Friday, January 27, 2012

connecting the dots...

manifest manners
soft imperialism
creative literature as shamanism
visual memories
vizenor vizena
no victimry
winter hibernation
freud or jung?
vine of memory

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

BAbaylan and Strategic Essentialism

Reclaiming the Southeast Asian Goddess:
Examples from Contemporary Art by Women
(Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia)
ネシア),” (trans. by Izumi Nakajima), _Image & Gender_, vol. 6, 2006, pp.105-119.
By Flaudette May V. Datuin
In this essay, I will invoke – as a form of strategic essentialism - the figure of the
Southeast Asian goddess and the babaylan, the ancient priestess as theme, metaphor and
signifier for women’s life-giving, nurturing and healing powers. By reclaiming the legacy
of the Southeast Asian goddess, I will present the emerging outlines of a Southeast Asian
feminist framework revolving around embodied spirituality – a concept where the body is
construed as an anatomical, spiritual, social and psychic space grounded on fluidity and
wholeness, instead of hierarchy and dualities. In the process, I will argue that while most
women artists in Southeast Asia are not consciously and overtly “feminist,” they
nonetheless point to the contours of emerging feminisms in Southeast Asia, and perhaps,
in Asia. These “feminisms” cannot be defined solely on the basis of individual autonomy,
hinged on sexual and body-centered liberation (as in radical feminism); or on “equal
rights” in an untransformed social structure (as in liberal feminism).Drawing from my
ongoing study and engagement with women artists in the visual arts of Southeast Asia, I
will present examples of how selected Philippine, Indonesian and Thai women artists
articulate and embody the Southeast Asian goddess figure through their lives and their
Babaylanism as Strategic Essentialism
This year, the Philippines is celebrating one hundred years of Philippine
feminism, which – according to official state historical sources - is said to have entered
the country with the founding of the Asosacion Feminista Filipina (Association of
Filipina Feminists) on June 30, 1905. This indicates that, as early as 1905, Filipinas – or a
least the elite suffragists – already have a consciousness of the term and concept
‘feminista,’ and that instead of naming their association Asosacion Mujeres (or women’s
association) for example, they deliberately defined and located themselves within an
international revolutionary movement, which challenges the status quo by unmasking the
gendered dimensions of “larger” social ills, in this case brought about by an abusive
Spanish colonial administration.
However, the feminist historian Fe Mangahas argues that even before the
founding of this feminist association of elite Filipinas, there is an even earlier,
‘indigenous’ form of “women’s consciousness that evolved within our own Philippine
historical and cultural context.” She calls attention to the pre-colonial priestess or
babaylan, a figure which “even to many feminists today remain an esoteric topic if not a
dead relic of the past.” (Mangahas 2005, 1) Mangahas rightly argues however, that the
babaylan is an important figure for today’s feminists, or at least for Filipina feminists and
I will discuss this important legacy in more detail, shortly. Meanwhile, Mangahas insists
on naming and articulating the term babaylanism, not only to re-discover and re-member
the babaylan, but also to constantly use babaylanism as a term to name, describe and
connect Filipina feminism more firmly with the babaylan’s proto-feminist strategies of
During my recently-concluded five-month research in Japan as an Asian Public
Intellectual (API) fellow under the administration of the Nippon Foundation Fellowships,
I have come to realize that ‘feminism’ is not a positive term in Japan, and that it is
frequently criticized, especially in local media, as a Western import. We are suffering the
same negative reception in the Philippines, though at a different -perhaps less oppressive,
more tolerant register. However, because of 500 years of colonial history – 400 under
Spain, 50 years under the US, and still counting – we feel at its most acute, a problem
shared by most postcolonial feminists: that of locating a female identity and feminist
movement in relation to questions of national and cultural identity, and in light of
postcolonial challenges to the hegemony of “white-middle-class” feminists and their
‘naïve’ and ‘imperialist’ belief in a universal sisterhood. In the visual arts, we often refer
to the hegemony of 70s middle class Anglo-American feminists, of which the vaginal
imageries of Judy Chicago have become paradigmatic of an essentialist and nostalgic
body-centered strategy.
It is in this context that it has become ‘fashionable’ among a sector of Philippine
academic and NGO community – and not only among feminists - to distinguish ourselves
from Western theorists and to seek ‘indigenous’ frames and models of identity by
recovering our pre-colonial past. During my API fellowship, I came across several
Japanese counterparts to this nativist movement, of which I cite two: The Kyoto 1942
symposium of intellectuals, academics and critics aiming to critique “Japan’s course of
modernization in terms of refuting Westernization” (Munroe 1994, 24); and in the
appropriation of Japan’s first ancestral goddess Amaterasu by Takamure Itsue – a pre-war
feminist philosopher and historian (albeit with no professional training as one).
According to Ueno Chizuko (in Buckley 1997), Takamure proposed the idea of a
‘maternal self’ as a Japanese cultural ideal set in opposition to the Western ‘individualist
self’. By identifying herself and all Japanese women with the first, great goddess, she
offered a feminist counterpart to a larger anti-Westernization and counter-modernism
project. Framed by what Ueno described as ‘reverse Orientalism’, this maneuver led to
Takemure’s active participation in the war, which she justifies as a ‘sacred war’ that
fights for a rapidly disappearing maternal self, as seen for instance in individualist
feminists’ focus on such issues as the woman’s vote (like the Asosacion Feminista
Filipina), rather than on their feminine virtues, power to give birth, raise a family, lead
and mediate between the community and individual.
