In the audience of a long program I was watching recently, National Artist Frankie Sionil José heaved himself on the seat beside me.
He too must have been bored. He began to reminisce about the 1960s when his pet project, Solidaridad Galleries, still existed on A. Mabini corner Remedios. It was an elegant, spacious, glassed-in exhibition place where the cream of the art crowd came to view shows of Onib Olmedo, Hernando R. Ocampo, José Joya, Olazo, Tiny Nuyda and other greats. Frankie and wife Tessie had invited me to open a little store in a cubicle of the gallery.
At that time a columnist, Alfredo “Ding” Roces, often wrote about Folk Art, a subject not at all recognized then. It encompassed any manner of creation by people unschooled in art. It included everything from the traditional Easter Sunday palaspas, the different ways of wrapping suman, the bamboo arch put up during fiestas, jeepney decorations which were then florid and fascinating.
Since I am a sucker for anything novel, I took it upon myself to acquaint art aficionados on the cruder arts. I filled the tiny room from ceiling to floor with Philippine folk art.
This included wooden masks from Marinduque depicting bearded Moriones, the Roman soldiers who had put Christ to death. The carved wooden faces looked like conquistadores but with stunned, vapid expressions, helmets abloom with gay paper flowers (a form of ridicule).
There were papier maché animals from Paete, usually red horses and roosters, and also a big carabao. Aling Teresa, their 170-lb. maker, sat on the carabao’s broad back when she toted up the bill to show just how sturdy it was. I also displayed pastillas wrappers from Bulacan with long tails and cut-out words like “Recuerdo” and “Happy Birthday.”
I first saw anting-anting (brass medal amulets) with pig Latin inscriptions when an agent introduced them to collectors who believed they came from a katipunero’s chest that had been dug up. I found out later that they came from vendors around Quiapo church.
The newly minted anting-anting were for warding off bullets, lightning, evil spirits and love hexes, for invisibility, courage, good business. A 2-cm brass Christ Child with an erect penis, if swallowed, was guaranteed to make the most reticent male irresistible.
For healing, there were red votive candles shaped like the Mexican ex-votos into an arm, a leg, a head, eyes, breasts or full male or female figures. Depending on which body part ached, one burned the corresponding candle at the Quiapo church door.
Since it was the first time many of my customers had paid attention to those red candles, they were properly awed. Of course nobody bought them from me.
A favorite item of mine was beautiful mats from Samar woven with “Recuerdo,” or huge flower designs, or the San Juanico Bridge, or a map of the Philippines. Later I also carried mats from Sulu. With abstract designs, since the Muslims are prohibited from portraying human figures in their art.
Then there were the kites. Guryon, tsapi-tsapi, even a red-white-and-blue Filipino flag box kite purchased from a Japanese mom and son flying them in the Quezon City circle.
Friends and I also liked going to Lukban for its May Harvest Festival. The kiping decorations in most of the houses inevitably became the Solidaridad Folk Art shop’s next attraction. Kiping are colorful rice kropec molded on cacao leaves that you can fry and eat.
My pursuit of folk art was single-minded. Maybe I, too, wanted to be familiar with Filipino popular art. I danced the turumba in the Pakil fiesta with Danny Dalena in bakya and brought home the town’s flat, Virgin of Turumba unleavened cookies. I pasted a few on one wall, alarming the Josés who did not relish the prospect of cockroaches.
In this “food section,” my pride was a “dirty ice cream” cart with florid letterings ordered from the bowels of Tondo. It was later purchased by National Artist Leandro Locsin for the coffee shop of Philippine Plaza Hotel.
My family drove with me to San Fernando, Pampanga, to watch the Christmas Eve lantern parade and we came back with delicate paper lanterns, their revolving papel de japón faces producing a kaleidoscope of colors (no stiff capiz lanterns yet then). Barrios competed with one another, bringing in gigantic paper lanterns that had to be loaded on open-back army jeeps with a generator following behind. Sometimes 1,000 bulbs surrounded one gigantic farol. They blinked in time with band music while the judging was going on.
Another time, in Laguna, we chanced upon a collection of Japanese Occupation bakya with wedge heels carved into fruits and flowers. It too, joined my folk art shop.
Frankie Sionil José invited many important people to open the shows of Solidaridad Galleries and give art lectures. There were endless visitors. Frankie was the mover but Tessie was definitely the taste maker.
People endlessly talked about my folk art shop and it was featured in the papers, but they didn’t buy much of its wares. What I realized was that what had created was not a store, but a mini museum!
The money-making merchandise was not the folk art. It was the antiques from Mindanao, with betelnut boxes as the hands-down favorite. They were shaped like abstract turtles or frogs. Or into brass rectangles, circles or hexagons that were inlaid with silver. And they had beaded straps and coin wheels.
Small round gukum, containers for lip balm (wax), were even more charming. Made of silver or carabao horn, they dangled from a strap of old 10c coins, tassels and beads. One unique tiny piece was made of carabao horn, shaped like a beetle, with wings that pushed open to reveal the carved-out hollows for the beeswax.
The real power of an antique dealer is in being able to choose whom to sell one’s prized wares to. Street-smart sellers knew how to psychologize their buyers and slide the price up or down depending on the individual’s lust for the object.
Stupid me, I preferred fixed prices and labelled them all clearly on every item. One thing sure, I knew how to blaze trails—I just never got to the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
In 1976, the building housing Solidaridad Galleries was due for renovation. A new tenant was moving in. Frankie and Tessie José transferred their gallery to Padre Faura where it was absorbed by their famous bookshop.
Sadly, it was time for me to fold my wings, too, and close the little folk art shop.