Full circle?

A psychic will have to tell me if I am about to come full circle; I find myself doing the same things I used to do some 46 years ago. Although the physical circumstances may not be exactly the same, memory has dredged up from its depths ineluctable similarities.

Almost half a century ago, I was the director of the National Museum, a political appointee of Pres. Ferdinand Marcos during his first term, before he declared martial law. In those days, the National Museum was, geographically speaking, split in half; one part was located on the second floor of the Bureau of Mines building and the other on the ground floor of the vintage Bureau of Science which had morphed into the National Institute of Science and Technology (NIST). Both were on Herran Street. There was an Anthropology/Archaeology division which was in the limelight due to a number of archaeological digs; there were divisions for botany, zoology, arts, admin offices but onlya couple of exhibition rooms in each building. The bulk of collections were mothballed. Hardly anyone knew we existed.

There was an abandoned garage, which I “occupied” and converted into a National Art Gallery. The objective was to promote young promising artists who could not afford to show their works at private galleries.

Jaime de Guzman was the first artist we featured, a one-man show of lacerating images with social content; signs of the times, I suppose. Political turbulence was not yet palpable but there were veiled signs of an impending militarization.

On opening day, Jaime brought along his grandfather and a band of elderlies who played tunes popular in Liliw, Laguna, during the Philippine Revolution. Later, Jaime’s Gomburza mural was purchased by the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) and he was given a travel grant to Mexico where he worked for the famous artist Siqueiros. Shortly after, he single-handedly occupied an abandoned hacienda near San Miguel de Allende and was summarily deported when the police found out.

The second one-man show was Ruben de Vera’s who vanished inexplicably and was rumored to have joined the New People’s Army (NPA). No wonder he had a self-portrait dressed in fatigiues, a long-arm slung over his shoulder. Last I heard, he has resurfaced and now has a permanent address in Davao City.

A few weeks ago, I was invited by the National MuseumDirector, Jeremy Barnes, and Assistant Director, Dr. Ana Labrador, to be guest curator of a painting exhibition at thesplendid National Museum of Fine Arts. It used to be called the National Art Gallery.Jeremy and Ana told me that once while reading archival material, they came across reports about the exhibits I had curated in that abandoned garage. The paintings I had acquired while I was director are still in the museum collection and are now appropriately displayed for the public to enjoy.

Today, the Division of Fine Arts is well-staffed and equipped and headed by the knowledgeable and efficient chief curator, Ceres Canilao. With less resources, Jeff Peralta and I would curate shows at that garage-cum-National Art Gallery. Jeff was very innovative, once he dangled an antique chair from the ceiling and used carved panels of a dismantled four-poster bed.

The HOCUS collection which I have been invited to curate will be exhibited at Gallery XXI on the third floor; it opened on 18 April and will continue until 29 October, the end of Museum month. These are colossal oil paintings on old wood and canvas, reminiscent of the 18th and 19th centuries. They incite the viewer with visions of what life must have been like during colonial times.

The collection is unique because it has two authors: Saul Hofileña, a historian who cannot paint and Guy Custodio, a painter who is wary of history. HOCUS is the combination of their surnames. A lawyer by profession, Hofileña has always been obsessed with Church and State history, the Patronato Real and its ramifications. After he met Guy Custodio in Bohol,where he was restoring church paintings, Hofileña the historian wondered, “What if I ask him to paint what is inside my head?” Apparently, the HOCUS collaborative effort is registered with the Intellectual Property Office, only a lawyer would take such precautions. (more)