Takamure is heir to the tradition of the first maternalist feminist – Hiratsuka
Raicho – the founder of the first feminist journal in Japan. As early as the 1900’s – at a
time when feminist Filipinas were also consolidating – feminism was already present in
Japan, and a debate was already raging between individualist feminists and maternal
feminists, of which Hiratsuka was a key figure. She argued for a Japanese indigenous
feminism distinct from Western individualism by asserting the specificity of womanhood
and in more practical terms, by demanding maternal welfare from the state and the
community. In effect, this debate in the 1900s defines and intimates the contours of
similar fissures between feminists from the pre-war (Takemura’s time) period till the
present, as in for instance “radical” versus “liberal” feminism; between feminists arguing
for legal reforms vis-à-vis those who have shifted attention back to the private domain of
male-female relationships (Miya Yoshiko in Buckley 1997). There are also present-day
“versions’ of maternal feminism, exemplified by what Ueno (in Buckley 1997) calls
‘maximalists’ or ‘ecofeminists,’ whose critique of Japanese industrial society resemble
the maternal feminists’ counter-modernist and anti-western idealization of local virtues of
motherhood, nature and nation.
We can see from the Japanese and Philippine examples that Asian feminists are
caught in a dilemma: when our feminism chooses to stress the feminine, as in the case of
maternalist and maximalist feminists, we run the risk of essentializing and orientalizing
ourselves as “Asians” and as ‘natives’ and in ghetto-izing ourselves as women and as
feminists. In the case of Takamure, it can also turn the other way – to women’s cooptation
and complicit participation in a war that caused untold suffering to Japan’s
former colonies. However, as I will hopefully show in this paper, uncovering, tracing and
re-discovering an ancient past, as the pioneers Hirakuta and Takamure have done, may
offer a challenge, which I admit is risky- to a dominant historical view that denied
women’s specific feminine form of power, creativity and pro-creativity. By reclaiming
the goddess and the babaylan and by naming my feminism as babaylanism, I invoke what
Spivak famously termed as ‘strategic essentialism,’ a deconstructive position she
summarized as ‘saying an impossible no to a structure that one criticizes, yet inhabits
intimately.’ (in Kelsky 2001) There is space for opposition here, as the structure that I
inhabit intimately is not monolithic and riddled by fractures and contradictions. It is from
such gaps and fissures that I may find the spaces for returning the patriarchal gaze and for
interrupting its official versions of history.
Let me now present my paper by telling three stories. One took place in 1997 in Bali and
another in Bangkok in 1995. The other happened in Manila in 2004.
Story # 1: Re-Imagi(ni)ng Sita
The year was 1997, and the place was Ubud, Bali, the last leg of our research in
Indonesia, which started in Jakarta, Bandung and Yogyakarta in Java. We stepped into
Bali via bus from Yogyakarta, which took 12 hours. By way of background, we were also
scheduled to go to Vietnam after Indonesia. Before Indonesia, we were in Bangkok,
Changmai and other cities of Thailand in 1996. “We” means my partner and the father of
my daughter, who was yet unborn at that time. (I gave birth to her in 1998, after the field
research, but conceived her at almost the same time that I was conceiving and “giving
birth” to the exhibit-conference on women artists of Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam and
the Philippines, held in Manila in 1999).
One of the first women I met was Ni Made Sri Asih, whom I intercepted after her
class with young girls at the Seniwati Art Gallery for Women – which was at that time
the only gallery exclusively for women artists in the places I visited. (Perhaps it still is
the only of its kind in Southeast Asia until today). Before the interview, I saw a photo of
one of her works at one of the catalogues at Seniwati, which appeared at first to be totally
ordinary, as it was rendered in what I thought was “typical” Balinese style. Upon closer
look however, I was to be proven wrong.
Hanoman’s Task, 1996 exhibit the characteristics of the Pita Maha school of
Ubud, one of the competing schools of style and technique of Modern Balinese painting.
While they may look alike on the surface, modern Balinese paintings are complex
products of several stylistic schools, which are hybrids of precolonial and modern
aesthetics brought about by colonial art academies, tourism and migrations, among others
(Djelantik 1990). The stamp of Pita Maha in Sri Asih, can be seen in the painting’s
monochromatic but lushly painted surfaces, well-planned linearity and well-balanced
spatial orientation and arrangement.
In Hanoman’s Task, Sri Asih depicted a popular scene which is often painted by
famous male artists, most of which I saw at the Bali Museum. The scene takes off from
the Ramayana, which shows Rama’s envoy, the white monkey Hanoman, informing Sita
that her husband, the newly installed king, is on his way to rescue her from the clutches
of the evil god Rahwana, who kidnapped and held her captive for 14 years. The scene
also captures the moment when Hanoman tries to find out from Sita, upon Rama’s orders,
if Sita is still chaste after years in captivity.
Informed by the “right-to-my-body” feminist framework of equal rights I
inherited from western feminism, I was indignant, not only at Rama’s jealous doubts, but
also at the idea of Rama checking up on Sita’s chastity (I assume, of course, that Sita is
technically not a virgin, since she may have had a sex life with Rama before she was
abducted by Rahwana) even before he can find out how she was after going through her
horrible experience. I was more astonished to find out that Sita had yet to face another
ordeal, when she had to go through fire to prove her purity, the moment she returns to her
husband’s arms.
