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Social Realism: The Turns of a Term in the Philippines

Antipas Delotavo, Itak sa Puso ni Mang Juan (Dagger in Old Juan’s Heart), 1978, watercolour on paper, 38.1 × 53.34cm. Photograph: Erik Liongoren. Courtesy the artist
Looking at the legacy of 1970s social realist painting in the Philippines, Patrick D. Flores reflects on the intersection of postcolonial discourse, historical imagination and political art practice.

To name and annotate a practice is one stage in the discursive struggle of the term ‘social realism’ in the Philippines. Another stage is to index the world that creates it, and to be in the world to change it – through the modern and the socialist, broadly conceived. In reflecting on the political feeling that art can be at once index and intervention, the contemporary condition of the social realist image, alongside its inquiry, inevitably surfaces. This image is distributed: idealised, historicised, radicalised, indigenised, instrumentalised, decolonised, allegorised. In its explication of the way the world materialises, it demystifies the autonomy of art in the gesture of making it truly ‘useful’, that is, responsive to the social and the real (however these terms are intuited). Such is the ethical life of the image in Philippine art that invests in the potency of likeness, iconography and refiguration as much as it struggles with misrecognition. Honed in Catholic and baroque colonialism, the theological question of the image, which is instructive as it anticipates an afterlife, is verisimilarly its political problem, which speculates on the future of the social order. Thus, social realism comes in a relay of alternating terms: partisan, progressive, protest and revolutionary. It plays out across the spectrum of the socialist project and an ‘international’ of the global contemporary. — PDF

Antipas Delotavo, Itak sa Puso ni Mang Juan (Dagger in Old Juan’s Heart), 1978, watercolour on paper, 38.1 × 53.34cm. Photograph: Erik Liongoren. Courtesy the artist

Somewhere in the Philippines, in the 1970s, the Coca-Cola logo bleeds across the image and becomes the proscenium arch of a theatre of everyday life. In the watercolour Itak sa Puso ni Mang Juan (Dagger in Old Juan’s Heart, 1978), Antipas Delotavo depicts a man, slightly stooped, passing by an overwhelmingly large billboard advertising the archetypal product of the United States. The artist seizes on a moment when the multinational and the proletariat inhabited common, contentious ground in the Philippines. The serif of the letter ‘C’ appears to nearly touch the fatigued figure, as if ready to cut into his flesh, to shed blood that is both always-already flowing and foretelling fate. Delotavo explains that he was drawn to the Coke icon because for him it incarnated the ubiquity of the US in the Third World; its internecine interventions in Southeast Asia; and its support for the Ferdinand Marcos regime in the Philippines, which hosted two of the US’s largest foreign military bases. Also crucial here is advertising as a vehicle of imperialism, in guaranteeing the US’s hegemonic presence in the economy and culture of the Philippines even after it gained independence in 1946, following nearly fifty years of US rule and three centuries of Spanish occupation. 01 The Coke logo is concomitantly a cipher of capitalism and, in Delotavo’s own words, of ‘cultural enslavement’. 02

In 2012, this work was shown in ‘ReCollection 1081: Clear and Present Danger (Visual Dissent on Martial Rule)’, an exhibition that commemorated the imposition of Martial Law by Marcos in 1972, 03 one of a series of measures aimed at quelling the communist tide rising within and beyond the Philippines, and with which the regime ultimately tore apart the civil basis of the modern democratic republic — the first to be established, in 1898, in either Asia or Africa. It was surprising to see Delotavo’s and other politically charged works from the 1970s gathered together at the Cultural Center of the Philippines in Manila. After all, this had been the premier edifice of culture that Imelda Marcos, wife of the strongman, had built in 1969 as the ‘sanctuary for the Filipino soul’ and ‘shrine of the Filipino spirit’. 04 The former beauty queen turned urban planner of the ‘City of Man’, as she christened Manila, had to recover around 77 hectares of foreshore land to realise her vision, a project unparalleled in the region at that time. She proclaimed loftily:

It shall be our Parthenon built in a time of hardship, a spring-source of our people’s living conviction in the oneness of our heritage … It is highly symbolic that this Center whose mission it is to reclaim from the past the things that belong to our present and our future should stand here on land reclaimed from the sea … [so that] our works in stone and story … may remain, for all time, a testament to the goodness, the truth and the beauty of a historic race.05

