Ironically, it took the French “to teach us how great we are,” noted Sen. Loren Legarda of the exhibit “Philippines: Archipelago of Exchanges,” at the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris, which ends Sunday.
The three-month showcase of selected indigenous art pieces and ethnographic items at the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris is biggest and most substantial exhibition of precolonial Philippine artifacts ever assembled in the world, even in the Philippines.
But the lessons of the once-in-a-lifetime exhibition have managed to inspire both its supporters and people directly involved in its staging.
For one, exchanges between the Philippines and France, much like between Filipinos and their neighbors in pre-Spanish Philippines, have gone beyond the physical.
Legarda, Senate committee chair on foreign relations and cultural communities, has been a very vocal supporter of the endeavor ever since Stéphane Martin, president of Musée du Quai Branly, briefed her about the project during a courtesy call he made in Manila three years ago.
The French government, which funded the project through its ministry of culture, has lately taken an interest in the Philippines, which, unlike France’s former colonies and their neighbors that used to make up what was then called Indochina, is little known in the country.
“The arts of the Philippines are little known in France and rarely shown in their entirety and diversity,” said Martin in a previous interview. “We pay homage to these multiple artistic expressions.”
Apart from the French, the exhibit also drew a considerable share of foreign visitors from other countries, said Philippine Ambassador to France Cristina Ortega. Summer, which began in June, is the start of France’s tourist season.
“Attendance has been steady,” said Ortega, “but during Philippine Week (April 27-May 5), there were a lot of people. It was quite common to see queues leading to the venue almost daily.”
The embassy was instrumental in staging workshops on Filipino cooking, dance and Tagalog lessons alongside the exhibition. Ortega even wanted to bring in an expert in arnis to introduce the French to the Philippine form of martial arts, but she couldn’t find one in time.
Her office also helped fly in entertainers and some of the Philippines’ leading chefs during the exhibition’s opening week early April.
“The reaction to the exhibition was fantastic,” Ortega said. “To them, it was a discovery of the Philippines. There have been considerable attempts on our country’s part in the past, especially when President Cory Aquino visited France early in her administration, to promote the Philippines here, but such efforts were sporadic. They weren’t sustained.”
Before this exhibition, for instance, most French people were unaware of how rich and diverse our pre-colonial heritage was. They also have this lingering impression of the Philippines’ closeness to America and Filipinos’ preference to do business with the United States and Japan over France, said Ortega.
But learning is never a one-way street. The irony behind the warm reception the exhibition got from the French and other Europeans didn’t escape Legarda.
“The Europeans are teaching us to love ourselves,” she said. “The French have to teach us how great we are through this exhibit. Then again, deep in our hearts, we know we’re great. Let’s put a stop to self-flagellation because we’re beautiful, we’re rich and we’re talented.”
When Legarda first learned that people behind the exhibition were producing a bound catalog of featured artifacts in French, she appealed to them to also do one in English. Since there were no funds for the English version, Legarda offered to finance it through part of her Priority Development Assistance Fund.
“How many Filipinos can travel to France and see this exhibit within a three-month period?” she asked over lunch with Ortega and this reporter at the exclusive Cercle de l’Union Interallieé in Paris. “I want our culture, especially our pre-colonial past, to be understood, appreciated and recognized by all Filipinos, particularly our students.”
Through the assistance of Ortega, who also helped oversee the exhibition’s grand opening attended by Vice President Jejomar Binay and French Prime Minister Jean-Marie Ayrualt in April, Legarda ordered enough copies of the catalog to distribute for free to every state college and university in the Philippines.
As a former broadcast journalist for 20 years, Legarda is also aware that Filipinos are generally visual. She has also offered to write, edit and annotate pro bono an existing video about the exhibition, which will be uploaded on YouTube for everyone to see.
