Paete, Laguna, the Philippines
June 26, 2010
Pain is contained in the word “painting,” an art teacher I know once said. He explained that pain is an affirmation of life, and art is about life, thus, about pain. This pain, however, was never as palpable to me as in the paintings in Paete Church.
Paete is a lakeside town in Laguna, a few hours by bus from Manila. Attributed as the birthplace of the yo-yo, it is known more for its world-class folk art: woodcarving, papier-mache, and paintings. Artisans and artists have inhabited the town for centuries, their dexterity imprinted in their genes. Much is made out of the fact that the town hero is neither a soldier nor a statesman, but an artisan.
I visited the town with fellow art aficionados and Paete-philes. Our welcome party was a box-full of neon-colored chicks, begging to be papped. The street vendor admitted that spray-painting poultry was merely for aesthetics, nothing more. There was art even in business in this town.
In fact, art IS the business of this town. One particular stretch, J.V. Quesada Street, has all the aura of an art fest. Heritage shops, ateliers, and at least one gallery cafe flank this narrow street. Craftsmen were busy chiseling blocks of wood, oblivious to cam-toting passersby. The chisel has not only defined the town’s destiny, but may have also given the town its name. Some historians say the name Paete was derived from the vernacular word for “chisel.”
A shop called Joseph Husband of Mary Handicraft was the most eye-catching. Two icons prominently displayed side-by-side at the front door were the iconic image of sex symbol Marilyn Monroe and religious icons, particularly St. Joseph and the Christ Child. The pairing was more Joseph Husband of Marilyn. Intentionally juxtaposed or not, they spoke of the scope of Paete’s art – from religious to pop.
I mistook a nearby shop for a fruit stand. Baskets of fresh produce and tropical fruits crowded the entrance. All looked vividly colorful and succulent – that is, if you find chomping paper particularly appetizing. They were agricultural art in papier-mache – literally, chewed paper – of local fruits: red banana (yes, there’s such a variety), atis (round and polka-dotted), water apple (pink and bell-shaped), rambutan (red, hairy balls), lomboy (violet and berry-like), and the fruit most associated with Paete – lanzones.
The shop goes by the name Ang Buhay at Hugis sa Paete (The Life and Shape in Paete). The owner, Lino Dalay, is an artisan-turned-movie-production-designer. He was not around then but his elderly mother, Marta, was manning the store. A spunky matron of her son’s artwork, she regaled us with anecdotes about the items that cramped the shop. Most were the handiwork of her son, some were consigned by other artists, still others were props in movies her son had worked on.
Good luck at haggling though. The woman could not be charmed; I would’ve been luckier with a snake! In retrospect, I charged it for art’s sake, a few more pesos to support our local artists.
Food for the body and soul can be had at the homey Kape Kesada Art Gallery & Cafe, serving hometown pride with its brewed coffee. Paintings by local artists were showcased on its walls. Recycled decor, salvaged disposed bric-a-brac, made up the interiors.
Two subjects dominated the paintings: churches and women (Paeteños’ preoccupations?). Female depiction ranged from maternal to maverick. The woman in Jerry Morada’s Apple belonged to the latter. Garbed in voluminous baro’t saya (traditional dress for women), she cocks her head with eyes shut, hair swept up, and a red scapular around her neck flying in the opposite direction.
We lunched at Purple Onion Resto, owned by erstwhile screen stud Leandro Baldemor. The cozy restaurant served mostly Italian dishes, some from recipes shared by the owner’s showbiz friends. Such trivia didn’t come with the menu; the owner just mentioned it offhand.
We were the only diners, but our orders took forever to prepare. The teenage girls who waited on tables had turned the tables on us. Time seemed freely-flowing in Paete rather than running out. We managed a shuteye before our food arrived! At least we had fully rested before we lunged at our lunches. It was quite a restful stop, despite such small (town) inconveniences.
But our raison d’etre for visiting the town was the art at Paete’s St. James the Apostle Church. All four murals have been dated to the mid-19th century and attributed to one local artist, Jose Luciano Dans. We found them in various states of deterioration. Three of these are near the main portal, the fourth is nearer the altar (and is the least damaged). Two paintings are twins, depicting the same subject: St. Christopher (San Cristobal) – curiously not the saint the church was named after.
I had never been familiar with the Catholic canon of saints, but St. Christopher didn’t seem to be one of those superstar saints. Legend has it that he went on a quest for the most powerful ruler. He served a king who shuddered at the mere mention of the devil. Fail. The devil betrayed his cowardice by trembling at the sight of the cross. Epic fail. This led him to search for Christ, the fearsome, not fearful, King of kings. As an act of Christian service, he put his heft and height to good use by carrying people on his back across a turbulent river. He became a human bridge and converted people to Christianity until his decapitation for proselytizing in what is now Turkey.
The legend served as the inspiration for two of these murals. Both depict St. Christopher fording a stream with the Christ Child perched on his shoulder. The first one, nearest the main portal, is the original mural. It’s in better shape though because it had been concealed under the newer one for decades, consequently protected from the elements.
My friend explained that the original rendered the saint with indio (native Filipino) features that may have displeased the ethnocentric Spanish friars. Either Maestro Dans had a ballsy sense of humor or it was an artistic Freudian slip. No matter, the second mural was perhaps commissioned to correct the anatomical anomalies and moored over the original - an ancient way to photoshop. This time, San Cristobal had acquired a pinched nose and fairer complexion, a standard of beauty that still explains the modern Filipino‘s propensity for nose lifts and whitening soaps.
The original mural is a fresco – a painting on a stone wall and plaster. Some parts had chipped away, marred by awkward attempts at smoothening out the pockmarks. The newer mural was painted on a wooden (molave) panel, which by now has deeply-grooved cracks and gaping holes, especially at the lower periphery.
Directly facing the San Cristobal murals is a singularly majestic mural titled Langit, Lupa at Impierno (Heaven, Earth and Hell). Its sheer scope and exquisitely elaborate artistry render it a significant piece of colonial art by a Filipino artist. Like the other murals, it towers at 5 meters tall. It is a dense and detailed three-tiered painting. The lowest tier, hell, is at eye level, serving up its Dante’s Inferno images directly at the viewer. This is punishment at its most explicit, care of the Catholic colonizers. I imagined its dramatic impact on the indios who were not strangers to macabre mysteries of folk beliefs. Despite its darkened colors, the writhing figures and shadowy strokes still packed a wallop. The serene and sublime depictions of earth and heaven are higher up, almost beyond the viewers’ gaze.
I had to step back to the opposite end of the pew aisle to behold it in its full glory. Alas, concrete blocks were stockpiled on that side; a scaffolding frame was erected right in front of Langit, Lupa at Impierno. The choir loft was under renovation at that time. The faded painting was further exposed to sawdust and what-not floating in the air. And what if the scaffolding toppled on it?
It pained me to see magnificent art in such a state of damage and neglect. Expert restoration and vigilant care might still recapture its lost splendor. I could not fathom how these masterpieces had been left to rot without informed intervention for so long. I thought it was almost cavalier for a town steeped in the arts to allow time, the elements, and indifference to take their toll on the shining glory of their heritage. But who was I to pass judgment and assign blame? I was there only for a day. Ultimately, it is the people of Paete who would bear this “pain in painting” every day.