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PAIN IN LOCAL FILIPINO ART, PERFORMANCE RITUAL and BELIEF by Dulce Cuna Anacion
Paper delivered at the 29th International Conference on Psychology and the Arts at the Ghent University, Belgium July 4-8, 2012
In 2007, they removed my womb. It was a relief after months of excruciating pain and the feeling of heaviness around my lower abdomen, the hard and swollen sides often throbbed of pain when touched or pressed. I went under the knife with a surgical procedure called TAHBSO (Total Abdominal Hysterectomy Bilateral Salpingo Oophorectomy), the removal of the uterus, both ovaries, fallopian tubes with an incision on the abdomen. They also removed my appendix and I guess cleaned my stomach cavity for I knew any of those swelling glands burst. I whispered to my doctor: “Paano ‘yan Doc, hindi na ako mabubuntis” (Now what, Doc, I can’t be pregnant anymore!) to which she smiled: “My dear, you are in Menopause!” After 5 hours in the operating room, they removed two large cystic ovaries as big as grapefruits, a shrunken uterus and an appendix. I was relieved from the pain of my abdomen. However the post-operation pain was just as excruciating. One dark thought hang over me like a sword of Damocles: “Will I ever be Creative again without a Uterus?”
To a Woman, the Uterus and its Ovaries is the most important feminine “machinery” in her body. It takes centre stage in all the whys and wherefores in her life like a second brain. Its equivalent is similar to the male testicles or “balls”. Hence when she manipulates in the external world of things and people she is said to “have balls” or it “takes balls”, thus it takes some sort of an “ovarian energy”-- an energy field which is related to her domestic work, sense of well-being, love and sex. Here the woman relies so much of her Identity with this gland. With this belief, I felt disconcerted and uneasy with this situation. It felt like a feminine castration.
The painful advent to my hysterectomy was the synopsis of my maidenhood. It developed a uterus on its way to degeneration of its cells, on the transition from the benign to the malignant, which may or may not metastasize into cancer or even death. I connected my Uterus to the years of suffering I had with dysfunctional relationships, work pains and frustrations, death of my parents which marked the end of my childhood. It was the pain of Reality, of waking Life which was greater than the physical pain imminent in nurturing those cysts that caused all the chronic pains in my body--bloating, migraines, dizziness, etc. I approached many ways to alleviate the pain, taking a lot of pain relievers, yoga, herbal medicines and acupuncture to stop the enlarging of my cysts to full blown. I procrastinated a lot and defied doctor’s advice of early removal because I believed it would somehow melt down or “disintegrate”. Thus I resorted to visualization. Being a painter, I painted my pain, its physical and its abstract, its entirety and specific.
I painted “The Wounded Pintado Princess” after my hospital pain. Though the tag line is so literal, the images I imbued in the painting is in a sense of play--playing with the Art of Pain. I poised myself with the urge to construct, to recreate, or maybe to award myself with a sense of “royalty” for enduring surgery and bodily change. I visaged the scars of the operation into items of texture, line, space, and used colour for volume and intensity. At the back of my head, I was wrenching myself out of the dark realms of of non-creativity, and perhaps holding on to the passion of creativity by the thought of non-fecundity.
“Ovum” is a commemoration of what my body could create, a once fecund Shape which held a fetus, but now festooned with “flores para los muertos” (flowers for the dead, the dead ovum not the fetus), mounted on a silvery background which signified status. The painting itself was my self-trophy, a plaque of merit for it produced me children which one could be proud. It was homage to an ovoid ovary, now deified.
The latest performance art I did was called “Boxed” - it conceptualized the Artist as an altruistic mercenary. In the four phases of the box she tempers the Pain of Mediocrity with the use of multi-media, the varied construct and deconstruct of artistic expression when obliged to conform to societal issues. In the last face of the four sided box she resurfaces from the colour box; from being boxed, from dictates, from expectations-- after cutting a thin membrane of superficial colours, she emerges from the shackles of “put on” art, to be wild and free once again which actually is her gain. But then again, the performance was intended to vilify the dictated and shackled artist, who expresses on an extremely measured space…literal though, so my “boxed” audience will understand.
