In this art exhibit, women resist the violence of erasure

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“Weaving Women’s Words on Wounds of War” features artworks made in collaboration with women who suffered and resisted the brunt of impunity during the martial law era. Photo courtesy of ATENEO ART GALLERY

In the first room of the exhibition “Weaving Women’s Words on Wounds of War,” a delicate model of a mosque floats from the ceiling, like a ghost. An object shrouded in white cloth lies on the ground below it. A video in the same room reveals that the cloaked object is another model of the same mosque. Here, it is a corpse that two people wrap with care and dignity. On a blank wall behind the installation, the mosque reappears — this time, in the form of haunting shadows.

The real mosque once stood in the small, obscure village of Manili, Cotabato. On June 19, 1971, members of the Ilagâ, a Christian paramilitary group that Ferdinand Marcos armed and used to penetrate Moro communities, murdered over 70 Manili residents in this very mosque. They shot Hajji Yusof Nagli, the community leader, in broad daylight. They threw grenades at women and children. They left bodies lying in pools of ankle-deep blood, and a sacred site stripped down to a wall of hollow blocks.

Such massacres have been virtually erased from mainstream narratives of Philippine history. The museum room that currently houses the reconstructed mosques is chilling in its emptiness, as if recreating the heavy silence that surrounds the horrific event. Old images of the once open-air mosque are shown on one wall. Black-and-white and faded, these few images reveal the dearth of documentation that the exhibition team used to reconstruct the mosque. In the room, four pieces of satin hijabs are spread on the ground. Long, winding texts are printed on their edges — imploring visitors to bend over, and patiently, reverently walk around each cloth to read them. These are the words and recollections of women who survived the massacre.

The first room of the exhibition features a delicate model of a mosque from Manili, Cotabato. Photo courtesy of ATENEO ART GALLERY

“And so it was, the only thing the people in the mosque were able to say was ‘Lailaha Ilallah Muhammad Rasulallah,’ like it reached the heavens,” writes Theng Nagli, the daughter of Hajji Yusof Nagli. I imagine their cries echoing beyond the walls and columns of the lost mosque; They pierce the silence.

Currently installed in the Ateneo Art Gallery, “Weaving Women’s Words on Wounds of War” features works made in collaboration with women who suffered and resisted the brunt of impunity during the martial law era. They come from different Muslim and katutubò communities: Palimbang, Sultan Kudarat; Tabuk and Buscalan, Kalinga; Lake Sebu and Tboli, South Cotabato; Manili, Carmen, Cotabato; Jolo, Sulu; and the vast home waters of the Sama peoples in Sulu and Tawi-Tawi. Though they were all affected by martial law, the show captures the subtle variations in their experiences. Some women joined armed resistance against national projects that would harm their land. Others, like the women from Manili, witnessed their loved ones being brutally killed. They demand the justice they never received.

The exhibition is one fruit of the project “Weaving Women’s Transitional Justice Narratives” by the Department of Political Science of the Ateneo de Manila University. Curated by Marian Pastor Roces, the current show in the Ateneo Art Gallery is its second iteration; its first was in a non-gallery space in the same building. Within the context of a museum, the exhibit probes the possibilities — and limits — of contemporary art to evoke the weight of violence. How does one portray the unspeakable? How does one do this in ways that protect the dignity of the wounded?

Art historian Griselda Pollock wrote that traumatic events “breach the limits of representation.” Walking through the show’s carefully crafted installations, I can feel the way the exhibition makers labored for thoughtful ways to visualize traumatic events, beyond repeating spectacles of violence. The works fuse the distinct textiles and traditional techniques of the women’s communities. They avoid realistic representation. They leave space for gaps and silences and the things that cannot yet be said.

Yet, to hold the pains of another in your hands and transform it into art will always be a fraught task. In his artist statement, lead artwork developer Karl Castro said that he is “painfully aware” of the paradox of being a non-female, tasked to weave the words of women. But he also stresses the importance of solidarity.

“The concerns of women are not solely the realm of women,” he wrote. “They should be the concern of all.” Every artwork label in the show features a long list of names of the people who made the work possible: the women who shared their memories, the concept developers, the translators, the researchers, the woodworkers, the textile conservators, the installers, and so on. The individual disappears into the background. We are reminded that it takes a community to carry the weight of bringing these brutalities to light.

