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How I found a jewel of hope in a season of desolation

By DR. JOVEN R. CUANANG, The Philippine STAR Published Mar 14, 2021 5:00 pm

I turned 80 on Dec. 31, 2019. As a covenant with myself, I mark important milestones in my life with a project that I can share with others.

This time, we opened Gallery 7 of the Pinto Art Museum, designed by the polymath, Antonio Leano, which hopefully will be the last structure to house the trove of Philippine contemporary art that I have acquired through the years.

The opening was a happy occasion with all my nephews and nieces and all my grandchildren, as well as friends from here and all over the world, coming to celebrate my becoming an octogenarian.

On opening day, the massive gallery was almost complete, save for the basement, where I had planned to house a complete set of the Stations of the Cross by Demetrio de la Cruz, which I acquired a few years back.

He titled this multimedia work “Offering,” and it was described by the now-departed art critic Alice Guillermo as  “brimming with a fresh burst of artistic vigor, breathing with pain, suffering and hope.”  This work by Demet just had to have an auspicious place in the museum. 

Demetrio dela Cruz's "Offering"

For the opening on that Dec. 31, due to time constraints, we temporarily installed the art pieces among the piles of lumber and assorted construction detritus in the basement.

To offset the clutter, we made the place holy by lighting hundreds of candles with the smell of incense floating in the darkened basement. It was an unlikely installation indeed.

On March 15, 2020, the lockdown fell on us like a thunderclap. Gone were the hordes of millennials clicking away in front of their favorite paintings, which helped Pinto become an Instagrammable museum.

On March 15, 2020, the lockdown fell on us like a thunderclap, forcing everyone to go into seclusion. Gone were the hordes of millennials clicking away in front of their favorite paintings, which helped Pinto become an Instagrammable museum.

The museum was desolate, eerie, and cold. I felt angry and frustrated and very afraid. The corona has stricken friends and my valued colleagues in the medical profession. Some died and, worst of all, there was no chance to be physically close with their grieving families. In desolation, we can only remember the good deeds they have done.

I learned how to communicate with my anxious and depressed patients via Zoom or Viber. On video, I lifted myself, literally — body, mind and spirit — before I could see them, hear them, and be the same jolly doctor from whom they drew assurance that they would become well again. In between consultations,

I would walk the gardens, noticing every bud sprouting, every leaf falling, every bird chirping. I noticed for the first time that there were squirrels up in the trees.

Every day, I walked in every gallery, noticing every painting that was askew, every broken branch of a tree, ‘til I noticed that the ylang ylang and champaca, which I planted years ago, were in bloom and their fragrance filled the afternoon breeze with intoxicating perfume.

I remembered the museum basement with the abandoned jewel of art depicting the Calvary. Suddenly, there was something to distract me from all the misery brought about by the virus.

For a very long time, I had not really “seen” the sunset, and now with the fragrance enveloping me, I trailed the sun as it lazily, caressingly held the unmoving clouds as they turned pink, then purple, then gray before it sank, cutting into the silver line of the horizon.

From my vantage point on my roof deck, I noticed too that the “old” Manila — our dear Manila’s shroud of heavy poisonous pollution — was gone. The dark of night was aglow with a thousand twinkling stars. The unmoving silence that our seclusion brought had cleaned the air. From afar, we could see clearly.

With this spark of goodness, my spirit lifted and I knew I should shake this dolor with a celebration.

I remembered the museum basement with the abandoned jewel of art depicting the Calvary, now lying amidst the grime. The “eureka moment” made me decide to tidy the mess and offer museum guests, whom I know would soon come back, a glimpse of the glory that was Calvary.

Suddenly, there was something to distract me from all the misery brought about by the virus.

Where there were mounds of soil like undulating hills, I added rugged stones and made trails of gravel to echo the sacred paths where the Savior fell, bloodied many a time. I installed two brick gateways and asked Ioannis Sicuya to install a commissioned art piece of an old city wall like a Jerusalem.

And yonder, there was Calvary with a Cross, from which He descends heavy with our sins. On a wall, the sunlight streamed through the stained glass window of an unseen cathedral.

 Following the Path: “The 12 Apostles carried out the task Jesus had given them, braving all the hardship and facing martyrdom in their deaths,” writes Demetrio Dela Cruz. Shown are James the Lesser (stoned to death) and Thomas (speared by Roman soldiers).

Individual portraits of the Twelve Disciples were installed on two walls facing each other, instead of them sitting at the Last Supper. For atmosphere, I added the plaintive music of “The Passion of Christ,” sung in Ilocano by the women from faraway Abra.

During the Lenten season, when the bleeding Christ bears his cross in many processions across the country, candles will be lighted and incense will be burnt in memory of His sacrifice for humankind.

After many months, the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) allowed Pinto to open once again. I know the pandemic is not over. There will be more months before the quarantine is finally lifted and the virus subdued to a relative quiescence.

Some early mornings, I sit quietly contemplating “Offering” before masked guests come in to Gallery 7. I listen to the sonorous voices of the Ilocano women from Abra, and memories of many Lenten seasons in Ilocos come to me clearly.

During Good Fridays, holiest of days, the church bells are never rung except when, at three o’clock, a lone bell is struck, a few times with long pauses of melancholy, to signify that “it is finished.”

But there is hope. Soon the Christ will rise again and, like in these times, soon, the veil of fear and despair will be lifted.

“Offering,” in the basement of the Pinto, is a celebration of this hope. Hope that is eternal. Hope of better times coming.

Banner and thumbnail caption: The installation of Demetrio Dela Cruz’s “Offering” at Gallery 7, Pinto Museum.