Charisma Series 1: Wartime in a Warm Place— On the Photographs of Teodulo Protomatir

The Charisma Series is a four part installment of writings I prepared for a graduate class on the Charismatic Image. The term Charisma, as I understand it, as not exclusive to human beings (tied to leadership, politics, and celebrity—also very pertinent in today’s political and cultural climate) but to images as well. The assignments for the class require texts inspired or informed by images, of insight and criticism extracted from an image. Each assignment also has a theme. For this first installment, I wrote of Simultaneity and the Instant in relation to some photographs by a Filipino photographer named Teodulo Protomartir. 

Protomartir of Lucban, Quezon, is cited as the Father of Philippine Photography. He was active around the 1930s until the early 1980s. He taught at the University of Santo Tomas in Espanya, Manila. 

 

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Wartime in a Warm Place

Simultaneity, Instant, and the Photographs of Teodulo Protomartir

 

I

The negatives were tucked in protective plastic albums, dim and grey with dust and mold. They languished souring, dreaming of places that no longer existed. One can say that these negatives are like the decades old comatose patients in the dim, grey rooms of lonely hospitals. The hours have crumpled, a somber passage from absence to presence tucked in places where the flesh sagged. At any moment, they could rise into the voluptuous afternoon light.

Of the places the negatives, to-be-realized images, dreamt of it can be said that the buildings were most stubborn. Especially the colonial ones and the Art Decos— they lingered in the streets and avenues of Manila, like uncles who wore pomade, tucked their shabby checkered shirts in their pleated slacks (ironed just the way their late wives had done and which their current girlfriends faithfully executed), and insisted that they could still come around (here, the girlfriend stops a giggle. One wonders what made them come—and stay). These men walked in the scent of their own regrets, and unmet dreams which they sought in every woman they dominated for a brief instant.

If a building reaches the limit of its own image, preserved in a photograph, it becomes garish, unrecognizable even. Touched up and re-painted boldly and badly in an attempt to appear new. Those who managed to keep their dignity, to keep faith to their preserved image, now look homeless or insane or both. Greasy, grimy, dressed for nowhere. Eyes most vivid like shattered windows shining in the neon and fluorescent. Sites of the most decadent consumptions and songs.

 

II

It was wartime in a warm place, with pockets of peace. In the floor above the antique shop in Kamuning, it is a quiet evening in 1885 and three girls, led by a fiery one named Pasyonarya, are conducting a May Day Eve ritual. They took turns holding a candle up in front of a mirror to determine their future husbands. (All of them will be wedded to Satan). On the ground floor, it is the year 2007 and a cinematographer, a man finds a box of decaying 35mm negatives.

The man looked up from the box. At the doorway was the store-owner. In the distant kitchen, her daughter cooked and listened to the radio. Late nineties indie wafted into the store. The vocalist’s mild case of alliteration resounded above the noise of boiling rice and the sharp fall of raw fish in hot oil. Under the eaves of the old house turned antique store, balete saplings that have made a home in the rotten wood shook in the wind. There was a sourness in the air, no doubt from the negatives, that seemed to pinch the moment to an intensity. They felt time bunching up and colliding. But they only perceived this as the sun shining brighter, as if a cloud had passed, and the clip-clop of hooves coming a little louder. In Pasyonarya’s May Day Eve ritual, this is the moment the truth of romance was revealed. The candle flame surges.

They spoke briefly. The store-owner mentioned that the negatives belonged to the Father of Philippine Photography. She mentioned a name that did not register with the man— he knew all the names in the industry, past and present. Perhaps, the future, too. (In the showbiz circuit, he was also known as some kind of seer that had launched countless careers.) He noticed a piece of torn paper inside the box. On it, written in pencil, were words that he could not make out. Like hieroglyphs. Or rather, the paper was speaking in tongues, having seen the light after sixty-two years in the fuzzy cardboard dark. He made a decision to purchase the negatives.

By the altar behind the till is an ancient photograph of the store-owner’s ancestor. A middle aged woman in sepia. In her eyes were a gleam that people misunderstood as trust. She hid her irony well behind a smile. “Laging nagmamahal, Syoni” (“Ever loving, Syoni”) was written at the bottom right of the photo. He took it as an auspicious sign and left the store with a spring in his step.