It is this trial-by-fire of Sita’s purity that Arahmaiani, an internationally wellknown
multi-media Indonesian artist, has challenged in her video I Don’t Want to be Part
of Your Legend. Well-known for her daring works which often get her in trouble with
authorities, Arahmaiani produced this video as part of her ongoing critique of her
country’s unholy alliance with imperialism and globalization, as well as its particular,
Islamic brand of patriarchy and militarism. Referencing the Indonesian traditional theater
form wayang kulit, this video shows a dry leaf shaped in the form of a wayang (shadow
play) figure, which will slowly burn, as Arahmaiani’s voice defiantly chants a
lamentation in the background. The burning of the leaf symbolizes, not only Sita’s refusal
to be part of the patriarchal legend, but also the need to go through the cleansing power of
fire, from which a renewed and stronger Sita will emerge.
From Sri Asih’s point of view however, Sita need not be viewed as refusing to be
part of the “legend” – she submitted herself for trial-by-fire, and we will not understand
this if we view this seeming complicity within the framework of equal sexual rights and
sexual liberation. According to Sri Asih, Rama was not acting out of typical male
chauvinism. She explained that the most important value in Hinduism is the sacredness of
the body, and it is demanded both of females and males. Because spiritual and physical
purity go together, Sri Asih would not have respected Sita had she allowed herself to be
violated by Rahwana, because she would have lost her spiritual integrity.
The faith in Sita’s strength resonates in the painting, where Sri Asih shows the
topless Sita (in the Balinese style), holding a keris (Indonesian sword). A passage from
the art historian Astri Wright is instructive and I will quote her description at length:
“Sita here is not the tearful, passive abductee on the verge of losing hope so often
encountered in Javanese versions (of the scene). Here, Sita occupies the center of
the canvas. She is ready for battle, sitting erect on Hanoman’s shoulder, her keris
raised and ready in her right hand (although she no longer needed it now that she
is safe with Hanoman), and her left hand in defensive posture enhanced by the
dance convention of draping her selendang (shoulder cloth for holding things)
between her fingers. She appears to be giving the monstrously featured white
monkey the order to proceed, to carry her (even if that means touching her) across
the waters.” (Wright 1996, 26-27)
Far from being the hapless victim, Sita had the power and strength of her
individual volition. Had she succumbed to Rahwana, it was not because she was helpless
and therefore blameless, but because she had somehow spiritually faltered along the way.
From a symbol of fragile femininity and oppression, Sita – in Sri Asih’s re-vision –
became a symbol of a strong, courageous woman who withstood her ordeal of 14 years,
tenaciously guarding her spiritual and physical purity.
Thus, when we talk of Sita, we have to bear in mind that body, spirit, mind cannot
be separated; and the social person, specially in Southeast Asia, must be understood, not
in fragmented ways, or through the sex/gender, mind/body, nature/culture dichotomies
that form the key ordering principles of traditional western thought – both mainstream
and feminist.
Story # 2: Thoranee and the Mural Painter
My second story is about the Thai mural painter Phaptawan Suwannakudt, a
pioneer, the first and until recently, the only woman mural painter in Thailand. Taking
over from her father Paiboon, the leader of the traditional mural revival in Thailand, after
his death, Phaptawan gracefully entered a male domain, traditionally off limits to women,
and took the lead. And as American artist Ann Wizer, one of the commentators in the
1999 Women Imaging Women Conference put it: “She’s somehow done all of this
without rebelling or breaking from the traditional form of visual narrative…and without
losing anything from the long rich history of Thai tradition.” (in Datuin 1999) Her
subversion also becomes even more significant when we also take note of the way she
persisted in practicing an art form that has a low and peripheral status compared to the
contemporary and academic “fine” arts practiced by her colleagues.
One incident that illustrates her initial difficulties happened when she was a
teenaged apprentice to her late father’s mural projects. It involves Phaptawan’s sarong
(Thai tube skirt), which she hanged out to dry in the workers’ common bathroom. When
one of the elderly male staff members saw the sarong, he angrily flung it out of the
window. Phaptawan said that it was because her gesture offended the man, since
women’s sarongs must not only touch male skin; they must not be hung above men’s
heads, the most sacred part of the Thai human anatomy. Touching women’s sarongs
would contaminate men, since it comes in contact with menstrual blood, which is
believed to be a polluting and destabilizing substance that disrupts men’s mental and
spiritual equilibrium (Tanabe 1991).
The power of menstrual blood over men is very similar to the kind of power
attributed to “monstrous feminines,” whose female power men secretly but at times
overtly and violently, envy, hate and fear. This is exemplified in the burning of witches in
the middle ages and in the outlawing of native rituals presided over by ancient priestesses
or babaylans in pre-colonial Philippines (I will talk about the babaylan shortly). The
monstrous feminines are the Sirens and Medusas who kill unwary men, the female
vampiras and aswangs (Filipino blood-sucking and meat-eating vampires), and
mangkukulams (Filipino witches) who can cast a curse or spell on offenders.
To recollect that sarong-throwing incident and the painful lessons associated with
it, Phaptawan fashioned an artwork by hanging several sarongs on a clothesline above
waist level, in defiance of what she calls “age-old Thai beliefs.” The piece was shown in
Bangkok in 1995, in an exhibition called “Tradisexions,” which put together some of the
most active and militant women artists in Thailand. It was in the Tradisexions exhibit that
I first met Phaptawan and it was during my conversation with her, right there under the
sarong clothesline, when the idea for researching and documenting the lives and works of
women artists in Southeast Asia occurred to me for the first time.
