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‘Manansala & Manalad: Framing History’

Eye-popping. Upon beholding the collection with my child eyes, I was short on words, so that is how I can describe the pen-and-ink drawings by National Artist Vicente Manansala (1910-1981) and Amadeo Manalad (1911-1984).

The Assisi Development Foundation (ADF) and Ayala Museum partnered in exhibiting for the first time 70 drawings (of the 263) commissioned for the landmark history resource “Philippine Saga: A Pictorial History of the Archipelago Since Time Began,” the text of which was written by Henry Otley Beyer and Jaime C. de Veyra and first published in 1947. The book was the brainchild of Ramon Roces, publisher of The Evening News.

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If the exhibit opening gave me an OMG! moment, it was because I had encountered that book (and the word “saga”!) for the first time when I was in fourth grade (I was eight years old). That stuck to my brain. What a huge book, I thought then.

The story about the collection is somewhat shrouded in mystery, though someone in the know had whispered some details to me. But let it be known that a postwar private collector had, for decades, kept the drawings safe. Before his death in 2012, he bequeathed the collection to the ADF.

At the exhibit opening, ADF founder-chair and philanthropist Howard Q. Dee (former ambassador to the Vatican) said the donor wished to remain unknown and wanted the collection to be seen especially by the Filipino youth.

The notes on the collection say that the illustrations were published unsigned but 129 bore Manansala’s signature and the year 1947. The collector had asked Manansala to identify and sign his works. He then concluded that the 131 others must be Manalad’s.
Manansala had turned to Manalad to help him in his huge task. For more on Manalad, read “Amadeo Y. Manalad: Drawing a Saga” (2015) by Reuben Ramas Canete.

The selected drawings are mostly of the same size, with excerpts from caption stories that accompanied them in the book. Presented in historical clusters, the exhibit gives a sweeping view of Philippine history “since time began” and understandable enough to a young reader. Historical junctures are highlighted and given bigger panels and captions. I smiled because woman warrior Gabriela Silang was given a big panel that happens to be right smack in the center of a wall.

(Just a small glitch: Manansala’s Kalinga warrior of the Cordillera is not wearing a G-string but is dressed like a Manobo, and wielding a Mindanao kris at that.)

Complementing the collection are contemporary artists’ creations meant to engage the postwar drawings of the masters.

Unlike fine art exhibits, “Manansala & Manalad: Framing History” is an interpretive kind that provides context and explanation. The exhibit title alone must have involved lots of brainstorming, and also choosing the exhibit’s “cover photo” by Manansala. It is captioned in the program and souvenir as “Defeated but never daunted, Soliman rebuilds his kingdom.”

Two copies of “Philippine Saga” are on exhibit but encased in glass. Oh, but yesterday I was able to peruse the book online, page by page. It is in the National Library of Australia’s website.

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Cocurator Mia Fernando Cameron said that even at that time, De Veyra’s prose in the book put Filipinos—including the indigenous people and Muslim communities—front and center. “Especially notable,” she said, “was his global perspective on history—we have included a drawing of Napoleon Bonaparte—and his showing how events in Paris impacted decisions made in Madrid that in turn affected the course of events in the Philippines.”

Mounting this exhibit must not have been a walk in the park—but very satisfying, I am sure. Congratulations to project director Pinky Camara Roxas and guest curators Manuel Quezon III, Imelda Cajipe Endaya, and Cameron. A big thank you to the ADF’s Ambassador Dee and Mrs. Betty Dee, president and CEO Ben Abadiano, VP Viel Aquino Dee, and its curatorial team.

What next? Will the collection be available online for viewing, and in published form?

The exhibit opened last Monday, Independence Day, and will be on view until Aug. 27. I might +go back to view it again but in quiet—that is, without the cocktail crowd and the hors d’oeuvres.

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