What few of the them he could salvage, he cleaned and scanned. The decaying negatives yielded images which portrayed the city at immediate decomposition. Photographs of the city hall, two churches: Santo Domingo and Lourdes. The piece of paper, once he had figured out what it was saying, contained technical notes and described the photographs as the “restoration of Manila”. A faint suggestion crept into his mind. The city, in these images are passing from immediate decomposition to recomposition. Into what? Into, perhaps, the city he knows. And what was that but another thing that constantly strived, beneath with unease, for an affirmed presence. These were places that no longer existed in essence, only in vestiges. Each moment seemed to show the city wrapped in golden hour. In every facade he recognized the city he knew at present, but in the images they bore other, some multiple, iterations. As if he were seeing who and what someone had been in all their former lives.

In 1946, a photographer, yet to be known and recognized, had gone out and took these pictures. No blood, no fire, only a drama carried out beyond the frame. The serene aftermath. The city’s death-mask in the form of photographs. He acknowledged all this and held it close to his heart. But he was a pragmatic man and also knew some money could be extracted from these aesthetic revelations. He reached for the telephone.

 

III

It is possible to escape the grasp of nostalgia when one considers the instant instead of the passage of time. To think that everything is both done and undone. That perhaps being can be taken to the utmost through presence. Which bears to ask, what does it mean to be present in an instant? Gaston Bachelard describes the instant as brimming with simultaneities.  The three photographs by Teodulo Protomartir contain the sense of the instant by appearing as recognizable even though a majority of its features no longer exist. It is both is and is not. It can be said that in these photos, one is seeing Manila and yet not seeing it for what it was, is, and has been since. In this respect, considering presence through simultaneity is recognizing that presence also means an absence, the way it is often said that light and shadow operate together in order to create an image or scene. Presence as potent illusion.

We go back to where we began, with images resting in obscurity and which had once approached the edge of disappearance. That without an intervening hand, through happenstance, we wouldn’t even know existed. As if it matters that they had surfaced— how has this reality been possibly shaped by the small presence of these images?

 

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Santo Domingo Church

 

 

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(L) Manila City Hall; (R) Lourdes Church

Both images were taken in 1946. 

 

Convergence

A response to the exhibit CONVERGENCE (17 November – 5 December 2018) at the Arnold and Sheila Aronson Galleries, New School, 66 5th Avenue, New York City. Curated by Utsa Hazarika. 

 

I. Here Come the Multitudes

The central question posed by the exhibit Convergence: “Can artworks create social spaces through the communities they implicate?”

Through this question, the exhibit also actively investigates the power of art spaces to bring together aspects of culture and society, that even in their variety or complete difference from each other are still somehow able to transform and create strange harmonies. The act of coming together is a process, sometimes smooth, at other times gloriously messy. The lingering idea among cultural workers and patrons is that a gallery or museum space, however their formation and continuing existence are also subject to scrutiny or institutional critique, is able to provide venues for a variety of voices. But before this ideal is taken into consideration, in the context of Convergence and countless works that have endeavored to investigate cultural spaces and institutions, it still begs to be asked: But do they, really? The route that Utsa Hazarika, as curator, takes is through the artworks themselves.

Hazarika’s careful and skillful curation of the works created a dialogue between the works and that the ‘voice’ of each work would be considered by its viewer. Hazarika, in the exhibition catalog, explicates that Convergences is drawn from Homi Bhabha’s concept of social processes as a confluence and convergence of time, place, idea and image (Artforum, 2017). To humbly add: sound, light, and air. Elements that are as indispensable to the well-being of the gallery space as it is for the rest of the world. Firmly placed within this discourse is the concept of fluid geographies and borderlessness. But before these are further considered, ample consideration must also be applied at the existing realities of walls, fences, barbed wires, social bonds, kept things and constrained bodies.

“The influence of these ideas on Black and South Asian art in Britain is widely recognized through the works of artists such as Black Audio Film Collective, whose works transgress the borders between disciplines, genres, and identities. Less often are they seen interacting with curatorial practice and its relationship to the institutional structures within which art is valued, viewed and consumed… Convergence employs these sociological and artistic approaches to interrogate these structures.” (p.9).

