13 indigenous artists who have kept Filipino creativity alive

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Awarded as ‘National Living Treasures,’ these artists have preserved some of the Philippines’ most important indigenous traditions. From left: Alonzo Saclag (traditional dancer and musician), Haja Amina Appi (pandan mat weaver), Teofilo Garcia (gourd hatmaker), and Magdalena Gamayo textile weaver). Illustrations by SAM GANZON

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — It’s one thing to be recognized as a living legend of the arts in the Philippines, and it’s a whole other thing completely to be acknowledged as an artist who has kept a rare form of traditional Filipino creativity and ingenuity alive.

In 1992, the National Commission on Culture and the Arts (NCCA) began selecting and honoring recipients of the National Living Treasures Award, also known as Gawad sa Manlilikha ng Bayan (GAMABA), through Republic Act No. 7355. It continues to be awarded today, and is handed out in the form of a medal. The lives and work of these Filipinos exhibit a dedication to craftsmanship and excellence that are unparalleled. Through their passion, abilities, and tenacity in passing down their heritage to the youth, many cultural practices of indigenous communities were preserved.

The National Museum, in partnership with the NCCA and the office of Sen. Loren Legarda, launched an exhibit featuring the National Living Treasures in 2016. Now a permanent hall in the National Museum of Anthropology, the exhibit is a tribute not only to these one-of-a-kind creators, but also to their styles, tools, and crafts. It also highlights their efforts to keep the country’s unique and diverse intangible cultural heritage alive, through continued practice and education.

To be deemed a National Living Treasure, one must possess technical and creative skills, creating work with fine artistic quality, and ties to community and folk art traditions. More than that, they must show a strong character and unfaltering integrity, leading them to earn the respect and admiration of their people.

Illustration by SAM GANZON

Uwang Ahadas, musician

Yakan musical instruments aren’t the easiest or most affordable to maintain, but Uwang Ahadas of Lamitan, Basilan made it his life’s work to master them. From an early age, he and his siblings were encouraged to play these instruments, and he developed a passion for them, training himself by observing older members of the community.

At age 20, he broke tradition by reaching excellence in playing the kwintangan, an instrument typically played by a woman. The instrument, made up of logs arranged beneath a tree near a rice field, is used to call for abundant grains and rice growth. He is also dedicated to sharing his knowledge to younger folk; his teaching style is hands-on and supportive, giving his students his full attention. He was awarded in 2000.

Illustration by SAM GANZON

Magdalena Gamayo, textile weaver

Based in Pinili, Ilocos Norte, Magdalena Gamayo took up weaving when she was 16, guided by her aunt’s patterns. She received her first loom from her father three years later, which she would end up using for 30 years. She taught herself traditional patterns, such as kusikus (whirlwind), marurup (Milky Way), and sinan paddak ti pusa (cat’s pawprint), building on the more common inuritan (geometric design) and sinan-sabong (flowers).

Gamayo’s skill and instinct are none more apparent than they are in her ability to replicate designs she’s only seen once. Her binakol, or woven cloth, continues to draw praise and awe for its above-average thread count and uniform weave. To keep Ilocos’ abel weaving tradition alive, she teaches her practice to her cousin’s daughter-in-law and sister-in-law. She was awarded in 2012.

Illustration by SAM GANZON

Eduardo Mutuc, metalsmith and artist

Having finished up to elementary school, Eduardo Mutuc, a farmer at the time, became an apprentice to furniture carvers to earn additional income. He had no prior knowledge of the work he was getting into, but this didn’t stop him from expanding his experience and becoming one of the most respected creators of religious and secular art today. He uses wood, silver, and bronze to create exquisitely detailed and lifelike pieces of varying sizes: altars, mirrors, retablos, and even carosas. Mutuc is based in Apalit, Pampanga. He was awarded in 2004.

Illustration by SAM GANZON

Lang Dulay, textile weaver

In Lang Dulay’s family, the weaving of the t’nalak (a fine abaca cloth) took place before or after farm work, when the weather was cool and the conditions were better for the product. Dulay, who grew up in Lake Sebu, South Cotabato, was taught to weave by her mother when she was 12.

As demand grew for new designs, she persisted and kept working with traditional patterns, even though they were harder to complete — she knew around a hundred, including bulinglangit (clouds), kabangi (butterfly), crocodiles, and flowers. She valued purity, so much so that she never washed her t’nalak with soap. She was awarded in 1998, and passed away in 2015

Illustration by SAM GANZON

Samaon Sulaiman, musician

Musician Samaon Sulaiman was a master of the kutyapi, a two-stringed lute that requires highly technical skill to play. The Maganoy, Maguindanao native learned from his uncle, Pinagunay, at age 13, developing and learning different forms and styles of playing the instrument. The sound is melodic and rhythmic, its effect meditative and captivating.

He was also proficient in playing instruments such as the kulintang, agong (a suspended gong with a wide rim), gandingan (a gong with a narrow rim), and tambul. Sulaiman’s fascination for his craft led him to become an influential teacher. He was awarded in 1993, and passed away in 2011.