Tradisexions became the precursor of Womanifesto, an art event that occurs every
two years, gathering women artists from all over the world. Starting out with an
exhibition and artists talks in 1997, it is said to be the first of its kind in Asia. Its recent
activities went beyond “mere” exhibitions, including a ten-day Workshop in 2001, held in
a remote setting of northeastern Thailand with no formal exhibition of works planned
thereafter. It involved an international group of 18 professional women artists, curators
and art administrators including 5 student volunteers studying cultural management. They
interacted and exchanged not only with each other, but also with the local community.
In 2003, Womanifesto produced a publication/box of stories called
Procreation/Postcreation, which is about collecting/archiving/documenting personal
stories, old and new beliefs and tales, medical facts, sayings, advice, taboos, recipes,
lullabies, poems and more - before some of this knowledge gets forgotten and lost in
time. It is also about exploring old and new myths surrounding both pro and post creation
and how these myths have influenced our thinking in the past and, continue to do so
today and into the future.
I have not been involved in any of the Womanifesto events, but I was there in
1996 when the Tradisexions group gathered to brainstorm and plan what was to become
an important event for women artists in Thailand and beyond. I returned to the
Philippines in 1997, after a two-year stay in the Thailand, and embarked on my
subsequent researches in the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam and recently, Korea, China
and now Japan. But before I left Thailand, I journeyed with Phaptawan to the north to
visit some of her murals. During that journey, one of the images that struck me most was
that of Thoranee, the Earth Goddess, whom the Buddha called upon to bear witness to
his right to enlightenment. In Phaptawan’s reconstruction of the story of the Boddhisattva
Subduing Mara at Wat Si Khom Kham, Phayao, 1990, she placed the Boddhissattva at
the apex of the painting, his right hand on his knee, fingers pointing to the ground,
summoning Thoranee. While the Boddhissattva seems to occupy the more dominant
position, his inert, meditative stance is set in striking contrast to that of Thoranee, who is
shown effortlessly, sensuously, wringing her hair, thus unleashing a deluge on the forces
of the evil Mara. While the Buddha connotes sublime tranquility, Thoranee is depicted as
an active power – the embodiment of nature’s capacity for creation and destruction.
Story # 3: Mebuyan, the Many-Breasted Goddess: Coming from a Long Line of
Let me now fast forward to 2004 at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP),
Manila, right before I left for this fellowship. During the opening of a major exhibition by
women artists in the Philippines (which I curated), we invoked the many-breasted
goddess we call Mebuyan through a performance ritual (led by Racquel “Kleng” de
Loyola, and other young women artists Maan Charisse de Loyola, Ramona dela Cruz,
Teta Tulay, Vivian Limpin and Lea Lim). In the ritual, Mebuyan moved with the
spontaneous rhythm of percussions and guitar effects; and the chanting of prayers
composed by participating artists – prayers that express women’s deepest longings,
desires and visions for the future. Mebuyan then proceeded to “paint” the empty wall
with fluids squeezed out of the many breasts of her rubber latex body suit - signifying
women’s life-giving powers, capacity to nurture, create and re-create themselves by
fusing the ordinary and sacred in art. As she turned on the lights of the gallery, the exhibit
formally opened and Mebuyan welcomed the guests to a space, which was turned into a
metaphorical house by more than 50 women artists, working on a wide range of styles,
themes, images, artistic media and coming from diverse, geographic, artistic and
philosophical locations.
Through movement, sound, and light, Mebuyan performed the theme of embodied
spirituality where body is not just anatomy but a social, psychic and spiritual space that
is characterized by fluidity and wholeness. Through Mebuyan, we summoned the figure
of the babaylan, the ancient priestess/healer, a figure that compels us to remember that
once upon a time, there were shamans who were mostly older or menopausal women, or
men who aspired to be women or binabae. The babaylan is usually an older woman,
because her expertise in rituals, including memorization of songs, poems, stories, beliefs
and complete medical knowledge required long years of training and practice.
According to the historian Zeus Salazar (in Datuin 2002), the babaylan was
• The central personality in ancient Philippine society
• The spiritual and political leader
• The vanguard and bearer of knowledge in the fields of culture, religion and medicine
• A proto-scientist, the first specialist in the social sciences and humanities, who took
care of religious ritual and the mythology of the barangay, the basic political
economic unit of ancient Philippine society
• An administrator, who also assisted the datu, the political leader, in running the
barangay’s political and economic affairs.
The most practical route of transferring the society’s knowledge is from a babaylan
mother to daughter, who will continue, and add on to this inheritance through
generations. Such accumulation of knowledge and its continuity was interrupted, when
Spanish priests attempted to wipe out the practice of spirit or anito (Tagalog or Filipino
term for spirit) worship with the rites and saints of Christianity. In the wake of their
destruction, the colonizers imaged the babaylan as an “monstrous feminine” and labeled
her as a sorceress, a witch, a mangkukulam, whose black magic casts evil spells.
In more thoroughly Christianized societies, especially in lowland urban areas, the
babaylan’s influence was significantly diminished, and her role in nation building,
especially during the Propaganda and Revolution, was reduced to a minimum. In her
more “benign” forms, the babaylan evolved into assistants of priests or hermanas, while
others concentrated on being good housekeepers and caretakers of children. However,
the babaylans continued to exist and enjoy a relatively high status and prestige, despite
certain constraints, in secret societies. Vestiges of these groups are still present among
communities in regions away from the lowland urban centers, where women remained
caretakers of the communities’ native intellectual and scientific heritage.
