Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — The challenge for anyone who seeks to discuss Santiago Bose’s work is the impossibility of its capture. It is not for want of labels, or the inability at categorization, and certainly we can decide to stick to the usual classifications based on art form, or (his) geographic roots. Easily, we can assign to him a historical moment, his place in art history. More complex, though probably most productive, is to anchor him to an ideology, his theoretical backbone, which can be gathered from his few accessible essays and his seminal works.
Of course there are also the basic facts we can work from given his creative and personal history, given what we see on the surface. His rootedness in the Cordilleras, his return to those roots after having studied at the University of the Philippines and the West 17th Print Workshop in New York City in the 1970s. His Thirteen Artists Award from the Cultural Center of the Philippines in 1976, and his decision to go back home to Baguio in 1986.
Soon after, in 1987, he became founding president of the Baguio Arts Guild, was part of the group that established the Baguio International Arts Festival, and has since been widely credited for putting Baguio on the artistic map. His heavy grounding in and engagement with the community didn’t keep him from exhibiting across the world, from the Third Asian Art Show in Japan to the Havana Biennial in Cuba, and the First Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art in Australia, to name a few.
But none of these would suffice if the task is to allow for a contemporary valuation of Bose’s legacy, the kind that requires we use a lens that proves its continued relevance over and above the oft-mentioned notions of (post-, neo-) colonialism and history, and of the indigenous and “native” taking art and creativity and making it his own.
Bose himself had sought to disengage from these labels. “I was reluctant to talk about indigenous art because it institutionalizes it. The mere fact that I'm writing about it makes me an accomplice to this naming. Labeling restricts mixing and reduces critical engagement. It also encourages misrepresentation of tribes who are appropriated from,” he had said in his notes titled “A Savage Look at Indigenous Art, Notes in Transit,” included in the book “Memories of Overdevelopment” edited by Wayne Baerwaldt.
But what one gleans from this bit, and the whole essay from which it is excerpted, is not so much his refusal by way of reluctance, as it is his intellectual rigor. Bose, across his writings and works, reveals not just the breadth and scope of his knowledge, but more importantly the magnitude of his thinking. He was not one to take history, theory, and ideology as gospel truth, was not one to take any of it sitting down. Instead, he engaged with the processes of immersion and integration of community development and engagement, towards actually threshing out what is known with what is practiced, what is written and theorized with what is lived.
This is what one is reminded of by the exhibit “Bare Necessities,” the first of a series of exhibitions of and on Santiago Bose. Curated by Patrick Flores, the decision was to highlight the artistic languages and creative impulses of Bose, evading the usual categorizations and labels based on periodization. In its place are open-ended markers, ones that stand for the variety of works from performances to experimentations, abstractions to gridwork, mixed media to collages, paintings to dreamwork and sketches. Markers that speak not so much of borders, but of crossings and intersections, allowing for the possibility that these works might interweave and overlap, given the fact that these come from the same proclivities. No periods, no endings.
The effect is an untethering of the artist’s creative history, the denial of a chronology. It maps Bose’s artistry to be a series of repetitions and reprises, echoes of particular urges and compulsions. To an extent, it highlights a firm commitment to art and its making, the breadth and scope of his language and impulses revealing a seemingly insurmountable energy, an unceasing creativity, an artistic pulse that is not only in tune with its present, but has a depth of understanding that is bound to experience, to actual engagement, to struggle.
The success of this strategy is in its openness to, if not insistence on, a conversation. And yes, it could be a conversation about Bose’s body of work as a massive entity that continues to be relevant and important, because even as it might evade capture, so much of it remains resonant. But more important is the conversation we need to have about the cultural ferment and discursive practices that allowed for Bose to be this artist who tirelessly worked and produced, even in a time and place when his work might not have been understood, his creativity a strange entity that refused to simply supply the demands of the market. It is cliché to say someone was ahead of his time, and so we say that Bose was part of a historical juncture that failed to value him and the work he sought to do, the processes he believed in, the magic he was weaving.
This conversation is important given that in the aftermath of the exhibit opening, the most dominant imagination of Bose has been one of a brat and macho, a man who was angry and frustrated, his art unappreciated. These narratives of the personal can only make exhibitions like “Bare Necessities” even more significant, as it becomes a counterpoint to these stories, forcing upon us questions about how art history, as it is written and as it unfolds, has treated our artists.
More importantly, it compels us to ask about how much harder it is for our artists and cultural workers to expand their horizons, to evolve in this environment, when they are undervalued and underestimated. How much more difficult it is to sustain an art practice in a time and place where art education is practically nil and cultural consciousness wanting. It urges us to ask about the cost of artmaking, the price our artists pay for continued creativity, especially in the context of systems that fail them, institutions that misunderstand them.
Maybe we can even finally have a conversation about how we as a society deal with the rebels and agitators, the radicals and the mavericks, among us. How many of them have slipped through our fingers, how many have we turned away, or turned a blind eye to, while they were with us. How even in their death we are unable to process the enormity of their vision and significance of their contributions, mired as that can be in the personal.
Of course it might be said that “Bare Necessities,” in its open-endedness, also allows for Bose to carry out this continued act of evasion. And maybe it is as he had planned. In an October 1986 essay on Pepito Bosch published in the art magazine San Juan, Bose wrote a self-portrait: “Santiago the bandit artist whose trail is as elusive as a wisp of starlight in the empty realms of space.”
And in this art historical juncture of market-driven risk-evasive creativity, banditry is not just a suggestion, it is a necessity. Hail the bandits among us. Love live Santi Bose.
The exhibit “Bare Necessities” by the estate of Santi Bose is ongoing until Sept. 14, 2019 at Silverlens Galleries.