Illustration by SAM GANZON

Haja Amina Appi, pandan mat weaver

Weaving pandan mats is a long and difficult process that is handed down from woman to woman across generations: Pandan leaves are harvested and made into narrow, long strips, sun-dried, pressed, and dyed before finally becoming suitable for weaving. The resulting mats are used for sleeping and saying prayers, or given as gifts to newlyweds.

Haja Amina Appi of Ungos Matata, Tandubas, Tawi-Tawi created intricate mats that boast beautiful geometric designs, vibrant colors, and fine symmetry. She was awarded National Living Treasure in 2004. She experimented with her work and developed her own tints to create the hues she had in mind. Appi passed away in 2013, but her art lives on through her children and other young women in her community.

Illustration by SAM GANZON

Federico Caballero, chanter and educator

Epic chanter Federico Caballero of Calinog, Iloilo was best known for his expertise in the Sugidanon, a Central Panay epic traditionally chanted while lying on a hammock, and his work in the preservation of oral literature, documenting 10 Panay-Bukidnon epics in an extinct language with close ties to Kinaray-a.

His love of folklore began when he was young, hearing tales of grand adventures as bedtime stories, and his mother taught him to recite epics in lieu of doing household chores. In his spare time, he also works with the Department of Education’s Bureau of Non-Formal Education, teaching elders to read and write. He was awarded in 2000.

Illustration by SAM GANZON

Ginaw Bilog, poet

The Mangyan script is one of the four remaining syllabic scripts in the country, and Ginaw Bilog’s work has been crucial to its preservation. Based in Mansalay, Oriental Mindoro, the poet was known for writing ambahan (a metaphoric poem comprising seven-syllable lines), first in a notebook, then on traditionally used bamboo tubes.

The poems, often recited with music at social gatherings and used to convey messages among the Hanunuo Mangyan, had topics like advising the young, bidding a friend goodbye, and asking for a place to stay. Bilog, who was awarded in 1993, passed away in 2003.

Illustration by SAM GANZON

Salinta Monon, textile weaver

Salinta Monon was 12 when she began learning to weave the inabal, a traditional Bagobo textile. In her home in Bansalan, Davao del Sur, Monon would isolate herself from family to be able to concentrate on creating her cloths and skirts, which took three to four months and a month to finish, respectively.

Her favorite pattern, despite or because of its difficulty, was the binuwaya (crocodile), and she continued weaving until her death in 2009. For her, not only was it a source of income, it was a source of pride as well. She and her younger sister were the only Bagobo weavers left in their community, and she dreamt of having a structure built for teaching new would-be weavers. She was awarded in 1998.

Illustration by SAM GANZON

Masino Intaray, chanter and musician

A member of the Pala’wan tribe, musician and epic chanter Masino Intaray was a master of the basal, a gong music ensemble played during rice cooking (tambilaw) and sharing (tinapay) rituals, which gather the community as they serve offerings to Pala’wan rice god Ampo’t Paray.

Intaray also performed the kulilal, a lyrical poem expressing love, accompanied by two-stringed lute and bamboo zither, and the bagit, an instrumental piece about nature. His memory and determination guided him in chanting through many successive nights, reciting epics, stories, myths of origin, and the teachings of ancestors. Intaray, who was awarded in 1993, passed away in 2013.

Illustration by SAM GANZON

Darhata Sawabi, textile weaver

Darhata Sawabi’s mission was to lead young women towards making a living out of her craft. The Parang, Sulu-based textile weaver’s primary creation was the headpiece pis siyabit — pis stands for the pattern, which is said to be derived from India’s mandala, depicting spirituality through geometric forms, and siyabit refers to the hook and technique. She gained recognition for the precision of her work and her passion for preserving traditional designs, as well as teaching the youth and was awarded in 2004. She passed away in 2005.

Illustration by SAM GANZON

Teofilo Garcia, gourd hatmaker

In San Quintin, Abra, Teofilo Garcia would often walk around town wearing his gourd casques. Through word of mouth and his participation in the annual local harvest festival, Garcia was able to introduce the tabungaw plant as a good and sturdy material for functional, elegant, and protective hats. He produces everything he needs — planting and harvesting the gourds, splitting and refining rattan for the lining, and weaving nito and bamboo for accents himself — and usually takes seven days to finish a hat. Awarded in 2012, he continues to experiment and work on new designs.

Illustration by SAM GANZON

Alonzo Saclag, traditional dancer and musician

It was through observation, time, and experience — rather than education or training or any kind — that Alonzo Saclag of Lubuagan, Kalinga mastered local musical instruments, along with dance patterns associated with rituals. Some of these are rarely performed, but done so with special purposes, whether it’s preparing for retaliation, a victorious vindication for the community, or forging successful peace pacts.

Saclag understands the importance of his practice and is a strong advocate of passing on his knowledge and continuing the use of traditional dress and adornments. His efforts have included formal education, reaching radio stations, and the formation of the Kalinga Budong Dance Troupe. He was awarded in 2000.


For more information on our National Living Treasures, visit NCCA’s website or the Manlilikha ng Bayan exhibition at the National Museum of Anthropology.