At the closing of the recent J. Elizalde Navarro (JEN) National Workshop on Criticism of the Arts and Humanities in Baguio City, organized by The Varsitarian of the University of Santo Tomas (UST), literary scholar and teacher Oscar Campomanes, one of the leading critics in the country, said that in the Philippines where art criticism went quite unrecognized, still, “critics must persist.”
The word “persist” sounds with the kind of sibilance that just sticks in your head. After he said those parting words the fellows and critics present must have resolved to continue building a fellowship of local arts criticism.
As much it was a workshop for budding critics who, considering “the apparent lack of a culture of criticism in the country” (as Inquirer arts editor and Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino critic Lito B. Zulueta put it), were brave enough to walk the plank, it was also a pitting ground for wits and clashing egos and a place where no stones were left unturned.
But more than the required browbeating, the workshop, which Zulueta said he would rather call a “fellowship,” served as a venue for artistic and critical exploration; and also a transient home for writers who just wanted to be with like-minded people, or so this writer thinks.
Now on its fifth year, the JEN national arts-criticism workshop was once again home to critics (both emerging and established) in cozy Colione Hotel.
The workshop program was formulated by The Varsitarian with guidance from faculty members of the UST Department of Literature, such as critic Ferdinand Lopez and poet Ralph Galan, and with mainstay panelists, Campomanes of the Ateneo de Manila University and UST Graduate School and Prescelina Legasto of the Department of Comparative Literature of the University of the Philippines, where she is also editor of The Diliman Review.
This workshop was supported by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts.
Aside from the usual critiquing of manuscripts of the participating fellows, foremost scholar-critics who formed the panel of commentators presented papers on their ongoing critical research or creative endeavors.
Scholar-fictionist Rosario Cruz-Lucero, a professor from UP Diliman, discussed her study “Gods, Monsters, Heroes, and Tricksters in Adelina Gurrea’s Gothic Horror Historical Short Fiction ‘Cuentos de Juana.’”
Lucero’s study seeks to reintroduce to newer generations Philippines-born Spanish writer Gurrea’s neglected classic, originally published in 1939 in Madrid. Recently reissued, the stories draw from Philippine cosmology but are really, according to Lucero, reinterpretations from the Western Gothic point of view.
As Lucero wrote in her abstract: “Colonialism did not so much mean the loss of the people’s teleological world as its dispersion into the Spanish world of significations.”
Even more fascinating, Lucero disclosed that she had toured Gurrea’s old hacienda in La Carlota, Negros Occidental (now owned by the Cojaungcos), where she drew insights from the author’s growing-up years and the sociohistorical setting that contributed to her creative process.
The lecture set the tone for this year’s workshop as Lucero’s brilliant study displayed the hallmarks of contemporary criticism: its interdisciplinary richness, and its close engagement with the text and with Hippolyte Taine’s troika of race, moment and milieu that determined its writing.
JEN has always distinguished itself for holding an artist’s talk before critics. In previous years, dancer Myra Beltran, cellist Renato Lucas and poet Rebecca Añonuevo had delivered it (Beltran even demonstrated dance steps). This year, the talk was delivered by Fil-Am fictionist R. Zamora Linmark, author of “Rolling the R’s” and “Leche.”
Laidback as usual, and with the kind of confidence one would mistake for being intimidating, “Zach” Linmark, who teaches in University of Miami, talked about his work and the gruelling writing process he seems to be enjoying—or dreading—in “Why Bother?: On Writing and Other Necessary Lies.”
Along with the talk, there was also a dramatic reading of an excerpt from his latest novel, “Leche” in which the main character, Vince (played by Linmark himself), is interviewed by Kris Aquino ( Galan) and her fictional co-host, a nun (Añonuevo, who was wearing a plunging neckline during the reading, eliciting guffaws from the audience).
Engaging as the dramatization was, everyone was fascinated with the discussion that also talked about wrestling with one’s memory, the creative process, and one’s identity as a writer.
Returning panelist Robert Diaz, assistant professor of Wilfried Laurier University (Canada), also impressed everyone with his talk, “Failed Returns and Queer Balikbayans,” in which he showed clips from “Miguel/Michelle,” the 1998 movie directed by Gil Portes about a young man (Romnick Sarmienta) who leaves for the States to seek greener pastures, only to come back several years later as someone else—as a transgender.
Martin Manalansan from the University of Illinois discussed his work, “Bringing Down the House: The Queer Affective Architecture of Filipino Transnational Families.”
Fellow Tito Quiling Jr., one of the fellows, noted that the UST workshop is a good idea to foster a healthy community of art criticism amid the obvious decline in the humanities.
“There’s not a lot of workshops for art criticism here, and the JEN workshop provides an avenue for those who are interested in trying their hand in criticism,” he said. “The sessions and the panelists can be a bit severe, but at the end of the workshop the notes and pieces of advice that you get from the panelists and the fellows are helpful.”
Paul Castillo said the JEN workshop should indicate that UST was in the forefront of helping establish a healthy climate for art criticism in the country.
“The workshop helps build art criticism by honing the younger Filipino critics who would, in the future, build the foundation of a culture of critical thinking and writing,” he said.
Bernadette Irinco said that the workshop “creates a space for budding young critics to learn the craft and develop appreciation for art criticism.”
Panelists this year included Ferdinand Lopez of UST; Delan Robillos of Artery Manila and Center for Art, New Ventures and Sustainable Development (Canvas); and Zulueta (UST).
This year’s fellows were: Roy Tristan Agustin, Jay Jomar Quintos, Charmaine Carreon, Castillo, Irinco, Maria Karaan, Vivien Labastilla, Maria Pamela Peralejo Punzalan, Quiling, Annette Soriano, Angela Velasco and Cindy Velasquez.
The JEN arts-criticism workshop is organized and sponsored by The Varsitarian, the 85-year-old official student organ of UST, in honor of National Artist for the Visual Arts and art critic J. Elizalde Navarro, who was art editor and critic-poet of The Varsitarian during his student days; and in connection with the quadricentennial celebration of UST, which was established in 1611.