It was at the Cultural Center that various types of high-modernist and Conceptual art exhibitions and events were presented under the auspices of a government that staged spectacles of democracy, development and national identity, constructing the country as a Gesamtkunstwerk — one in which a new world was deemed to be ‘suddenly turning visible’. 06 Ferdinand Marcos was inspired by the same ideal, ordaining the Center as ‘a place where the Filipino can discover the soul of his people, and relate the saga of his race to the vast human experience that begins in the past and advances into the limitless future’. 07 Under Imelda’s directorship, the Center strove for a certain ‘world-class’ status for Philippine talent based on an understanding of modernism as an aspirational discourse of equivalence. 08 Its programme reflected a cultural policy anchored in an identity at once archaic and contemporary — with native and national provenance on the one hand, and modernist inclinations on the other — which largely rested on Imelda Marcos’s notion of ‘the goodness, the truth and the beauty of a historic race’ that necessarily excluded the unsightly ferment or the socio-economic asymmetries of the present. The latter were embodied in turn by ‘social realism’, an aesthetic movement that emerged in the Philippines in the late 1970s. Resisting the idealisation of progress, social realism articulated a dissident cultural imagination, one wrought throughout centuries of colonialism, and that in many ways persists in postcolonial discourse and practice in the Philippines today.

The Kaisahan
The belligerence of Delotavo’s work is in line with his coterie of artists in Manila, who formed the collective Kaisahan (‘Solidarity’) in 1976: Papo de Asis, Pablo Baens Santos, Orlando Castillo, Jose Cuaresma, Neil Doloricon, Edgar Talusan Fernandez, Charles Funk, Renato Habulan, Albert Jimenez, Al Manrique and Jose Tence Ruiz; later joined by Vin Toledo. The Kaisahan emerged from a history of efforts by the Left to mobilise the youth as part of a wider struggle against what art historian Alice G. Guillermo has identified as the ‘exploitative forces of US imperialism and its local agents’ in the Philippines, and which can be understood in the context of the radicalised international student movement of the late 1960s and 70s. 09 The collective has a precedent in the politically motivated Nagkakaisang Progresibong Artista at Arkitekto (‘United Progressive Artists and Architects’, NPAA), a group that officially formed in 1971 but started to coalesce as early as 1969, when the Kabataang Makabayan (‘Nationalist Youth’) first gathered artists amongst their ranks. Informed by the doctrines of Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin and Mao Tse-Tung, the NPAA was clearly fired up by the rousing rhetoric of Jose Maria Sison, Chairman of the Communist Party of the Philippines since 1968 and foremost ideologue of the national democratic movement — an assemblage of fronts involving parliamentary and armed struggles under the aegis of the Communist Party. In his message to the founding of the NPAA — an acronym quite close to that of the armed wing, the New Peoples Army (NPA) — Sison gave unequivocal marching orders: ‘Any piece of art bears the stamp of a definite class … Grasp the truth that proletarian politics is in command of revolutionary aesthetics.’ 10 It is in the crucible of this radicalised student movement, with clear socialist leanings, that the Kaisahan was forged, and their activities played out within a revolutionary context.

In 1976, the Kaisahan circulated a manifesto that broadly followed the doctrine of the NPAA. As Guillermo points out, however, it also encapsulated the artists’ attempt ‘to reformulate the aesthetics of political art to give it more breadth and room for creativity’. 11 Crucial to Kaisahan’s polemic is an understanding of ‘national identity’ as a necessary step to posit a differential relationship with the West, and to critique the process of westernisation, which, they argue, has obscured or suppressed the ‘true condition’ of Philippine existence and therefore the ‘reality’ of its history:

We, the artists of the Kaisahan, commit ourselves to the search for national identity in Philippine art. We believe that national identity is not to be found in a nostalgic love of the past or an idealised view of our tradition and history. It cannot be achieved by using the common symbols of our national experience without understanding the reality that lies within them. We recognise that national identity, if it is to be more than lip service or an excuse for personal status seeking, should be firmly based on the present social realities and on a critical assessment of our historical past so that we may trace the roots of these realities. […]We shall therefore develop an art that reflects the true conditions in our society. This means, first of all, that we must break away from the Western-oriented culture that tends to maintain the Filipino people’s dependence on foreign goods, foreign tastes and foreign ways that are incompatible with their genuine national interests. […] We shall therefore move away from the uncritical acceptance of Western moulds, from the slavish imitation of Western forms that have no connection to our national life, from the preoccupation with Western trends that do not reflect the process of our development.