THIS is my theory: if one lives by the sea, one must be reconciled to always living with a grain of sand.
The final days of the old year deposit our family on the southern coast of Cebu. The sullen sky, the turbulence of the surf and the chill in the air create a spell of solitude that keeps away weekend worshippers but summons us, who crave a rest from the festivities ushering in a new year.
Yet, while it’s true that we want some respite from holiday-making, it’s also misleading to give the impression that the coastal solitude at this time of the year is quiet and placid.
For one, the sea, like any creature of moods, is never silent. One dawn I woke up suddenly. It took me a second to realize what I was missing: the violence of the surf pounding the shore. Only when I flexed my toes and touched the inevitable grains of sand on the bed did I realize I was where I was when I had gone to sleep.
As a child, I already realized that sand leaves the longest memory of interludes at the coast. Whenever it was time to go home, we children were told to rinse our feet and sandals for the last time in the sea.
Yet, no matter how carefully and slowly we walked back to the car, there would always be sand sticking at the back of our legs. The more one rinsed, the more sand clung. It pleased me to always hold off going home by hollering I would wade “one last time”.
Only to find, weeks later, in the middle of a gym session, I would be fingering sand in the pocket of a pair of shorts I waded in at sea.
I brushed sand again when I watched the works exhibited by Raymund L. Fernandez in his SM City Cebu retrospective, “Bulahan ang Bunga sa Tiyan Mo,” from Dec. 23, 2011 to Jan. 4, 2012.
Mons, my former teacher and now colleague at the University of the Philippines Cebu, gathers works that touch on the religious. In an interview, he said that for his first one-man show in over 10 years, he had to choose between this theme and nudes, the other significant body of works he’s made over the years.
Those with greater empathy for the flesh than the spirit should still visit the exhibit. As an artist, Mons has never been caged in by themes. The “Bulahan” works rub raw my preconceptions of spirituality.
His “Belen” is a block of bayong carved to show the dominant visage of St. Joseph and the smaller image of the Virgin Mary, cupping a Niño, a reversal of roles in all the stories of the manger birth I’ve heard.
In “Sta. Maria Asuncion,” reportedly a 400-year-old found piece of molave illustrating the Assumption, the faces and the feet of the angel and Mary are distended in rapture I immediately associate with the sexual, having had no experience of the spiritual variety.
More curious is the story behind Mons’ “Bulahan ang Bunga sa Tiyan Mo,” which shows magkuno inlays portraying the face, hands and feet of Mary, set off against the molave body. It is not only the starkness of dark wood against white that startles. It is the realization that one is looking at an image of the pregnant Mary, an oddity in traditional iconography that shows Mary at the Annunciation, fast forward to Mary in the Manger, skipping other allusions of the flesh.
According to Mons, discussions over a possible commissioned work on Mary fell through. That same night, he dreamed of a woman sitting on a log, who then looks back at him and says, “I have for you a gift.” Waking up, he dismisses it as a “diabetic” dream.
On the same day, his brother, Londong, tells him about finding a molave trunk abandoned near their ancestral home in Dumanjug. It takes Mons another two years to finish the carving of Mary, which he later gives to the Congregation of St. John. While the sculpture was in progress, his younger son, Elias, often kissed the molave bump, a natural formation of the wood that inspires the “Bulahan” theme.
In “Timon,” a molave trunk carved to show a fisherman steering in a storm, I find a clue to Mons’ view of the religious shaping a life. What I mistook at first for a devil lashed by the storms of faith into covering his face is a mere mortal whose enormous feet express the tremendous effort of will and sinew to steer on course.
Faith is not passive acceptance. It is recognizing the anomalous, even doubt, to prove the existence of faith. Very much as a grain of sand brings back in a rush a whole interlude.
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*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Jan. 1, 2012 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column