Kidlat Tahimik and ‘kapa-kapa’ in ‘INDIO-GENIUS: 500 Taon ng Labanang Kultural’

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The installation for Kawayan de Guia's exhibit that welcomes visitors at the National Museum of Anthropology. Photo by JL JAVIER

Consistent in dissecting the “war on culture and a battle for the soul of the Filipino legacy” in his films and many other creative resonances such as installations and performances, National Artist Kidlat Tahimik unveils his recent exhibition “INDIO-GENIUS: 500 Taon ng Labanang Kultural (1521-2021)” at the National Museum of Anthropology in Manila City.

Born Eric Oteyza de Guia, Tahimik is dubbed as the “Father of Philippine Indie Cinema.” He yet again echoes his “wild imagination” by explicating narratives from his roots, from a local point of view, emphasizing the inherent caliber of the Filipino people, pointing to indigenous communities (“indio-genius”). This stems from his idea of “sariling duwende,” a playful elf tied to one’s culture endangered by storied colonization in the country.

The exhibition ushers in publics through a tableau, appearing so brightly with a red tint from its neon letter lights, which shows Dr. Jose Rizal, on the left, holding a movie camera serving as a reminiscence of his protest to Ferdinand Blumentritt about the Madrid Expo in 1887. The neon letter lights read “MadExpo” in red and “1887” appearing as a subtitle, atop the dome-like ceiling which houses its visual elements. The lower left portion shows “NUESTROS FILIPINOS CIVILIZADOS” (our civilized Filipinos), also in red, serving as foreground to three freestanding rice gods or bulul-like human figures including someone playing a standing drum. The tableau replicates a familiar patch from our long-storied colonial roots: Philippine flora and fauna including Igorots being shown as if it was a human zoo to warrant their “divine right” to make us civilized. The 1887 expo was a project by the Ministerio del Otro-Mar (Ministry of Overseas Colonies) with a theme on Islas Filipinas at the Palacio de Cristal, El Retiro Park in Madrid. This was the same location where some of Tahimik’s major installations in this exhibition were initially installed for “Magellan, Marilyn, Mickey & Fr. Damaso: 500 Years of Conquistador RockStars,” which ran from October 2021 to March 2022.

The section Indo-Genius: Memories Encoded in Film shows sampling of film-clips, giving us a glimpse of "how Kidlat Tahimik is constantly un-boxing himself." Photo by JL JAVIER

"Homage to Juan Luna's Spolarium" by Kawayan de Guia. Photo by JL JAVIER

Detail from Kidlat de Guia's "Saan galing ang Indio-Genius talents ni Jose Rizal?" Photo by JL JAVIER

There was an initial bleak feeling, something that feels like a series of split seconds, in looking at this entry point, shifting glances from the tableau upon reading the accompanying text. This was perhaps a call to process this familiar patch of our history beneath the heavy red tint from its neon letter lights. In reflection, I was thinking of the space as a strong cue for a “contact zone” or “social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other” as expounded by Pratt and Clifford when they ascribed museums as “places of hybrid possibility and political negotiation, sites of exclusion, and struggle'' in relation to the entire experience and exhibition concept. This bleak feeling, from some strands in this exhibition, is what sustained my interest going through each installation: was this indicative of Tahimik’s kapa-kapa organic method? For Tahimik, the indio-genius kapa-kapa organic method is most appropriate to cater to the exhibition’s curatorial components embracing change and acknowledging of the quotidian and its transient nature. Through this method, he utilizes mundane objects to impart his ideas. In hindsight, what makes this more interesting is Tahimik’s consistent use of the method in what he does. Apart from utilizing it in his filmmaking practice, he also applied the kapa-kapa method when he designed the Ili-likha Artist Village in Baguio City without any specific formal architectural layout, working around existing trees in the area.

In botany, kapa kapa (Medinilla magnifica) is a shrub originally from the Philippines, found in mountain rainforests and brisk and dimmed environments such as Mount Makiling. The shrub, sometimes called Philippine orchid or pink lantern among many other names, grows with coral red and pink lavender flowers, as reported by the Makiling Center for Mountain Ecosystems. Interestingly, the name of the plant was lifted from Medinilla Y Jose Pineda, Spanish governor of the Marianas Islands, in 1820. On the other hand, from Lagmay’s study on Filipino Psychology in 1976, bahala na elucidates “a natural layout for improvisation in the completely known future encounter,” among many other facets. It is within this context that he also suggests that bahala na is “a positive, functional response to uncertainty.” While two of these samples reveal different perspectives from distinct fields, it may be productive to trace where Tahimik’s kapa-kapa connects to in the context of Filipinos. Similarly, as shrubs grow in a myriad of soil types, bahala na redirects to improvisation, which I see as tropes or a suggestive parallel to kapa-kapa where Tahimik acknowledges the fluidity of such process, dealing with change, without any anatomy.

