Gone are the days when the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, celebrated yearly in the Philippines before Easter, is played up by progressive Filipinos as Gospel for the poor. The annual commemoration of the event which occurred in Golgotha two thousand years ago, has sealed Christ as a perfect bridge between God and man.
In a current show entitled Kristo, at SM Megamall’s Art Space on EDSA’s Mandaluyong, social realist artists are surprisingly absent. In the ‘70s, they promoted socio-historical awareness and love of country in their works until the ‘90s. In the year 2000, some of them, with young followers in tow, went at great lengths to visually depict the religiosity of Filipinos in pre-historic period. The aim is to claim spirituality as a national character, in order to exorcise the ghosts of colonialism (in post modern era). Spanish colonials promoted Catholicism from 1521 to 1898; and American rulers, Protestantism, in the 1900s.
In the West where there is a schism between Christian communities and groups of contemporary artists, social justice is often used as a theme to lure “secular” artists to join spiritual art exhibits.
In the Philippines where Lenten Season is observed religiously by everyone, there is always time, space, and reason for holding an exhibit that touches on the differences and similarities of art and religion.
Artist Salvador “Buddy” Ching says that Filipino artists are responding positively to calls for them to join Kristo, a 12-year old group show which he organizes before the Lenten Season. It means work instead of fasting, going into a spiritual journey, away from his studio and the maddening crowd, to meditate during the Lenten Season.
“It is a yearly vow to venerate the real Creator,” explains Ching. Initial shows were limited to new and established artists from northern suburban Bulacan. Subsequent exhibits have been growing exponentially, a sign that many Filipino artists do not shy away from depicting spirituality in their works.
This year’s exhibit is definitely not a lip service to spirituality. Varieties of expressions depict Christ. Images are more figurative than abstract, more human than divine.
Christ is suffering, martyred, and tormented. The opposite image is that of an innocent child. There are less images of a placid Christ. And more portraits of Christ with several faces, as done by Jose Pinggot Zuleueta, which is symbolic of the theological three-in-one divinity and also of the artists’ view of Christ as a man, a comrade, a personal friend, a big brother, and a father. These intimate depictions break the barrier between man and the divine, or erase the notion that the divine is distant, silent, and inscrutable. Despite that, however, not one canvas in the exhibit has depicted a laughing Christ.
“I have been joining Kristo since the start. It is easy for me to join the exhibit,” says Fil Delacruz, who is “not necessarily religious but brought up properly by a devout Catholic family,” His work, entitled “Banal na Pako,” depicts a small cross, and an inordinate large and floating mail, which symbolizes “torture or state oppression” from authorities, or “napakong pangako (broken promises).”
It is really of great interest, for critics and observers as well, to see how other social realist artists, many of whom were once left-leaning Catholics, but are now non-Catholic Christians, depict their spiritual metamorphosis on canvas.
For a long time, great masters in the West have produced magnificent art works for Catholic churches. Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni (1475 – 1564) was solely responsible for the Sistine Chapel. Churches in the West continued commissioning art works and promoted masters for decades, a tradition that is still alive in the Philippines today. Despite this, contemporary Filipino artists are closer to the art market than churches.
Giving an insight on this, F. Thomas Trotter, former dean and professor at Claremont School of Theology, said in an essay entitled, “Loving God with One’s Mind (1987), “They (secular art) reveals man’s fear and pain. They perform a kind of religious task for all of us. They keep us open to the spirit of newness and innovation in the quest for meaning in human history and life.”
The topic of art and religion is not exhausted without discussing Futurism, which was established by Italian artist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti in 1901 as anti- Catholic Church and critical of the Christian moral framework - in favor of “speed, flight and aeropainting” with the advent of machine, automobile, airplanes, and steamers at the time. It was established 39 years after the Catholic Church lost control over Italy’s Papal States in 1870. At the time, Pope Pius IX excommunicated Italy’s new leaders.
In 1930, the group made a turn-around and published Futurism’s Manifesto for Sacred Art, which encouraged Italian artists to return to religious images (with new forms). Ironically, it happened during the reconciliation of the Church and the State in Italy’s Fascist era. Thus, Benito Mussolini was also avidly painted by artists during this time.
It is also surprising that an old essay attributed to Mino Somenzi, a member of Futurism, was translated by Chris Adams, for the catalogue of an exhibit entitled “Piety and Pragmatism,” of the Estorick Collection, in London in 2006.
“Art, particularly figurative art, is an irreplaceable accessory to religion,” said the text attributed to Somenzi.
Hopefully, religious art by secular Filipino artists does not become an accessory to the state—in Kristo’s annual exhibit.
The show is organized by Artery, a promotion platform led by Delan Robillos, also the founder of Canvas, an NGO which donates children’s books to public schools and children’s hospitals nationwide.