The second room of the exhibition features the stories of nine T’boli women. Photo courtesy of ATENEO ART GALLERY

The second room of the exhibition features the stories of nine T’boli women. They hail from towns that were penetrated by Marcosian operatives and a small set of Christian missionaries. One of them, Manuel Elizalde, Jr., the head of the then Presidential Assistant on National Minorities (PANAMIN), would arrive via chopper amidst the jungle. He was treated like a god. Another one, Rex Mansmann, a former priest and founder of the Sta. Cruz Mission, impregnated different T’boli women. He claims to embrace T’boli polygamy. But many T’boli women suffered “metaphoric or literal” sexual predation from the hands of such men.

“What happened to [these women] do not lend to easy storytelling,” Pastor wrote in her curatorial text. In this room, reproductions of ikat warping frames for dyeing float from the ceiling. Instead of threads, black and red ribbons containing the words of the T’boli women are stretched on the frames. Walking through these frames feels like entering the mysterious, volatile world of memories. These texts have no clear beginnings or endings; They evade linear narratives. Instead, we are given only fragments: recollections in sharp and vivid focus, and others wrapped up, concealed.

“Datu Wali’s sister was the first one who was made a ‘comfort woman’. They say there were many, but this is not . . .” A knot hides her next words.

Another fragment: “Even when her husband was hurting her, he just covered it up with gifts.”

These ribbons reveal glimpses of how patriarchy shadowed these women’s daily lives, but they also glisten with scenes of their agency. “. . . I finished school, Sister gave me a task as my first employment,” one ribbon reads. “We organized women. We went out to do seminars. I talked to the women. We encouraged them to speak up.”

In the third room, beds of cornstarch contain molds of Sama mats. Photo courtesy of ATENEO ART GALLERY

In the third and final room, beds of cornstarch are spread on the ground, appearing like fine white sand. A closer look reveals that these beds contain molds of Sama mats, their intricate patterns seen in faint impressions. I move gently around them. The delicate, ephemeral material makes me especially careful not to step on the work. Hanging from the ceiling, a long piece of cloth contains a tale.

This is how it goes: A woman who enjoyed weaving reed mats by the edge of the sea had one day, by accident, summoned the devil. He presents her with a gamble. She must give him three obstacles, and if he completes them, he could sell her soul and make her his slave. She did, and the devil fulfilled her first two obstacles without trouble. Then, after much contemplation, the woman gave him a final, deceptively simple task: The devil must untangle her intricate weaving and bring her every single thread untarnished.

When dawn came the next day, the devil saw an enchanted mat on the beach — but, like the beds of cornstarch, it came in the form of fine, embossed sand. The devil failed his task. “It is believed that to this very day, the devil keeps lurking, pondering the details,” says the tale, “trying to untangle and undo every loving woman’s gentle hand-made [work].”

The Sama women behind this work long to preserve the ritualized Samalan sea-oriented life of the past. But modernism, Christianity, fundamentalist strains of Islam, and dislocation and wars that intensified during the martial law period persist to threaten its existence. Justice to these women means that these rituals survive and grow. Their artwork feels like a poignant metaphor for the fragile, sacred beauty of their ritual life — a kind of beauty that the devil himself cannot obliterate.

The blouses of Tausug women who fought in the war that the Philippine Army waged against Muslim successionist forces in the 1970s. Photo courtesy of ATENEO ART GALLERY

The exhibition ends with an installation of blouses crudely hung on wooden stands. The clothes look visibly worn. They have tears, their colors have faded. They belong to the Tausug women who fought in the war that the Philippine Army waged against Muslim successionist forces in the 1970s. The women became soldiers and medics. In battle, they traded their fine, ornate Tausug tops and skirts for these plain clothes.

I think of the life of these clothes, how these women were prepared to die in them. But they have miraculously made it here, to this museum, decades later. These women are alive. These clothes will still outlive them — but now, whoever holds them in the future will know that they were more than ordinary, because the women’s names have been embroidered on each piece. Marci. Merfa. Nurisa. J.

Each name holds the weight of a life. Each name demands us to remember.


“Weaving Women’s Words on Wounds of War” runs until Oct. 1 2022. To visit, guests must register for campus access.