HOCUS continues to fascinate

Hocus is an acronym, an eye-catching combination of HOfileña and CUStodio and the title of an exhibition at the Gallery XXI of the National Museum of Fine Arts. The paintings in that exhibition, each one a masterpiece, have two authors. Saul HOfileña is the intellectual author whom I have described as a historian who could paint to save his life. The other author is Guy CUStodio, a consummate painter, adept restorer of religious colonial art who studied his craft in Spain for 20 years; however, he is wary of history, especially Philippine history.

HOfileña says he is often kept awake by nightmarish visions every time he reads about our colonial past, which is quite often as he is inclined to burrow into his personal collection of primary documents, in the wee hours. The masterly CUStodio captures those visions on canvas and/or oldwood. He has been painting virgins and martyrs all his life, he says, the HOCUS project is a challenge. I am sure it is because, to me, each painting is like a page from our colonial history.

HOCUS was inaugurated last 18 April and since then more than three thousand people have come to see it, according to the curators of the Division of Fine Arts. I think it is also because the National Museum is as crowded as a mall ever since Director Jeremy Barns and the Board of Trustees decided not to charge entrance.  How heartening to see queues of young people waiting for their turn to enter; on weekends, there are family groups with children of all ages. Better than malling, I must say. I have seen millenials shudder at the HOCUS triptych “La Pesadilla,” gasping at all those skeletons, the legions of manananggals and seraphims amidst a horrific array of allegorical figures.

Because the HOCUS exhibition will be on until October, Museum month, I was asked by Assistant Director Ana Labrador to conduct related activities at the Pres. Sergio Osmeña Hall which is directly behind the heart-wrenching “Spoliarium” of Juan Luna. Last Saturday, HOCUS convened the 3rd in the series of lectures.

Architect Tina Paterno (a former trustee of the Heritage Conservation Society) gave us a bird’s eye view of the San Sebastian Basilica restoration of which she is the project director.  The only steel church in the Philippines and in Asia is corroding, as there are 300 water leaks in this 125-year-old structure in the heart of Quiapo. There was an older stone church in the same place which was destroyed by an earthquake so the Augustinian Recollects opted for one made of steel, then the new technology. Pope Leo XIII declared it a minor basilica in 1890, the very year that the prefabricated steel sheets were shipped from Europe to Manila.

Arch. Paterno said it will take ten years to complete and will cost at least P100 million. There are not many steel churches in the world so we should take care of the one we have. Tina said this steel church is like a shipwreck so she has had to look for ship builders to fix the roof.  Miraculously, San Sebastian is still structurally sound, a number of columns are still in optimum condition and metallurgists in the project are awed by the technology employed in the 1890’s.  Apparently, through the years, well-intentioned repairs were made in some areas, with the wrong materials (concrete on steel!) that have caused more damage. Arch. Paterno asked who among the audience have been to San Sebastian and quite a number did not raise their hands. I think there were people who did not know that San Sebastian is made of steel, like the famous Eiffel Tower.

Complementary to the San Sebastian basilica project was the talk of Atty. Saul HOfileña about how the friar lands came to be and what happened to them.  He presented maps of Cavite and Laguna showing the friar haciendas; quoted the Artículo Adicional of the Malolos Constitution which stipulated that all friar lands had reverted to the nation when Independence was declared.. He used a HOCUS painting “El hombre olvidado” (forgotten man) to illustrate how religious orders acquired lands in those days. On his deathbed, an ex-conquistador was bequeathing 2,000 hectares of his prized possession, the Hacianda of Orion, in Bataan, in exchange for masses to be said in perpetuity for his soul. The friars at his bedside were writing the will but, they must have forgotten about the dying man soon after.

Using other HOCUS paintings to illustrate his point, Atty HOfileña told us about how the friars began to form holding companies registered abroad when they began to feel the winds of change. He touched briefly on the papal states and how these where taken over when Garibaldi unified Italy. Shocking was that bit about how Gen. Franco brought his Moroccan troops to Spain to defeat the Republic  during the civil war and how the use of that Muslim contingent was, ironically, supported by the church. Somehow, he tied up Adolf Hitler and Mussolini to all that; HOfileña’s visions are really quite macabre and there will probably be enough for a HOCUS 2.

The last but certainly not the least lecturer was Mr. Art Valdez, climber of the Everest, seasoned navigator, eminent environmentalist, and, in a sense, a historian as he has constructed balanghays just as our ancestors did centuries ago.  He said that his balanghay voyages around this archipelago, the West Philippine Sea and the South China Sea are reminders that we Filipinos are a maritime nation, descendants of indomitable seafarers who knew (and know) how to read the clouds and stars, are sensitive to the various currents and winds. Yet, today, to his dismay, so many Filipinos do not know how to swim and have never sailed in their lives.  To be afraid of the sea is a colonial mindset, he affirmed; I ventured that part of that perverted mindset is our obsession with white skin; no sailing please, we want to be ghostly white!

The 4th in the series of lectures will take place in August, at the same Pres. Sergio Osmena Hall; we will start at 2 p.m. precisely. A fellow artist will interview Guy CUStodio; he is so extremely timid, that is the only way I can get him to give a lecture. We will also tackle “Hot Heritage Issues,” probably the “Torre de Manila.” I will confirm the date in my next column.