Today, the babaylan’s presence is seen:
• In the hermana, who performs church duties
• In the manang or unmarried aunt who acts as surrogate parents
• The grandmother who looks after her grandchildren
• Women weavers, faith healers, herbolarias, midwives, who continue to pass on their
knowledge to their daughters
• In women who entered areas formerly held by the datu and panday, or the native
technologist – the doctors, psychologists, lawyers, historians, nurses, teachers
• In women artists and writers and cultural workers, such as the women of Kasibulan,
the group that staged the abovementioned exhibition, as their 15th anniversary
The presence of modern-day babaylans in our midst gives us concrete examples of
some anthropological accounts explaining the more fluid agrarian societies in Southeast
Asia. In these societies, the binarist distinctions between say, public and public spheres,
individual and culture are not pronounced, if they exist at all, because of these societies’
egalitarian and complementary structures of kinship, assignment of roles, prestige
systems and religious activities. Women in these societies are not publicly visible but
they are not visible in formal politics or the great religions endorsed by the State,
according to Karim (1995). “Their inputs into politics and religion exist in the informal
sphere; but this sphere is so visible and important that it is hard for social scientists to
come up with a general statement to the effect that women are less important.”
Food preparation, dressing and preparing the altars and votive figures for ritual,
among other activities assigned to women, can be considered “peripheral,” but only
according to our definition of religious rituals as hierarchical and formal practice. In the
context of day-to-day activities where relationships are flexible and fluid, it is difficult to
say that gender roles in ceremonies necessarily imply hierarchies of power and
dominance. Even if they do, it is also difficult to determine whether or not they are
oppressive or favorable to women.
This fluidity of power relations can also be discerned in Jean Francis Illo’s
research on the “maybahay,” (literally owner of the house), a Filipino term used to define
married women or “housewives” - “who do not work for wages,” and do largely
household work. Illo (in Karim 1995) argues that women imbue the term with different
meanings that transcend their definition as “housekeepers.” To the maybahays,
“economic and non-economic work are inseparable, and their being maybahay means
being a total worker, producing both goods and labor.” Such findings not only challenge
existing concepts and policies of so-called development programs, they also compel us to
consider the home – and its corollary terms nation, region and identity - as a highly
ambiguous and problematic location. It is a space where women’s self-concepts and lived
experiences do not necessarily coincide with individualistic, largely Eurocentric, binarist
models and definitions of oppression and liberation.
Alma Quinto: Fiber, Cloth, Needle
I discern this attempt to visually present a non-binarist model of life in the way
Filipina artist Alma Quinto mobilizes fiber and foam and re-forms them to produce works
that signify what the artist describes as "the struggles of memory against forgetting." In
her work for the 2004 Havana Biennale entitled "Soft Dreams and Bed Stories" for
example, she presented an installation of tapestries, soft sculptures of toys culled from
Philippine mythology and folk stories and a bed, shaped in the form of the babaylan or
ancient priestess. As in her other works, these pieces embody and reiterate the following
threads of Quinto’s artistic vocabulary:
1. The artist’s belief in and commitment to the power of art to transform, heal and
empower. Her tapestries re-collect the painful stories of Quinto’s students in the
art workshops she conducts for CRIBS Philippines, a Manila-based institution
where girl survivors of abuse are housed and cared for. In those workshops,
Quinto encouraged the children to remember and disclose their stories by writing,
drawing, painting and embroidering their traumatic memories on grids of cloth.
Through what Quinto terms as "creative visual autobiography," the children’s
painful memories are not only retrieved, but also reshaped, through the processes
and materials of art. Art in this case is much more than therapy, outlet or means of
"catharsis." It is not just a way of coping with pain (as in art therapy), but also as a
means for reconnecting with others and the larger domain of culture, where the
survivor returns to live.
2. The artist’s refusal to "purge" needlework of the "stigma" of utility and decoration
by creating an interactive bed, tapestries and soft sculptures that function as
mediums for telling tales and weaving stories. In the process, she challenges the
sexist and dualistic distinction between "high art," traditionally associated with
masculinity and the feminine and feminized "low arts" of handicraft. By
referencing the intricate relationship between process and material in women’s
traditional arts, Quinto dissolves this duality by challenging the assumption that
making art and designing functional objects are two conflicting occupations.
3. The interactive and collaborative character of the artist’s pieces, which
encourages the viewer to initiate a tactile, therapeutic and celebratory encounter
with the works. The works are not to be "looked at" with a disembodied seeing
eye/I, but must be felt, touched and appreciated for their textural and performative
properties. Thus, the artist-as-medium urges us to recover those forgotten
gestures, which have become increasingly automatized and mechanized within the
consumerist and mediatized habituations of our daily lives
4. The artist’s use of recycled materials or discards, such as foam and "retazos" she
collects from thrift shops or "ukay-ukay," which she stitches and glues together
through a technique closely aligned with the additive and cumulative process of
quilting and patchwork. When women quilt, they "make do" with whatever is
available, to produce utilitarian objects through a focused, meditative and
communal language which they can rightly call their own. As women go through
the motions of quilting, sewing, tearing, stitching, they summon each fabric and
thread, and proceed to re-form, re-use and re-stitch it, not only for what it could
contribute to their over-all plan or design, more so for what it means to them,
emotionally and historically. And as can be seen in the tapestries woven out of the
children’s stories, cloth and needlework are harnessed as medium for feminine
meditation, communication and resistance.