This note is an example how Pain is “beatified” in an individual artist, in the creation of two-dimensional artworks, in three-dimension visionary performance and the belief that there is something greater than the Pain experienced, or being experienced by recreating the Pain itself.
PAIN in CONTEMPORARY FILIPINO ART: ANG KIUKOK and NUNELUCIO ALVARADO
Leading contemporary artists on Pain today in Philippine Contemporary Art are Ang Kiukok and Nunelucio Alvarado. Although Ang Kiukok died in 2005, he influenced his contemporaries on images that portray the angst of pain felt after he arrived from New York in 1965 where he was culture-shocked at the sight of stark alienation and dehumanisation in the American lifestyle. Since then, in different mediums such as oil, watercolour, pen and ink, he began filling his canvases with distinct abstract expressionist style of vivid, cubist figures and images of outrage and agony filled with anger, sorrow, ugliness and madness, which are grotesque and often morbid representation of life scenes, a factor unappreciated by many which slighted the commercial viability of his works until the 1980s when he firmly established himself as a top-seller. Since then, he enjoyed eminent success in the country and around Asia, with exhibits in Manila, Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, as well as in the Netherlands, Canada and the United States. He had become the best-selling Filipino artist in auctions locally and internationally at Sotheby’s and Christie's.
His lineage was Chinese, and Chinese in the Philippines (Tsinoys) were mostly idealists, and Ang Kiukok’s personal philosophy was no exception. What could not be doubted was the violence in his imagery, a factor that slighted the commercial viability of his works until the 1980s. He favored such subjects as fighting cocks, rabid dogs, and people enraptured by rage or bound in chains. He painted multiple depictions of the crucified Christ that did not shirk from portraying the agonies normally associated with the crucifixion. When asked why he was so angry, he replied, "Why not? Open your eyes. Look around you. So much pain, anger, sorrow, ugliness. And also madness." The intensity of his works stood in contrast to his own personality, described as "placid and affable"
Continuing Ang Kiukoks’ vision of angst and pain are the works of Nunelucio Alvarado, a Negrense living amidst the workers of the sugar cane fields of Sagay, Negros Occidental. He depicted the plight of the underpaid sugar cane hacienda workers called Sagadas. His paintings created a visual twinge of its own, images of bamboo stakes, scythes, knives, created the stark symbolism of social realism. An Alvarado work shows the painful disparity of social class: the hacienderos and the sagadas, managed thru a depiction of stunted figures, bulbous eyes and veined hands and feet, sheer colors and iconography to represent allegory, dreams and spirituality and even candid comedy. Alvarado’s paintings speak of Pain as part of the Joy of Life, where harsh reality is a longing of a sweet toothed Sagada boy for a Tootsie Roll, while parents work on the sugar cane fields for a measly sum of pesos…Alvarado has induced satire and irony of the poor and impoverished, the silent victims who endure inequality and oppression, and one way to find out their Pain was to live amongst them. I myself was invited to stay in his “residencia” (a hut out of bamboo and nipa, devoid of indoor plumbing, but with a roofdeck and lanai where I could sleep). In Sagay beach, a drive away from Bacolod city, Nune, whom I fondly call him, paints Pain, not to alleviate suffering, but as a struggle to effect social change.
