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The methods to memory: Making art with women who resisted impunity during martial law

By CARLA T. GAMALINDA, The Philippine STAR Published Sep 12, 2022 5:00 am

We didn’t go to the mosque on that day, because a woman had told us: ‘It’s not a meeting but a massacre and the Center is already being arsoned.”’ This memory, previously unknown to many, is now bared in words printed on a satin hijab and layed out carefully on the exhibition space of Ateneo Art Gallery.

When certain powers capitalize on the unsteadiness of memory, art mutates to carry the responsibility of remembering. The remounted exhibit titled “Weaving Women’s Words on Wounds of War” facilitates a communal recollection of the punishing experiences of women in Muslim and indigenous communities as they resisted impunity during the martial law in the 1970s. 

One of the nine warping frame structures based on the ikat-dyeing process that hold the Tboli women’s narratives.

“What happened to them does not lend to easy storytelling. Theirs are not stories that translate in straightforward ways from raw experience to narrative form,” curator Marian Pastor Roces explains. Thus, the exhibit employs the poetry and complexity of physical materials. The women themselves helped create six artworks together with a curatorial team.

Karl Castro, the lead artwork developer, says the process of conceptualization and production spanned around a year. The project started with field research by locals to gather narratives which were then cultivated in a series of curatorial workshops on site and online.

There are things that can be achieved through art that are beyond the capabilities of plain text and other forms of reporting.

“For each work, we asked them: What are the sentiments that they wanted to convey? Do they want to talk about it, or not? How much do they want to reveal of themselves, of their stories?” shared Castro.

Castro recalls their process for the piece titled “Nine Tboli Women: Discretion.” During initial conversations for the artwork development, Tboli women expressed their hesitation to reveal their stories. This situation birthed the maiden idea to use the image of a balled-up abaca fiber called bnogo, the raw form of the material used for making the tnalak fabric. The plan was to present an undecipherable ball of words, representative of the narratives that are yet to be unraveled to the public.

“Four Kalinga Women: Tenacity”: Excerpts of the stories of defiance of four Kalinga women are embroidered on the traditional wrap-around skirt.

During the succeeding visit of the curatorial team, however, the women were demonstrating how to wind balls of abaca while talking about their experiences during martial law, and one of the women remarked: “Sa langit na lang ba natin pagkukwentuhan ito?” (“Will we only talk about this when we are in heaven already?”) This comment eventually led to the communal decision to reveal a portion of their experiences. The form of the artwork evolved into a warping frame that is used for mapping out and dyeing in the designs of the tnalak. The current artwork is made up of black and red ribbons where parts of the narratives are printed and are stretched out across the frame while some parts are kept wrapped up, simultaneously revealing and concealing. Here, the process of artmaking prompted a development in the collective memory of the Tboli community who are now starting to tell their own story.

“Invisibility in the Sama Islands and Seas: Grace”: Molds of prayer mats imprinted in cornstarch calls against the disappearance of the ways of life of the Tausug and Sama peoples who have been struggling to recuperate since the Philippine Air Force bombarded Jolo in the 1970s. 

In Manili, North Cotabato, too, the community went through an exercise of recollection, when an artwork demanded a conceptual recreation of a destroyed mosque where more than 70 people were brutally killed by the paramilitary group called Ilagâ. The first iteration of the model was created with scarce references, through the composite of oral accounts and rough sketches from those who lived through its existence. Despite inconsistencies with memory, the value of this artwork lies in this process of trying to remember. For its second iteration, the information was supplemented with newly found archival images and still continues to welcome revisions from the community.

The en-graved seventy-plus: Amplification

Part of the artwork is a ceremony of enshrouding a model of the mosque in white fabric, as if preparing it for burial. After the exhibit’s run, however, the model gets taken out of the cloth, to be enshrouded again when it is re-exhibited. In this second mounting of the exhibition, the act of re-enshrouding seems to coincidentally echo the dread forming along with the pattern of events as another Marcos regime starts. Does the fabric protect or conceal the truth? Nonetheless, it becomes an occasion to cry for justice, as if opening and re-dressing an unhealed wound over and over for as long as it is needed.

The exhibit’s vision of seriality became more evident in this remounting. Its relocation to a more professional space affirms the exhibit’s grave responsibility, especially in this new political era. It now also features additional iterations of process videos, and a fable written in reply to an artwork seen in the first mounting.

Pastor-Roces expects the exhibit to morph over time: “It is expected to materialize differently in the future resurrections: perhaps deliberate interruptions in the flow of daily public life; or frozen, in part as in-situ memorials.”

“Here, we were able to assert that art is a real mode of inquiry for remembering these things,” adds Castro. “There are things that can be achieved through art that are beyond the capabilities of plain text and other forms of reporting. They are attempts to stake, even to embody, the vital role of artistic production in the pursuit of justice.”

A close-up of one of the 32 blocks created with the intention of becoming part of the physical memorial for the people killed in Palimbang, Sultan Kudarat.

The exhibit is one of the components of a mother project — “Weaving Women’s Transitional Justice Narratives” undertaken by the Department of Political Science of the Ateneo de Manila University, with support from the La Agencia Española de Cooperación Internacional para el Desarollo of Spain. It is open for viewing to the public at the Ateneo Art Gallery in Manila until Oct. 1, 2022.