“The artisan, therefore, whether amateur or “professional,” gets impromptu art instruction and a chance to promptly correct mistakes. Clearly, to the natives who have a predilection for decoration and the aptitude for producing beautiful objects, the process of creation is accorded equal, if not more, importance as the finished product. As a result, the ethnicity of the finished work can be distinguished, but not necessarily the mark of an artist whom freedom of expression or artistic license is almost always subordinate to certain inherited techniques and a strong tradition of design.” – Ligaya Fernando-Amilbangsa, “Visual Arts of the Sulu Archipelago,” 2005.
San Francisco, California — Anthony Cruz Legarda gave this writer an unsolicited docent-guided tour on October 7. He is a textile technologist, fashion designer, researcher and a consultant. He has been traveling to Mindanao for the last 15 years.
Wearing a pisyabit — a type of headgear — he pointed to a photo of the head of the sultanate with his pisyabit pointing towards the front, surrounded by his heir apparent and his relatives.
Anthony was wearing his pisyabit pointing backwards, “I do not want to offend them, their culture. I am a fashion designer, so this is my statement.”
Two imperfectly aligned woven peace panels struck my attention.
Imperfectly aligned, yet they felt perfect to this writer. It is part of the six peace panels’ collection at the Hinabi Project’s Weaving Peace and Dreams, displaying the artistic work-products of the weaving communities of Mindanao: Mandaya, Bagobo, Higaonon, T’boli, B’laan, Yakan, Tausug, Maranao and Maguindanao.
“This is the piece I am most involved in. Seventy percent of this panel was made in an evacuation camp. The middle portion is lighter in colors. I engaged them. Do you see the different colors – this marks when they had to evacuate? It stopped here. But, they risked their lives to salvage what they had finished.
“After the evacuation, this became a battle cry panel – ‘Marawi will live in us and Marawi will live in their weaving.’ They had to salvage this. You see this [pointing to the color green in the panel], of course, these are synthetically dyed. We had to send them new threads from Manila.
“When their kids are sick, they have to bring them to the hospital. So stop na naman (So stop again). Look at the space around you, pointing to another photo, they had to look for [where to hang their backstrap] for weaving. Mother and daughter collaborated. They talked to each other. But, it is misaligned,” Anthony animatedly shared the story.
As the Hinabi Project’s brochure reads, “Peace cloths” – as peace offerings to resolve community conflicts and uneasy alliances, what typically was a peaceful activity has now been disrupted by competing ideologies and consumerism.”
Weaving peace and dreams
“Notice the weaving is still nice. When they started to weave, I wanted flowers. But, in their dreams, they saw frogs.”
“Frogs – palaka?”
“Yes, frogs. In their dreams, they were faced with hindrances, obstructions, but if the royals help them, they walk through the obstructions. They really walk through the obstructions! The frogs show how resilient, how strong and how powerful they are,” Anthony emphasized.
I shared a similar observation I had made of the Getty Art Museum’s five water gardens. The lower level pool is fed by cascading waters, with massive blue-veined marble boulders transported from the Gold Country of Northern California, while the water from the highest level is hardly blocked at all, with only small rocks standing in the way of the cascading water, making for a free fall into the lower pool.
Could this be the message of living our life on earth, that as we connect to the Higher One, the massive boulders [challenges] become little rocks that no longer impede God’s grace and instead, an overflowing of blessings?
Last May 8, the officials of Davao Oriental gave legal ownership titles over the ancestral lands to the indigenous peoples in twelve sitios in the hinterland village of Pichon, Caraga. Giving them that title also meant duties and responsibilities, to which Governor Corazon Nuñez Malanyaon spoke to, “ an example of united Lumads, working together to proudly preserve their culture and traditions.”
Anthony described his trek to Sitio Sangab, with folks from the governor’s office, to the peak portion of the village, a trek uphill. They have to wait until low tide, when the river water has subsided, allowing for travelers to go to the foot of the mountain. It takes another half hour to climb uphill to the village.
Earlier, he pointed to a photo taken by Eden Jhan G. Licayan, a resident of Davao Oriental who works as a publicist for the governor’s office. He has cultivated rapport with the indigenous tribes that his pictures of the abaca chopping, stripping, making into threads, and weaving these abaca threads, were captured so vividly.