PAIN in PHILIPPINE HISTORY and RITUAL
The Pintado image in “The Wounded Pintada Princess” was also my homage to courage of endurance. Pintados were tattooed peoples in our archipelago long before we were rediscovered by the Spanish and were colonized. These people however were eradicated by religion and conversion to the Catholic faith by the friars in the 1600s after Ferdinand Magellan landed on the shores of our country. Francisco Alzina, a Jesuit friar and chronicler noted on the tattooing practices of the Pintados as a very painful and enduring process, (please note that he referred tattooing as “painting”):
"The Bisayans are called Pintados because they are in fact so, not by nature although they are well-built, well-featured and white, but by painting their entire bodies from head to foot as soon as they are young men with strength and courage enough to endure the torture of painting. In the old days, they painted themselves when they had performed some brave deed. They paint themselves by first drawing blood with pricks from a very sharp point, following the design and lines previously marked by the craftsmen in the art, and then over the fresh blood applying a black powder that can never again be erased. They do not paint the whole body at one time, but part by part, so that the painting takes many days to complete. In the former times they had to perform a new feat of bravery for each of the parts that were to be painted. The paintings are very elegant, and well proportioned to the members and parts where they are located. I used to say there, captivated and astonished by the appearance of one of these, that if
they brought it to Europe a great deal of money could be made by displaying it. Children are not painted. The women paint the whole of one hand and a part of the other."
For want of a term in those times, since “tattoo” (tatu) is a Asian-Pacific term, the Spaniards described the Bisayans as “painted people”, hence the term “Pintados”. Yet they had misgivings of the practice and blatantly blamed the female Bisayan for instigating the practice and considered it a “work of the devil.”
“I am inclined to think that these people imitated the custom from newcomers to the Islands; or that one of their braggarts started the practice himself to give an appearance of greater ferocity; or that one of their ancient priestesses instigated it. These devil-women, to whom the devil appeared in a tattooedbody might have started the custom in imitation of him. (I am told these women practice their calling even before Faith reached these Islands). Whether this custom was started by the people themselves or whether their common enemy taught it to them for his own ends (none of which was good), it is a factthat all Bisayan men tattooed themselves with the exception of those they call Asog.
This however exemplifies the apparent bias of the Spanish on our local practices regarding Pain. To the early Pintados , the pain concept was regarded as a rite of passage in every Bisayan man. It was said that their nobility had tattoos all over and the more tattoos on a person, the higher the status you had. It was reported that Rajah Siani and Kolumbu, the nobility who met up with Magellan’s party upon landing on the islands had tattoos all over, hence they were those who have undergone the pain of body carving, which their tribal members follow suit. The chronicle of Alzina noted this as a form of bodily decoration…but it was more than that! Alzina even suggested bringing natives abroad and displaying them in fairs or selling them as slaves. The more decorated they are, the higher the price they would be in the market. The Spanish reduced the sanctity of the rite of passage through pain into crass commercialism.
WOMEN and PAIN
Scattered throughout the visages of Philippine History, Women are objects of Pain. History becomes “Herstory” when juxtaposed against sagas and epics of women as high priestesses and healers (“babaylans”) who instigate practices, recreating and paying homage to childhood and rites of passage, birth pains, and even the pain of loss: Motherhood or Widowhood. Pain experienced in the intransigence of time found in literary characters of the national hero, Dr. Jose Rizal, like the demented “Sisa”- the battered woman who succumbed to dementia after losing her sons to the atrocities of the friars in “Noli Me Tangere” (Touch me Not). To Dr Jose Rizal, Sisa was the woman-oppressed, the woman stripped of her dignity of motherhood, the woman consumed by social cancer. Rizal’s archetypes of Pain were carried by the women in his novels, Noli me Tangere, and the El Filibusterismo (first published in Ghent in 1891). It articulated that women felt intensely pain in domestic home, in physical body, memory and herstory.
BLOOD and PAIN
Earlier treatises on the tattooing practices in the Philippines assumed that the universal concept of “drawing of blood” is the noblest act to established bravery, valor, courage and pact. The endurance of pain while cutting the wrists to draw blood is associated with the rite called “Sandugo” (El Pacto de Sangre) and established a validation of friendship or a sacred seal of kinship. The “One Blood” rite is immortalized in the painting of Juan Luna (Blood Compact) portraying the ritual between Rajah Sikatuna (also known as Datu Sikatuna) and Miguel López de Legazpi who is accompanied by other conquistadors. Rajah Sikatuna was described to be “being crowded out of the picture by Miguel López de Legazpi and his fellow conquistadores”. The drawing of blood was described to be the coming of Age of the Filipino and the birth of the Philippines as a nation in the 19th century.