5. The artist’s symbolic and iconographic motifs, which are visual testimonies of
memories associated with the realm of the night, dreams, sexuality, and
re/birthing as well as the real, the lived and the mundane. In her use of the
babaylan figure as bed, Quinto alludes to a life-giving primeval presence, who
ruled the realm through her restorative and healing powers. The bed or mattress,
on the other hand, "is a symbol of modern domestic life, as the artist puts it.
"Foam, the basic material for the mattress, is a modern invention intended to
provide comfort and warmth…The mattress represents everyday life and
domesticity and it is where one retreats and rests, thus providing a source of
empowerment." She also creates toys drawn from Philippine mythology and folk
to visualize stories, as exemplified in her work in the Havana Biennial, where the
soft toys symbolize the objects of desire (their lost childhood denied them a "soft"
and comfortable life) of girl survivors of abuse and their objectification (as sexual
In Quinto’s maneuvers, I am reminded, not only of her connection – no matter how
tenuous – with the cloistered elite Filipinas of the 19th century (such as Paz and Adelaida
Paterno), but also of other women who continue to produce their own cloths to this day.
As products of tourism and industry, textiles signify the subjugated ‘third world’, which
continues to be plundered as fertile source of touristic souvenirs and trinkets, of industrial
raw materials and cheap labor, and as dumping ground for the first world’s finished
products. But for women weavers in Mindanao in Southern Philippines like Magpunlay
Madagasang for example, there are clear distinctions between the cloth that they produce
for outsiders and that which they produce for their own community’s special needs.
(Quizon 1998). They do not view commercial weaving as a degradation of their skill, or
as a ‘dying out’ of their cherished traditions, as nativist and purist scholars would bewail.
Instead, they view it as their own way of actively engaging with the demands of the
changing times. Through a combination of doing and undoing, mobility and
accumulation, improvisation and obedience, these women not only articulate their
experiences and self-defined positions; they also assert themselves as active agents of
change, in whose hands tradition does not die, but is transformed and evolves into
contemporary forms.
As Quinto puts it: ‘”I am using the very same ‘tool’ that our colonizers used to
subjugate women to liberate/empower them.”
It is from such a complex, often precarious negotiation, that we women can find and
reclaim our common grounds, our gestures, our methods, our language.
The power of cloth to bind and express women’s creativity is also evident at the
abovementioned exhibition at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, where the
centerpiece is a collaborative patchwork called Puso or Heart, from which veins radiate
towards the entire length of the floor and ceiling. The heart-womb originated from the
women of Luna Art Collective, who distributed the veins to women from the
communities of Cebu, a major island port in Central Philippines, which were in turn,
extended by the artists in this show, who added their own veins, in ways that enact the
additive and patchwork process of the “quilting bee.”
This exhibition was held in connection with the 15th Anniversary celebration of
Kasibulan (Kababaihan sa Sining at Bagong Sibol na Kamalayan or Women in Art and
Emerging Consciousness), a group of women artists in the arts (visual arts, dance,
literature, theater, etcetera). It was formed out of a series of consultations with women in
various professions in 1987, and formally registered as a non-stock, non-profit
organization in 1989.
Its founding members include a nun, who at that time was a designer and maker
of handcrafted leather bags (Ida Bugayong, who edited and designed this guidebook), a
sculptor (Julie Lluch), and three painters (Brenda Fajardo, who helped conceptualize the
exhibition design and provided the sketches; Imelda Cajipe-Endaya, the founding
president; and Ana Fer). They were later joined by terracotta artist Baidy Mendoza, who
along with Sandra Torrijos, Lia Torralba, and Cajipe-Endaya, also served as president.
The present president is Edda Amonoy, under whose able leadership this exhibition was
planned and realized.
In a territory where the key players are men, and where the turning points for
women hinge on their entry to movements and institutions initiated by men - such as the
entry of the first woman student Pelagia Mendoza to the 19th century Spanish colonial art
school, Academia de Debujo y Pintura and the token inclusion of Anita Magsaysay-Ho in
the 13 moderns, the privileged list of pioneering moderns led by the Father of Philippine
Modernism Victorio Edades – the founding of Kasibulan is a feminist art-historical
watershed because it marks the first time women consciously decided to carve their own
niche and tell their own stories, on their own terms. By banding and bonding together in
their own space, the conscious stirrings and debates on feminist practice and theory
emerged and took place among women artists, who fought for visibility and the right to
represent themselves, in their own eyes and through their own voices.
Since its founding, Kasibulan has nurtured and continues to nurture a significant
group of women artists through exhibitions, forums and other activities which not only
challenged women’s negative and stereotyped images but also questioned the very
parameters of art and artistry as they are defined in mainstream culture. In its many
projects, the Kasibulan linked up with women in the communities (such as artisans in
Paete), with women in non-art sectors (such as Filipina migrant workers, public school
teachers of Marikina, street children of Malate), and women in other disciplines such as
medicine, law, and labor.
