Manila, the Philippines

September 26 / October 24, 2010

Sunday is free-admission day at the National Museum of the Philippines. Despite the come-on, its halls are hollow with just a handful of visitors. It seems that the museum has become a mausoleum of our historical remains – static and dead. Yet its halls should be hallowed. The museum is the country’s beating chest of historical treasures. It is said that those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Perhaps this is why history does repeat itself in the Philippines. How many of us step into the museum to be reminded?

National Museum of the Philippines

For the few who do, the museum wastes no time in thrusting visitors straight to its red-blooded heart. The Spoliarium is the rightful opening salvo.  A gold medalist in a fine arts exhibition in Madrid in 1884, this masterpiece by Filipino painter Juan Luna fills the first hall with its sheer size and severity.

Spoliarium by Juan Luna

The title is Latin for the dungeon in an ancient Roman arena, literally a room of spoils, where the defeated combatants in gladiatorial games were dumped, stripped of their last shred of dignity. The 4m x 7m oil-on-canvas mural occupies an entire wall in the Hall of Masters, where viewers turn into voyeurs, seemingly watching the gory scene among the throng of Roman spectators as the lifeless bodies of gladiators are being hauled away for disposal, their human carcasses slathering the floor with blood.

The subject is curiously foreign. Filipino artist, Roman subject, Spanish exhibition do not quite add up. The rationale, I will later learn, is that entries had to conform to the ethnocentric guidelines of the Spanish art exhibition; perhaps there was a no-indios clause. The jurors apparently never imagined how the painting would be interpreted by Luna’s countrymen for generations to come!

I have seen the Spoliarium thrice, but each occasion renders me restless. While others stop at their tracks, I pace the hall, approaching it tentatively for a myopic look at its dense details and quickly retreating for an encompassing view. The mural’s exquisite delicacy and oppressive weight – the dynamism of lines and colors, the baleful play of light and shadows, the life-size tableau of blood-thirsty and blood-soaked figures – stir a psychomotor response. Then, my eyes invariably zero in on the odd-man-out on the right, dressed in green and turned the other way: a disheveled woman slumped in grief at a corner.

Grieving Motherland
The Mother’s Revenge by Jose Rizal: Pardon my fuzzy photos; only non-flash point-and-shoot photography is allowed in the museum.

If the Spoliarium is the heart, The Mother’s Revenge is the nerve. It is tiny, by contrast, but it occupies its own rightful glass-encased place in the middle of another hall. Dated 1894, it is a clay sculpture by Philippine National Hero and Renaissance man, Jose Rizal. It depicts a croc, a dog, and a puppy locked in a three-way jaw-powered death grip.

The sculpture is said to be inspired by a real-life incident witnessed by Rizal when he was in exile in Dapitan, a marshy town down south. A crocodile by the riverbank had snapped up one of his dog’s pups. But before the reptile could swallow his lunch, the mother lunged to the rescue, jabbing her canines on the attacker’s neck.

Hall of Masters, National Museum of the Philippines

The Spoliarium and The Mother’s Revenge, as products of their time, are commonly interpreted as allegories for the nefarious colonization of the Philippines by Spain and the Filipino struggle for independence, respectively. Plunder and murder are themes shared by these two works of art. Rizal himself would soon end up between the croc’s jaws, metaphorically speaking (Rizal was executed in 1896 by the Spaniards for supporting the Philippine Revolution).

But for better or for worse, the message of these artworks still resonates today, even more so because the oppressors are not foreign, but our own countrymen – our leaders who should have our best interests at heart. The oppressed are the manipulated masses, the silenced journalists, the doubly victimized OFWs (overseas Filipino workers) who seek greener pastures in foreign lands only to find graver abuse. Luna’s gladiators, mostly brawny slaves from northern Europe, could be any Filipino skilled worker or domestic helper serving their foreign masters with blood, sweat, and tears. The crocodiles in government and the military cannot be represented more literally than in Rizal’s sculpture!

Both the Spoliarium‘s grieving lady in green and the female dog in The Mother’s Revenge symbolize the Motherland, our collective dedication to the nurture of our people and culture. Here lies the dilemma. Are we the bereaved widow, grieving for our lost dignity in quiet resignation while helplessly turning a blind eye on our abusers? Or are we the bitch that bites back, making a last ditch effort to put an end to the plunder and murder of our people?

This museum building used to house the Philippine Senate. The country’s first president, Manuel L. Quezon, was sworn in on its front steps. The museum took over the building in 2003. It is my hope against hope that where politics has failed in protecting our people, art would succeed in provoking the present generation to arrest the vicious cycle of this history of oppression and suffering in our country.

President Manuel L. Quezon

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As I write this post, my thoughts and prayers are with the three Filipinos executed in China yesterday, March 30, 2011, for drug trafficking. It is not my place to make any judgment on their innocence or intentional involvement. This post is just a jeremiad against the society that allowed fellow Filipinos to fall through the cracks.