Installations from "Victory @ Sea" depicting how Enrique, called Balikbayan#1 in the exhibit, conquers the pacific. Photo by JL JAVIER

Enrique is Ferdinand Magellan's slave who is said to be a Visayan as suggested by historian Carlos Quirino. Photo by JL JAVIER

“Postcards from a No-read-no-write Globe-Trotter" shares glimpses of how life milestones are present in their everyday objects like blankets, rattan weavings, epic chants; histories carved on wood, stones, and animal bones. Photo by JL JAVIER

What follows through at the ground floor were sets of installations which resemble familiar Cordilleran scenography showing daily objects and all-too-familiar cultural evidence ranging from bululs in varied sizes, textiles, headpiece, intricate woodwork, and contemporary paintings and sculptures. This specific section alludes to “Postcards from a No-read-no-write Globe-Trotter,” described as a “kaleidoscope of memories." It shares glimpses of how life milestones are present in their everyday objects like blankets, rattan weavings, epic chants; histories carved on wood, stones, and animal bones; tales on pottery covers or on walls, among others, aside from oral traditions. From this, perhaps what lingers as you go along is a strong presence of communal gestures. This is observed through elements of the assemblages made by an ecosystem of indio-genius such as craftspeople, artists, and communities. Another portion close to this consists of huge wooden sculpture sets mostly depicting combat gestures. For instance, Marilyn M (Goddess of the Winds in Hollywood) being blown away by Inhabian (Goddess of the Winds in Ifugao) as a trope, to retell narratives on cultural survival of our ancestors promoting K.K.K. or Kataas-taasang Kaalamang Katutubo, in the context of this exhibition.

At best, the exhibition extends a multi-sensorial experience to its publics. While going through each space or portion, the interplay between visual textures and volumes are almost felt; the earthy smell of objects is mostly present, and what I’d call, the organized chaos due to multiplicity of elements, objects, and scenes, all providing a spectator’s supple navigation which is yet again of kapa-kapa, which I relate to one’s ingenuity in this context. These extend to all its portions. For one, a capacious space at the second floor features a massive assemblage of a navigating boat, a battle scene, among others, as part of “Victory @ Sea.” And another, a hallway filled with more micro installations and display racks facilitating a visit/revisit to the past. All these remind me of a few discourses on audiences and museums. For instance, Falk and Dierking recognize three intersecting/overlapping contexts within which people experience museums: the personal such as interests and motivations, the social as to companions, and the physical which is the actual museum. All these constitute a fusion of cues that make up an aesthetic experience on viewing the exhibition packed with Tahimik’s previous works and objects collected throughout his practice.

Detail from "Into the Eye of the Typhoon" from the “Postcards from a No-read-no-write Globe-Trotter” part of the exhibit. Photo by JL JAVIER

At the second-floor terrace, large-scale free-standing sculptures, around 15-feet-tall, seemingly portray action-packed battle scenes with flying missiles with wings, boats with tree logs with a carved face, and a trojan horse with a movie camera on its head tackling a stack of bululs. Photo by JL JAVIER

More and more scenes remain consistent to what the exhibition is about and how its materiality is explored through organic and familiar materials, most specifically wood from fallen trees, rocks, stones, shells, leaves, among others. At the second-floor terrace, large-scale free-standing sculptures, around 15-feet-tall, seemingly portray action-packed battle scenes with flying missiles with wings, boats with tree logs with a carved face, and a trojan horse with a movie camera on its head tackling a stack of bululs. All these can be seen afar from both ground and second floors, making it more picturesque as they embrace the greens surrounding the central open space of the National Museum of Anthropology.

What wraps up the series of spirited assemblages and multi-sensorial spaces, at the end of the experience, is how Tahimik reminds us of our ancestors and indio-geniuses as well as our long-storied colonial roots essential to unpacking issues and concerns that are crucial to our collective self-consciousness, perhaps this persistent creative attempt to navigate our constant knowing. In the context of this exhibition, we are reminded of such constant knowing by looking back on the past, motivating us to rekindle or conceivably find the indio-genius within all of us amid being in the everyday neo-colonial state.

Kidlat Tahimik’s “INDIO-GENIUS: 500 Taon ng Labanang Kultural (1521-2021)” is on display at the National Museum of Anthropology, Manila City until Dec. 30, 2022.