One photo shows an elderly woman sitting next to her grandchild, inside reed-built walls, with an uncluttered, minimalist spacious room, with just the loom and the threads, so as not to cause any distractions. They sit for hours in a certain position until they are one with their threads, and at times, they speak to their threads, so as not to break the process of weaving. They pray and meditate, while their designs are at times inspired by their dreams.
Anthony described the artistic design process that he went through. It consists of understanding the capabilities of the master weavers and asking them if they are willing to work with the parameters of the project.
Since these are indigenous weaving done by their masters whose techniques have been passed on through generations and through centuries, “I asked them what fabrics and threads they use,” Anthony said. They use polyester and synthetic dyes.
So Anthony challenged them to produce natural dye colors and now, they are using annatto, coconut husk, and talisay leaves to interact with the indigo colors to produce a green color. He points to a beautiful panel of blue and white colors, notice how they are placed opposite each other, as if in dialogue, he asked? The blue took many tries, he said, first – it was pale, then, it was too dark, and now, this blue color is just the royal blue we want to see in modern times.
Another is to use eco-friendly fabrics, the use of silk, instead of polyester. But silk is in short supply in the Philippines. Everyone wants to use silk and there are only three places you can obtain them: Northern part of the Philippines, Negros in Bacolod and in Mindanao.
The silk used for these peace panels took six months to save and produce. The sericulture, aka the process of collecting silk, involves extracting silk from silkworms on mulberry leaves. Once the worms start producing silk in their cocoons, the silk fibers are degummed and then, fed into the spinning reel, and then, later woven into these panels with the most intricate designs.
As to designs, Anthony works closely with the master weaver. “I asked, ‘Can you put in here single or double?’ The weaver said no. Of course, he had to respect that as the artist is the master of her work. So, the weaver wove in triple images.”
It is a process of respecting the master and the master allowing some nuanced influences from the outside.
“How did you achieve coherence with the indigenous culture,” I asked.
“Well, I make my trips to Mindanao. I talk to scholars. I do my research. They are modern artists. So I respect their art,” he responded.
I probe some more, “So how do you keep the balance between ethics and cultural preservation?” I really wanted to ask how do you not culturally appropriate their designs and then ascribe it as your own?
But, I did not have to. Anthony was sensitive and immediately responded, “Intentions,” in a very loud, firm declarative voice.
Intentions are very high in his artistic process. Intention to preserve, intention to cultivate the work of another artist. Intention not to harm that artist nor their culture.
His intentions reminded me of what a culturally sensitive and ethically rigorous leader does.
“The leader who cultivates the creativity of others serves as a guide and mentor for a community of people. To do this, leaders must have a personal understanding of the creative process, but they must also be able to put personal visibility aside to make space for the expression of others. The overall performance of others takes on more importance than any particular thing that the leader does,” Shaun McNiff wrote in “Creating with Others.”
Footnote: The Hinabi Project of Weaving Peace and Dreams: Textile Arts of Mindanao is on display from Sept. 18 to Nov. 24, 2017 at The Mills Building, 220 Montgomery Street in San Francisco. Contact the docent, Anthony Cruz Legarda, so you can get the depths and meanings of this beautifully curated project, presented by the Philippine American Writers and Artists, in partnership with the Mills Building, National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) Philippines, Non-Timber Forest Products-EP Philippines, Philippine Consulate General in SF, Philippine Dept. of Tourism in SF and Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.
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Prosy Abarquez-Delacruz, J.D. writes a weekly column for Asian Journal, called “Rhizomes.” She has been writing for AJPress for 9 years now. She contributes to Balikbayan Magazine. Her training and experiences are in science, food technology, law and community volunteerism for 4 decades. She holds a B.S. degree from the University of the Philippines, a law degree from Whittier College School of Law in California and a certificate on 21st Century Leadership from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. She has been a participant in NVM Writing Workshops taught by Prof. Peter Bacho for 4 years and Prof. Russell Leong. She has travelled to France, Holland, Belgium, Japan, Mexico and 22 national parks in the US, in pursuit of her love for arts.