Saturday, January 21, 2017

Searching for the Bisaya

Size matters. Raymund E. Fernandez’s “Kamingaw” stands that truism on its head.

The book is a near perfect cube, a foot on each side. It’s awkward to read in bed or bring to the toilet.

When I sat down to first open the book given by my faculty room neighbor, I purposely sat down at the desk that abuts the area of Raymund, a former mentor and now fellow teacher at the state university.

The book jacket carries the subtitle: “An Impressionist Portrait of the Bisaya Painter Martino A. Abellana”.

Under that subtitle, any book would stagger. It is not just the lengthiness or the art jargon. It is also the insinuation of “Bisaya”.

As Ino Manalo writes in the foreword of the book published by the University of San Carlos Press, “The term may seem innocent at first until one realizes that it not only marks geography but also implies a positioning in art production on a national scale.”

An outsider may view “Bisaya” with dismay, regarding the label as a dismissal, not just an appraisal.

Born and raised in Cebu, I am drawn to the word, which pulls like a beacon. Who is the Bisaya? What is his or her place in the story of the Filipino?

Raymund is the guide for such a quest. At first browsing, “Kamingaw” satisfies the expectations of art patrons and coffee table book collectors.

Its photographs of Abellana’s paintings and sketches are numerous, lush, and diverse, encompassing the portraits of Cebu elite that secured his reputation and the less known but more tantalizing sketches of the artist’s family, his Art students at the University of the Philippines (UP) Cebu, and slices of Bisaya life.

When I covered the prominent and powerful of Cebu, I made one distinction to separate the old from the new rich: the former had a portrait by Abellana. Yet, the book’s most arresting photos, many of which came from the UP Cebu-funded catalogue compiled by Raymund and fellow teachers Cristina Martinez-Juan, Jovi Juan and Estela Ocampo-Fernandez, capture the profundity Abellana saw in the inconspicuous: an old man sitting on a box, a family knelt in prayer.

Raymund’s writing illuminates this discordance in Abellana’s subjects. Expecting to read art history or criticism, I pored over “Kamingaw” because it is personal and intimate on several levels: as a documentation on how pre- and post-war Cebu molded an artist; as a memoir of a maestro’s influence on his students’ art and life beyond the classroom; as a meditation on the artist caught in the crosshairs of society and mortality.

“Bisaya,” whether under the brush of Abellana or the pen of Raymund, is a beacon to probe the dark with.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s January 22, 2017 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

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