“Sandugo” is now a festival celebrated in the island of Bohol, Philippines in the Month of March to commemorate this treaty and pact. Pain ensues into celebration. Filipinos commemorate Pain (of War, of loss, or of being conquered) in the joyful festivals that mark the holidays in the Philippine calendar.
PAIN and BELIEF: “Yunal” – the Orasyon Tattoo
A very interesting presentation of Pain in Filipino folk life is found in their “Anting-Antings”, (amulets). This particular amulet which carries the pain of its installation is called “Yunal” – it is a mark or tattoo on the skin of the folk Catholic religious of the Islands who do not only believe in the strict dogmas of Catholicism but inculcate into them their animistic past and the supernatural which were not totally eradicated by religious conversion in the Philippines. Not only did the Filipinos embrace the religion of the Spanish but they also “Filipinized” its elements. These amulets come in the form of prayer tattoos embedded on the skin. It is said that the wearer of a special “orasyones” (prayers) becomes one with the virtue elicited by the prayer. Sometimes these prayers carry with them symbolic motifs and are forms of religiousity, the cross, the all-seeing Eye of Omnipotence, and even the Mother of Perpetual Help icon. The motifs and symbols may be artistic or recreated from local understanding of religious icons and imagery. And again, the more orasyones in one’s body, the more invulnerable one is. For these prayers and symbols are marks of protection. There are many kinds: Prayers for vulnerability and invincibility, prayers for business and prosperity, prayers to ward off the supernatural and prayers for healing and well-being. “Yunal” has been my study in my postgraduate years but still gather nuances on it for the practice is slowly encroaching or replaced by decorative notions, thus losing the potency of it or what it is meant by it. The prayer shaman (parapamatbat) instructs the wearer that he must perform a feat of pain in order to claim possession of the virtue or prowess to where it is attached, or take possession of its merits. Usually the feat is either participating in Holy Week ceremonies depicting the Passion and Crucifixion of Christ or Self-Mortification. Fr. Leonardo Mercado SVD, an authority on Filipino Religious Psychology notes why the Filipino does not make a big deal on enduring Pain because it is imbued in his sense of belief:
In all major aspects in folk life, the supernatural takes a part, the belief that otherworldly elements participate in our way of life is strongly observed. He explains that the belief of the supernatural world also has a role in Christian belief. For that effect he calls that Filipino worldview as “Monistic”.
He talks about it as a non-dualistic way of looking at the world, where the Filipino way of life does not dichotomize between mind and matter, body and soul, between one and many, thought and reality or the objective and the subjective, the sacred and the profane. 
So what is Pain, really? I have started writing this paper and painting pain not because of the PAIN I have undergone carrying my cysts and thru surgery, but because of the FEAR of losing my Creativity. But I was wrong. Pain induced Creativity. The myth of the Womb and Ovaries as our “Balls” I debunked. Feminine Intelligence does not lie in our Balls but on that abstract concept which triggered fecundity. Our History, Herstory, Rituals and Belief have records of pain as a faculty or catalyst to stir and create osmosis of social change, physical metamorphosis (abstract pain to tangible artwork), or spiritual “awakening”.
As a race who has undergone “chronic pain” through history, we enjoin Art and Pain as a sense of Identity in the strength of our human spirit.
1. Alzina, Francisco SJ, “Historias de las Islas de Indios de Bisaias, 1668”, (translated) Leyte-Samar Studies Journal, Divine Word University of Tacloban
3. Mercado, Leonardo N., SVD, Filipino Religious Psychology, DWU Publications