I’M confident that I’m not in any way exaggerating if I describe “Philippines: Archipelago of Exchanges,” the ongoing exhibition of pre-colonial Philippine artifacts at Musée du Quai Branly in Paris as a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
I was fortunate enough to catch it a little over a week ago before it ends its run tomorrow, July 14, Paris time. I saw it again the next day. Armed this time with an audio guide and with no one to interview, I appreciated the visit even more the second time around, as it gave me a wider, more in-depth perspective of the entire collection.
I came out of the experience wiser, prouder and more in-tune with our pre-colonial past. Like one Frenchwoman aptly said, the Filipino culture didn’t begin with the arrival of the Spaniards. It had been thriving even before they came.
Filipinos and foreigners alike in and outside Paris still have time to see the 2,000 sq m display, including its awesome collection of bulul or wooden rice god images as well as pre-colonial gold pieces from the respective collections of the Central Bank of the Philippines and Ayala Museum.
Of course, there have been similar efforts to feature pre-colonial artifacts and ethnographic or everyday pieces from the Philippines in the past, but nowhere were they as big and as diverse as this one.
Most French may be familiar with the arts and culture of their former colonies and their neighbors in what was then called French Indochina, but they know almost next to nothing about the Philippines.
But that’s likely to change with this exhibit. And if both
private and public sectors in the Philippines and France can sustain the efforts in promoting business and cultural exchanges between the two countries, the world will soon witness the blossoming of Filipino-Franco relations like it never did before.
The French go loco for adobo
According to Philippine ambassador to France Cristina Ortega, the French were so keen in learning anything and everything about the Philippines through the country’s food, dances, literature, history and music. The embassy provided opportunities for cultural exchanges during Philippine week sometime in April by bringing Filipino chefs, musicians and cultural dancers to Paris.
The informal programs and seminars were also held at Musée du Quai Branly during museum hours. The souvenir shop of the Garden Gallery, venue of the temporary exhibit on the Philippines, also sells books, including French versions of National Artist F. Sionil Jose’s novels, historical accounts and biographies of Philippine heroes, Tagalog-French dictionaries and award-winning films of Cannes regular Brillante Mendoza.
“I even wanted to bring an expert in arnis to demonstrate and perhaps even teach the French the Filipino form of martial arts,” said Ortega, “but I didn’t have enough time to find one”
This early, the Philippines has been experiencing an increase in tourist arrivals from France. The trend is likely to head north once Philippine Airlines resumes direct flights to and from Europe, including Paris, later this year.
Way before Magellan
Curated by Frenchwoman Constance de Monbrison and Filipino anthropologist Corazon Alvina, former director of
the National Museum in Manila, the exhibition gathers 350 artifacts that span the length and breadth of the country, particularly Northern Luzon, pockets of the Visayas and coastal communities in Mindanao, Palawan and Sulo, hundreds of years before the arrival Ferdinand Magellan and his gang.
A number of noteworthy pieces, including beaded and
hand-dyed ceremonial finery worn by members of royalty and the elite from various tribes in Mindanao, are of later vintage—18th, 19th and even early 20th century, but, as de Monbrison explained, these areas were virtually untouched by Western influences that their culture, arts and way of life had remained the way they were during the time of their ancestors.
She also marveled at the beauty, power and anatomical correctness of the bulul statues, which, she said, could hold their own beside images crafted and inspired by Western ideals.
“In the course of putting up this exhibition, I have been
to the Philippines four times to try to understand its history, archeology and the golden age,” said de Monbrison. “At the same time, I was in search of the most ancient, the most significant and the most historical materials about the Philippines everywhere in the world.”
It took de Monbrison and Alvina five years and numerous phone calls and trips to various museums the world over to finally stage the project, which opened with much fanfare sometime in April with Vice President Jejomar Binay and French Prime Minister Jean-Marie Ayrault in attendance.
Apart from featuring the National Museum and Musée du Quia Branly’s respective collections of pre-Spanish pieces from the Philippines, the two had to borrow from the collections of the National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden, Museum fur Volkenkunde in Vienna, Museo Nacional de Antropologia in Madrid, American Museum of Natural History in New York, and the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.
Tapping on private collectors
To top it all, they also had to knock on the doors of known private collectors the world over to beef up their inventory of substantial pieces. A good number of the pieces, said de Monbrison, have never been seen before in public.
If you were unable to catch the exhibit due to time and financial constraints, don’t despair. Sen. Loren Legarda, Senate committee chair on foreign relations and cultural communities, has funded the translation of a French catalog in English. Written by de Monbrison and her museum colleagues, the hardbound, coffee table-size book features all the pieces that were displayed in the exhibition.
Legarda plans to give each of the country’s state universities and colleges a copy of the catalog. At the same time, she’s also planning on tapping the National Museum to stage a “mini Branly.” It will feature in one place pre-colonial artifacts consisting of a third of the pieces featured in Paris, and destined for return to the Philippines.
She also found the word “exchanges” in the exhibition’s title significant is so many levels. Through centuries of exchanges among their neighbors and between themselves, pre-colonial Filipinos were able to produce a beautiful and thriving culture.
“But these exchanges went beyond the physical,” Legarda said. “Exchanges, for me, weren’t limited to barter among the islands and with neighboring countries. It delved into the deeper aspects of our culture and our beliefs even before the onset of Christianity brought by the Spaniards. It was also an exchange between living, breathing human beings and the invisible world.”
(For a complete and definitely more interesting version of this story, including Sen. Loren Legarda’s next project to feature a very special collection somewhere in Europe, please buy a copy of the July 14 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer. You can also visit our website at http://www.inquirer.net.)