Philippine colonial art history as it gives perspective, not only on the situation of art in colonial Philippines but makes it relevant to the present day, within the post-colonial Philippines.

Though Patrick Flores’ text has an enormous impact on the research and writing of Philippine art history, it still suffers some pitfalls and silences that need to be voiced out. He points out some of this lack and presents the need for further studies on these areas. Locating the regional artists outside of the Academia as well as the Filipino women artists is an important aspect of Philippine art history. Another exceedingly necessary need is to create a text of history that does not exclude regional artists or female artists in a separate work, but instead, to include these dynamics on the revision of the histories. These aspects are not separate from the central movement but are ignored and silenced by earlier art historians. Perhaps this is the new “post-ness” that will develop as Philippine art studies is further explored and scrutinized—something beyond what we have now in a post-colonial, post-marxist, and post-colonial point of view.

The political-economic situation of the colonial Philippines and the post-colonial political-economic framework of the present time place the country in a unique position. Though such position can be viewed in an amalgamation of various theories and readings—particularly in its post-colonial, neo-marxist and post-feminist location—Philippine art studies still defies many of such established theories and readings. Perhaps a new “post-ness” is necessary to look into Philippine art history and how it develops into the current modes of production, distribution and consumption. Though numerous researches attempt to view Philippine art away from the humanistic telos, there are still pitfalls that make the reading vulnerable to what it seek to avoid in the first place. Some aspect of Flores’ text, as mentioned earlier, fall into this vulnerability. This research difficulty necessitates critics and historians of Philippine art to look beyond the established “post-ness” and create their own “post-ness” that is applicable to Philippine art, rather than taking an established “post-ness” and adapting it to Philippine art.

Ultimately, the challenge to Filipino art historians and critics is started by Flores’ attempt at re-reading and re-writing Philippine colonial art history. The need for a revision of art history is established, thus, Flores’ text. But the challenge is not concluded there. Flores begins the re-reading and re-writing of Philippine colonial art history and there are many others who follow his perspective and point of view. Yet there are innumerable histories that need re-reading and re-writing. The present political-economic circumstances of the Philippines is also continually shifting and changing, which would dictate further revisions to the art historian’s point of view as the present is always considered in the revisions of histories. The present “post-ness” is being challenged by the “post-post” or beyond the established critiques and perspectives. This evolving and developing discourse continues to be demand for art historians and critics to cope up at the same time remain balanced and grounded to Philippine art studies.

Works Cited

Belting, Hans. The End of the History of Art? Chicago: University of Chicago, 1987. Print.

Bhabha, Homi K. “Race, Time and the Revision of Modernity.” Postcolonial Criticism. Ed. Bart Moore-Gilbert, Gareth Stanton, and Willy Maley. London: Addison Wesley Longman Limited, 1997. 166-89. Print.

Blizek, William. “An Institutional Theory of Art.” Contemporary Philosophy of Art: Readings in Analytic Aesthetics. Ed. John Bender and Gene Blocker. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1993. 219-25. Print.

Castle, Gregory. The Blackwell Guide to Literary Theory. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007. Print.

Childs, Peter, and Patrick Williams. An Introduction to Post-Colonial Theory. London: Prentice Hall/Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1997. Print.

Danto, Arthur. “The Art World.” Contemporary Philosophy of Art: Readings in Analytic Aesthetics. Ed. John Bender and Gene Blocker. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1993. 199-207. Print.

Dickie, George. “What Is Art? An Institutional Analysis.” Contemporary Philosophy of Art: Readings in Analytic Aesthetics. Ed. John Bender and Gene Blocker. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1993. 459-72. Print.

Flores, Patrick D. Painting History: Revisions in Philippine Colonial Art. Diliman, Quezon City: Office of Research Coordination, University of the Philippines, 1998. Print.

Podro, Michael. The Critical Historians of Art. New Haven: Yale UP, 1982. Print.

Preziosi, Donald. The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.

Russell, Bertrand. History of Western Philosophy. London: Routledge, 2007. Print.

Said, Edward W., and Willy Maley. “Orientalism Reconsidered.” Postcolonial Criticism. Ed. Bart Moore-Gilbert and Gareth Stanton. London: Addison Wesley Longman Limited, 1997. 126-43. Print.

Spivak, Gayatri C., Gareth Stanton, and Willy Maley. “Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism.” Ed. Bart Moore-Gilbert. Postcolonial Criticism. London: Addison Wesley Longman Limited, 1997. 145-56. Print.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. Can the Subaltern Speak? Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1988. Print.

Wolff, Janet. The Social Production of Art. Basingstoke: Macmillan Education, 1981. Print.


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