Convergence can also be considered an integration of social critique with institutional criticism. The conversation and investigation may be looked at not as a linear process of communication but as the exchange of a multitude of voices and images.

 

II. Rhythms and Atmospheres

“For those who make it to safe shores, land offers no solace.”

“…so on the bus we attempt to forget those nights where we walk up in the market defenseless, knowing we cannot afford this life…”

“Who’s to say/ the fire’s stopped?”

The exhibition catalog also features writings by Lara Atallah, Cameron Downey, and Jamiya Leach. The addition of creative pieces cultivates a texture that can be considered unique to the exhibition. The format of the catalog also turns it into an important element of the exhibition. Placed in between the curator’s note and the artist’s statements, it also aids the viewer/reader in locating their perceptions and presence within the exhibition space. It creates the possible rhythms and atmospheres with which the viewer/reader might see the works. Or, rather, which might help the reader/viewer find ground in seeing the works. This creates, also, a sense of intimacy with the space and text/ subtexts.

 

III. Twelve Concepts

“Kindred Stitches” by Sareh Imani works with the concept of mending. She explores this concept through a three-channel video installation. On one screen, she tries to revive her sick cactus while receiving advice from her parents, as well as listening to their stories of how they had previously saved countless cacti. On another channel, Imani tries to mend a broken cast of her mother’s back. The third channel features her father performing reconstructive ear surgery. Kinship and healing are strong elements within the work but there is also patent interest in the political aspect that emerges, especially with regards to the third channel. Imani explicates, “In this surgery, a dismembered ear is being reconstructed with sculpting techniques using the patient’s rib cartilage. This antiquated method is used in Iran as a result of US sanctions which made artificial ear prostheses inaccessible” (p. 34). Though Imani explores deeply personal relations through medical imagery, the viewer is also afforded a glimpse on how a larger concern, such as global politics, permeate and alter ways of living and doing.

From acts of mending and making-do in spite of constraints, the reader/viewer’s attention is led to a state and sight of dissolution. “The Night Floats on the Water” by Natalia Almonte paints a corner of the gallery space in pitch black. Within this immersive (or, what was intended to be an immersive) space household objects are mounted to the wall to evoke a sensation of them floating up to the ceiling. A single white rope  and a stone above and beyond the dark corner seems to be an attempt to tether the scene, and are effective in their failure to do so. “In the darkness I sense the scale of the room to be at an unattainable distance and simultaneously closing in on my body” (p. 36). “The Night Floats on the Water” is a delicate yet powerful work on catastrophe and the helplessness and loss that surrounds a community during the event and even at the recovery phase. Putting it into context, the reader/viewer may look no further than the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina (2005) and Maria (2017) in New Orleans and Puerto Rico, respectively; Haiti after the earthquake in 2010; or Tacloban City, Philippines after Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) in 2013, and countless other natural disasters the world over that have altered landscapes and displaced communities.

Alonso Cartú portrays power struggles through the installation “On Good Terms with Temptation”. Using ink popsicles, Cartu turns a friendly and decidedly innocent gesture of offering a treat, in this case a popsicle, into a cold one (pun not intended). Once the ink popsicles have melted, broken symbols on the wooden sticks emerge. This can be considered a passage from darkness to clarity, to borrow Hazarika’s commentary on the work. It can also be seen as a visual play on subtext, sarcasm, or pun. The disillusionment that passes once a relationship has been put under harsh light and it is clarified that everything is not what they seem to be. A smile melting away to reveal a frown or, perhaps worse, a neutral, impersonal stare.

