When an artist of Roberto Feleo’s stature puts together a show of recent works, you try and make time to see it. Admittedly, art took a back seat this past week. I stayed glued to the tv or to my laptop following current events as they unraveled, leading up to the momentous People’s Funeral of President Cory Aquino. But an exhibit by Feleo does not happen every year, and with The Drawing Room just a fifteen-minute car ride away, I found myself taking a break from all the news.
It turns out Virinas perfectly suited my nationalistic mood. Once again, Feleo makes sociohistorical commentaries, this time via small-scale figures in sawdust, the medium most associated with him. The show brings us vignettes of Philippine history, indigenous and pre-colonial images, even personalities from Feleo’s past. He encloses each episode, some composed of single figures, others a grouping of various-sized subjects, in glass bell jars,
the virinas of the show’s title. These glass containers, perhaps just a foot high, recall the casing of ivory santos and other holy figures found in our old stone churches. He paints most figures in acrylic, adopting a palette reminiscent of the colors used in wood carvings of old. The skin tones, for instance, come out a pasty pink, a friar’s cassock, a dull brown. He also incorporates devices found in these old religious works, like a flame atop subjects’ heads to indicate the presence of the Holy Spirit. A wooden base serves as platform for each piece, a miniature stage if you will, of the stories Feleo tells.
The 19th Century Basi Revolt looms large in this show. This was a violent protest against a monopoly imposed by the Spanish government on the sale of the native Ilocano liquor. Feleo devotes four pieces on the subject. In Kathang Isip na Larawan ni Esteban Villanueva at Ang Kanyang mga Tularan, he pays tribute to the artist who recorded events of the rebellion. He portrays Esteban Villanueva towering over three other figures of the uprising, ringleaders who the Spanish authorities beheaded. In another piece, one of revolt’s leaders, Salaroga Ambaristo, stands
atop a carabao, his stance akin to an action figure, jets of what look like magic lasers issuing from his pointed fingers, headpieces floating around him. In my two favorite pieces of the show, Feleo depicts Ambaristo and Pedro Mateo, the revolt’s other ringleader, as pintengs, decapitated warriors worthy of the headdresses that Ifugaos confer on their beheaded heroes. The figures in these two pieces, Ang Pinteng ni Ambaristo and Ang Pinteng ni Pedro Mateo, have been left
unpainted. They look as primitive as bulols, their naked bodies disjointed from heads which have been pierced with colored wooden adornments shaped like flames.
Some of his other pieces comment on other aspects of our history. In Ang Bendita, the lying friar’s elongated nose exposes him for what he is. Two Makapili, informants used by the Japanese to weed out guerillas during World War II, play a gruesome game of Jack en Poy while still hiding under their bayong hoods in Bato, Bato, Pik.
I love Roberto Feleo when he gives us majestic tableaux: his Tau-Tao installation at our National Art Gallery and his Retablo ng Bantaoay, a wall-bound piece of several decorated torsos which he originally exhibited in the National Museum as part of the Basi Revolt’s 200th anniversary (this has since been acquired by the Singapore Art Museum). This show, Virinas, allows art collectors to bring home minute, somewhat whimsical, sketches, more manageable pieces from Roberto Feleo’s body of work.
Roberto Feleo Virinas runs from 1 to 22 August, 2009 at The Drawing Room Contemporary Art, 1007 Metropolitan Avenue, Metrostar Bldg, Makati. Phone (632)897-7877 or visit http://www.drawingroomgallery.com