Towards a Southeast Asian feminine/feminist Aesthetics: Crossing the Sex/Gender
In the practices of Kasibulan, Seniwati Art Gallery in Bali and Womanifesto in
Bangkok – three models from the Philippine, Indonesian and Thai examples - we see how
women artists return the gaze of the patriarchal vision, not only by exercising the power
to define and re/present themselves, but also by defining some of the contours of an
emerging feminine aesthetic. This aesthetic is grounded on a “dialect” (Pollock 1988)
that borrows from, as well as re-tools, the legacies of modernism, colonialism, and
globalization, among others. This visual “dialect” recasts the slogan “the personal is
political” through strategies that demonstrate, not just the political nature of women’s
private individualized subjections, but also the possible options for healing and
empowerment for women in the region. In the artists I cited, one possible route is the
celebration of an ancient female figure – whether it be the goddesses Sita, Mebuyan and
Thoranee or the Philippine babaylan or ancient priestess. At first glance, this strategy of
reclaiming an ancient model seemingly transposes us back to the maternal benevolence of
a “pre-cultural” and “pre-colonial” past of indigenous peoples. The recourse to the
goddess constructs the female body as ancient, non-western, original, frozen in a
timeless, inert space, existing outside the cycles of the seasons. Our bodies become one
with the earth and its primeval guiding spirits, here represented by the Goddess – the high
priestess-babaylan, Mebuyan, Thoranee and Sita – thereby assigning and consigning us to
a reserved oasis of “nature,” outside the flow of historical time, enthralling, timeless and
never changing.
Alma Quinto for example is aware that her combined use of the female body and
figure of the babaylan might unwittingly support patriarchal constructs by upholding
stable, essentialist categories of femaleness, and in this case, an essential Southeast Asian
femaleness, as “counterpart” to the universal, Western, white femaleness. However, she
also deliberately reclaims these images to articulate her longing for a female idiom, and
distinctly feminine aesthetics grounded on a nonlinear or circular sense of history, which
is noncompetitive and nonhierarchical. Her direct reference to the woman’s nurturing
body, her womb, her breasts, her navel, and her vulva or vagina, intimate her connection
to the feminist project of finding a feminine space revolving around co-existence and
communion, instead of conquest and castration, on restorative union, instead of abjection
and victimization.
It is no longer possible to recover a Southeast Asian past in its pristine form, let
alone a pure Southeast Asian identity; however, we can regain control, repossess, and
recreate again and again. The key term is “version,” which the artist produces to provide
a medium through we can enact our transformations and find our direction, action,
The return to the goddess may also have resonance with the body-centered
approach which became a dominant feminist strategy among visual artists in 1970s North
America. Such strategy revolves around a mind/body, sex/gender, nature/culture binary
frame. In these women pioneers, sex is aligned with the body’s anatomy, its biological
and therefore universal given, while gender is aligned with culture, which determines
how sex is going to be produced, accounted for and represented. However, as the “new
feminisms” of the 1990s have taught us, and following Judith Butler and Michel
Foucault, the body is not just anatomy, but a cultural and psychic space, which has a
geographic and historical location. It is not a prediscursive, biological, and politically
neutral surface on which gender is inscribed. Sex is not to biology as gender is to culture,
because sex itself is as culturally constructed and historically contingent as gender. My
anatomical body itself is the object of study, the very battleground on which cultural
constructions and practices compete.
Thus, as I choose to reread the women’s works I encounter, particularly in
Southeast Asia, and probably now, in East Asia, I see a refusal – at times conscious but
more often unconscious - to sever the mind and the body, sex and gender, nature and
culture. As Quinto puts it: “Whereas the colonizer emphasized the dualistic body and soul
relationship, my work focuses on the unity and dialectical relationship between them. The
soul dialogues with the body, and the body in the soul is there to enlarge the soul.”
These women’s works and words show that perceiving and articulating images is
not only about sight, but also about gesture, disposition, volition and emotion. The body
is not just the physical body, but a psychic and psychological feminine space, which is
imaged and imagined, not as a place of comfort and reassurance, but a place of pain and
disquietude, as well as of possible liberation through conflict, negotiation, and
confrontation. The interiors and interstices of the female body – the battleground of male
creativity – are re-visualized in their own terms, in their own voice.
Within these developing outlines of a feminine aesthetics, we can redefine the
“aesthetic,” not as a function of pure form and the pure gaze (pace Bourdieu), which the
critic supposedly perceives and relentlessly inspects for its sake. Instead, the “aesthetic”
is all about encounter, affect, gesture, and movement. Form embodies not just style, but
also testimonies of struggle, pain, gains, and triumphs.
I use “testimony” to emphasize the inter-subjective modes in which women retell
their experiences and memories, through processes that transcend the confines of solitary
“genius” or the domain of bellas artes aesthetics. Because their homes and bodies are
contiguous with the art world and the “world,” women offer testimonies that may not
necessarily be overtly feminist, but take on various forms from a range of locations. In
their own ways, these women offer a range of possibilities for resistance, both within a
collective movement and within the mundane spaces of the everyday. In the process, we
can begin to understand the power of art to transform the “world” by revealing their
doubts and pains about that world, as well as their faith and joy in its possibilities.
Let me illustrate by citing a testimony from Phaptawan again, who relocated to
Sydney in 1996, and has since moved on to produce individual art pieces about her life,
but still within the stylistic parameters of Thai mural painting. In a text for a catalogue of
her exhibition she sent me very recently, she talked about her father, her life as a
pioneer’s daughter, and her own displacements, first as a Thai child who grew up
traveling and living in temples, where her father’s projects were; and later, as a Thai
mural painter who was frustrated with her studio practice in a foreign land. “Who would
care for Thai mural painting anyway?,” she asked. What soothed her homesickness was a
private routine: She observed the trees and gave them Thai names. She expressed this
routine in a “language I am most comfortable with. This language is not Thai, is not even
my skill in Buddhist temple painting, and is not the secret tune in me I inherited from my
father, but it is (all about) seeing the world with all that made me who I am. I use it to
explore the world. The reward was, no matter how personal and how secret, that as I
walked and looked up at the trees, all of a sudden people in the streets were not strangers
to me anymore.”