Locating the body and the consciousness it harbors within physical and virtual space is tackled in Alymamah Rashed’s “The Title of this Painting is Written in Invisible Fruit Ink”. Through what she refers to as her Muslima Cyborg Body, Rashed investigates the discourse of her own body in relation to liminal spaces, of fluctuating between borders, bodies of water, and questionable geographies. Rashed uses warm colors which reminds one of the sunset, and a deep prussian blue as a ground upon which the virtual body in the canvas appears to be praying. This body takes on an ethereal appearance, with three faces, and three other, smaller bodies hovering above it, signifying the multiplicity of identities, the complexity of consciousness that traverses physical “real” space and the virtual space of the canvas, of an artwork. The canvas is propped on two wooden blocks with the hands of the Muslima Cyborg Body painted on them, on one hand is a black vase with a single red rose. These details on the floor signal to the reader/viewer that this body is not solely confined within the canvas space but also spills onto their reality.

The concept of water as home can be seen in Adrian White’s black and white photographs. Among the excellent collection is “Untitled (5)”, a striking photo of a woman walking towards the ocean, a mask behind her head. Perhaps a reference to and re-imagination of the Janus head where one traverses time looking back and forward simultaneously. A photographer based in New York, White’s works primarily deal with the people of the African diaspora. He creates portraiture that deals with memory, trauma, and history. “Untitled (5)” specifically refers to the story of seventy-five Igbo people and their chief who walks with his people back into the water rather than be taken as slaves. The chief sings in the Igbo language, the water spirit brought us, the water spirit will take us home. White recreated this story with performance artist Raissa Mata.

When we think of inheritance, we often tie it to material possession and heritage. Victoria Manganiello’s “Terminis” is an installation of meticulously handwoven textiles, in black and yellow, that express a progression through the variations in pattern for each of the five panels hanging from the gallery ceiling. Through these textiles and their connections to story-telling (for instance, weaving patterns found in many world cultures often also harbor the stories and memories of a people), technology as a means of passing knowledge and heirlooms, and geography, the concept of inheritance can be finely framed, however these connections are still tenuous. “Knowledge of the future is never provided at the start, yet we can understand that there is a connection to our histories” (p. 50).

Ephemeral visions or momentariness can be found in Zeshan Ahmed’s “Under Erasure”, which takes on the philosophical implications of color and erasure. “Color doesn’t exist but the perception of color does” (p. 54). In “Under Erasure”, Ahmed explores the limits of photographic representation by breaking down the image to its syntax of Red, Green, and Blue (RGB) in separate film layers which was then installed, on top of each other, on the gallery wall. Allowing the light to seep through each layer creates new, abstracted images. Images that are constantly present, as we are aware of having seeing them, but never truly fixed. Each element flits in and out of vision, like moths in a flickering flame.

Moving from an image broken apart to create other perceptions of wholeness, we move to Alexis Williams’ digital collage “Depression”. Against the backdrop of a desert, we see a man, bent facing the sky, whose soul appears to be leaving his body. It also appears to be a gesture of surrender, as one tries to grapple with “the power of mental and emotional weight” with one’s subconscious (p. 56).

Luis M. Diaz’s digital c-print photographs, “Untitled” are testaments to his intentions of becoming the record keeper of his family’s narrative. A narrative that revolves around migration, labor, and the American Dream. Diaz writes, “It’s been thirteen years since my family has immigrated… They sacrifice their bodies in the name of the American Dream. A dream that has given as much as it has taken. A dream that’s turned into a nightmare. A dream that is ultimately a lie. My work comes from a desire to be recognized… … It’s through creating that we resist expectations and generalizations that have been created to suppress” (p. 60-61). There is a difficult space to be traversed in deciding to be an artist and belonging to a group of people that have been boxed into specific categories or stereotypes. Diaz’s gesture and act of being record keeper as artist (or artist as record keeper) both undergoes and overcomes this difficult space as he creates art which may also be considered a refined record of his family’s struggles.

Liberation in ambivalence is at the core of Subin Kahn’s work “Aurora Floral Dress”, an asymmetrical dress that incorporates both feminine and masculine silhouettes. It “represents a young soul, bruised and deformed by gender norms and stereotypes” (p. 68).