The historic project, which saw Frenchwoman Constance de Monbrison, the exhibition’s curator, and her Filipino counterpart, anthropologist Corazon Alvina, former director of the National Museum in Manila, burning the lines and globetrotting to borrow and beef up available artifacts, took all of five years to complete.
Minimalist in terms of presentation, the exhibit occupied a 2,000-sq m space designed by French architect Gaelle Seltzer. It is generally divided into three main sections: ethnographic or everyday pieces used by various indigenous peoples in the northern highlands of Luzon, including an impressive collection of wooden images of rice gods or bulul; costumes, ornaments, textiles and weaponry of headhunters and warriors from Northern Luzon and Mindanao; and various artifacts that highlight early Filipinos’ seafaring culture and how it left its mark among coastal villages in Palawan, Mindanao and Sulu.
It is assumed that early Filipinos’ mastery of the seas is tied to their ability to read and mark the constellations. This backdrop of stars, in turn, became De Monbrison’s visual peg in presenting an exquisite and finely crafted collection of pre-Spanish gold pieces sourced primarily from collections of the Central Bank of the Philippines and Ayala Museum.
The French, who pride themselves on their tradition in the art of haute couture, were also most likely drawn to the section of the exhibit devoted to intricately beaded and hand-dyed ceremonial garments used by the elite of various indigenous groups in Mindanao.
De Monbrison and her collaborators also paid homage to early Filipinos’ animist beliefs in the existence of supreme beings and the afterlife, with a subsection devoted to funerary objects, including a number of burial jars with huge, symbolic lids.
Apart from tapping into their respective collections, both the National Museum and Musée du Quai Branly, led by De Monbrison, who’s also in charge of the latter’s Southeast Asian collections, borrowed pieces from 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.
De Monbrison and Alvina also had to contact and borrow from known private collectors the world over. In fact, before the exhibition, a good number of the featured pieces had never been seen before in public. They had either been kept in museum archives or the living rooms of collectors for nearly a hundred years.
One thing that struck De Monbrison while sourcing for and editing Philippine pre-colonial pieces for the exhibition was the richness, sophistication and diversity of the Philippines’ ancient Austronesian culture.
“We decided to focus on pre-Spanish pieces because it is important for us to understand the Philippines’ first culture,” she said. “Of course, the Filipino culture didn’t begin with the arrival of the Spaniards.”
Although billed as a collection of pre-Spanish artifacts, certain pieces featured in the exhibit were made in the 18th, 19th and even early 20th centuries. But these artifacts, said De Monbrison, unlike those found in the lowlands, have remained free of any Western influences.
“People, for example, living in the Cordilleras had managed to maintain their arts and traditions because they were isolated from the rest of the Philippines even during Spanish rule,” she said.
She pointed to one of the bulul and marveled at its beauty, simplicity and subtle power to evoke awe and all sorts of emotions on its observers.
“You can put this bulul beside the statue of a Roman virgin, and it can still hold its own,” De Monbrison said.
To give Filipinos as well as foreigners who weren’t able to catch the exhibition a chance to see part of it, Legarda is thinking of tapping the National Museum to do a “mini Branly” in Manila.
“Staging the entire thing in the Philippines would be too costly,” she said. “Insurance alone would be prohibitive. I want an exhibition featuring artifacts shown in Paris and destined for return to the Philippines. Even just one-third of the collection assembled in one place would be beautiful.”
At the same time, Legarda is working on having a collection of Filipino costumes made of native fibers, which once belonged to Philippine National Hero José Rizal, curated and exhibited in Germany. She learned about the existence of the pieces during a recent trip to the Ethnological Museum of Berlin.
While studying in Heidelberg, Rizal became friends with Adolf Bastian, the Berlin museum’s founder, Legarda said. He later donated his collection of costumes to the museum. The pieces were just there in the archives because no one in the establishment is knowledgeable enough to curate them.
“We know so many things about Dr. Rizal, but I never knew that he was also into indigenous tropical fabrics,” said Legarda. “Even then, he already had vision.”