Her latest work, An Elephant Journey refers to her relationship to her new home,
and the way she locates herself in the Australian Bushland. Although the Australian
geography and the elephant “do not belong to each other, they look into one another and
see the reflection of each other. What elephants see and what the landscape reveals is the
way I see myself attached to my new home. Chang [Thai word for elephant] was the
nickname that my father gave me on the day I was born. It was also my father’s
nickname, known from the way he mimicked the elephant walk. I am most comfortable
when thinking about myself being an elephant. I carry my name as my totem.” The
elephant and a secret tune her father taught her when she was a child “may echo forever
in me and the elephant may never depart. While it may remain personal, it is my utmost
emotional contact with the world and how the world makes sense to me. An Elephant
Journey observes how this secret tune plays its part with the place I am in. I use it as a
language to communicate with other people, and how I would see myself attached to the
other secret tunes, that are mingling in the shared space.”
Through cloth and fiber as seen in Quinto, through paint and brush we see in
Phaptawan and Sri Asih, as well as in the secret tunes and personal totems of
Phaptawan’s dislocated universe, the personal and the private cross over to the public
sphere, at the moment when women struggle to make sense of the “world” through
thought, feeling and action: naming trees in a secret language, humming secret tunes,
sewing cloth to remember and heal trauma and pain, and reimagining Sita as a
commanding presence ordering the white monkey to move on. I daresay that women
artists – modern day babaylans - may be able to tell us certain things about ourselves – as
women perhaps, or as Asians, however those difficult terms are defined. As Malaysian
artist Teoh Joo Ngee states “Art does not depict things as seen, but as things to be
seen.” (Interview 2004) Women artists can make us see what is not seen but from a
woman’s point of view, shaped and nurtured in that highly-charged, constantly shifting
geographic area called “Asia.”
It is in this in the context of telling another history, and of creating other
possibilities and constructing better worlds that we claim our legacy and our link to the
goddess and the babaylan. And as the young Filipina artist Lea Lim (in Datuin 2004) puts
it in her statement, the babaylan’s “efforts have customarily gone unnoticed,” although
she is now “slowly realizing reverence well-deserved.” But if we have indeed come a
long way, the fight ain’t over yet: women continue to be imaged negatively and
victimized in real and reel life (in movies, in fiction, in ads, in the visual arts). Women
artists continue to labor away in silence and in the shadows, and that is why we continue
to mount all-women’s shows, conduct researches and write our compensatory histories on
women artists. Such feminist art-historical, critical and political strategies are not without
their practical and theoretical problems, and I have discussed this more fully elsewhere
(see Datuin 2002). But I take solace in the thought that we come from a long line of
babaylans. As such we “persist” - again to borrow from Lea Lim - continuously doing
what needs to be done, our hands as persistent as the wind, blowing the dust that wanders
and settles again and again, quietly. Ceaselessly. (Roll VTR)
Babaylanism as Reminder for us NOT to Forget
As I write this essay and as I sift through the boxes of materials I have amassed
during my year-long research as API fellow in Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and Japan,
one of the figures that strike me most is the figure of the Korean mutan or shaman as she
is deployed in the works of Tomiyama Taeko. The mutan for Tomiyama is a central
metaphor “who links the living and the dead, the present and the past, existing separate
from the state or ethnicity…In the world of illusion, the shaman gives voice to the ‘han’
or deep resentment and sorrow of the victims.” (Tomiyama in Jennison 2003, 190) In her
1986 work ‘In Memory of the Sea’ the shaman is a principal figure and mediating image
in the story of a Korean woman who is asking the ‘Spirit Miko’ to search for her sister
who was taken away during the war and forced into sexual slavery in the Japanese
Imperial army. The shaman also appears in a series of paintings and collage in the 1980s
dealing with Korean conscripted laborers and ‘military comfort women.’ This series
became the multi-media slide work, ‘The Thai Girl Who Never Returned Home’ in which
the shaman bore witness to the events of the life of a young Thai woman, Noi, who
becomes a victim of the so-called sex trade in contemporary Japan and Southeast Asia.
I cite Tomiyama because I am struck at the “self-critical gaze” she casts on herself
and her own people “as an assailant,” as the art historian Hagewara Hiroko puts it writing
about Tomiyama’s work (Hagiwara 1995, page numbers not available). In her works,
Tomiyama breaks the silence and disrupts the modes of official forgetting, through a
strategy that mourns for the dead – not to melodramatically re-enact the suffering – but to
publicly re-member and re-imagine the other and bring the dead ‘into social life’. It is in
this sense that Tomiyama, born in 1921, is a pioneer, “precursor to and in a sense in a
continuum with, more recent projects by artists and curators who are creating spaces at
the intersection of discourses on the representation of war history, visual arts and
diasporic communities.” (Jennison 2003, 186)
In the 21st century, we are all carrying an enormous traumatic weight, and it is in
this context that feminist investigations into the visual poetics of shame and trauma have
emerged in recent years. This field is still emerging, and hence still inadequately
theorized, and it is an urgent theoretical agenda that I hope we will pursue in our present
and future discussions. In this paper, I contributed to this agenda in a very preliminary,
maybe even circuitous way, by reclaiming the babaylan, the mutan, the priestess, and the
goddess as figures that can mediate between past and present, bring the dead back into
social life through public mourning, and compel us NOT to tolerate, NOT to look away,
NOT to turn our backs, and most importantly, NOT to forget. And thus, we persist,
quietly, ceaselessly.
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