The concept of imprints of the collective in a personal mythology are seen in Nandi Bayekula’s “Totems”,  where she explores the fine lines between the hidden and the revealed. For Convergence, she created a series of tapestries that evoke ceremonial masks from the Baoule people of Cote D’Ivoire. These masks were specifically used for ceremonies to attract bountifulness. Through her own take on traditional masks, putting imprints of her heritage into the work (which may be said for each artwork in this exhibit), has also enabled her to communicate with her ancestry and the memory of her people. Bayekula’s works, with respect to the rest of the works in Convergence, also open up the larger question of how can identity, specially political and cultural aspects of it, be delicately and deftly handled as it is expressed in art? Further, and to act as a Devil’s Advocate, could there be a way to be pressing yet gentle in wanting to be recognized? Could there be an oblique strategy in declaring one’s questions, frustrations, and bid for presence? These questions are raised in light of Bayekula’s masks harboring dense strands of identity, history, and memory yet commanding a quiet, potent presence in its place in the gallery hallway. In front of the elevators, in the sound of conversations and banter, no less.

 

IV. More Questions than Answers

Going back to the exhibit’s main question: Can artworks create social spaces through the communities they implicate?

Extending the inquiry, perhaps it would be also helpful to consider what is meant by social spaces. Harking back to lingering ideas about galleries and museums, they would qualify as social spaces in so far as having been formed, so it is said, for the general public. It is a common sentiment to look upon archives and collections and lament that it is “hidden from public eye” and would be worthy to showcase for the “public”. Who is the public? is a question that has been uttered by countless cultural workers working within and beyond the boundaries of institutions. Harking back to Nandi Bayekula’s work and the questions it inspired, it seems that this ongoing investigation on spaces, institutions, and identities, there are more questions than answers. It seems that one must learn to become comfortable with the abundance of questions without answers. To be constantly wondering and be led into enchantment.

Through the artworks in Convergence, a social space is created for artists working within the categories of ‘young’ and ‘of color’ and of different orientations, interests, and genders. It can be said that the goal was to create a space whose lines were not so clearly defined so as to be inclusive and accommodating. What can also be thought of as a safe social environment. Within these parameters, the exhibition proves to be effective in spite of the unevenness of the works. Hazarika as an artist and curator, as well as the artists she was able to gather with for Convergence possess great potential and growth. It is a wish to see more of their works in the coming years.

 

All quoted statements are taken from the exhibition catalog for Convergence, 2018.

Solitary Work

(Note: All credits are placed below.)

Probably owing to my current state, Lesley-Anne Cao’s The hand, the secretary, a landscape struck me as an exhibit that pertains to the solitude or isolation that arises from creative labor. Much of what becomes of and comes from the practice and process happens in the mind, even though the artist and their work passes through reception, review, and archiving.

In this review, I will talk about the art object in relation to the Golem: the artwork as an entity in-between sentient and incomplete, and the spatial and temporal boundaries of the “inner life” in making art.

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Golem, as image and text, connotes some unflattering qualities such as dumbness and clumsiness, a servant who take their tasks literally, a body with half a mind. I tend towards thinking of the Golem in its Biblical definition: as the perfect servant, an incomplete being still partly dependent upon its maker, an entity in its interim state, a body of pure potential and becoming.

Cao’s works exist within their own boundaries, possess their own properties and appearances but constitutes a whole. They undergo their own distinct processes, they are the process and are also the outcomes of this process.

These are works about work, a hand that documents and archives as it is made, a landscape that draws itself as it is perceived.

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The works are also a challenge to art’s object-ness. A blanket of bells are placed in a box, too far for any hand to reach. Yet one does not need to touch the bell to hear it. Its mere presence is the signification of its origin, purpose and fate.

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A video projection is a testament to the duration of creative work. A loop appears to be static, yet it is a work that continuously works on itself, generating and regenerating, where to repeat is to return is to restore.

The hand, the secretary, a landscape is a work of reassurance to its visitors, perhaps for the artist herself. There is no need to fear the rumble of gravel in your ear as you ramble about your work, no need to fear the seeming sameness, only an openness to approach an unfolding landscape.

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All photos by Miguel Lorenzo Uy.

See a survey of Lesley-Anne Cao’s works here.

The hand, the secretary, a landscape  is on show until 22 July 2018 at the Cultural Center of the Philippines Bulwagang Fernando Amorsolo (Small Gallery) and 4th floor Atrium (Manila side).

Exhibition text by Michelle Esquivias.