For an authentic Kalinga tattoo
Apo Whang-Od, the celebrated Kalinga artist often referred to as the “last mambabatok” (traditional tattooist) of her proud and ancient community in the Cordilleras, was in Manila last week at the invitation of the organizers of the 66th Manila FAME trade show, held at the World Trade Center in Pasay City.
“With a focus on celebrating the rich cultural heritage of the Philippines, Manila FAME showcased the unique art of the pagbabatok or traditional tattooing in a variety of show features,” the organizer, the Center for International Trade and Expositions and Missions (Citem), said in a statement. “Whang-Od and her successors Grace Palicas and Ilyang Wigan conducted the tattoo sessions during the first two days of the show as part of a centerpiece setting.”
But what was intended to be a tribute to an indigenous art form and its beloved torch-bearer — a public petition has long circulated calling on the government to confer the National Artist award or at least the Gawad sa Manlilikha ng Bayan (National Living Treasures award) on Whang-Od—blew up into a controversy involving questions of possible cultural exploitation.
A number of disturbed netizens pointed out that Whang-Od, who is said to be 100 years old though there is no official confirmation of it given sparse records, was made to tattoo scores of visitors in a span of two days.
She was also photographed napping, apparently exhausted, “in the middle of a forum where she was expected to speak as one of the panelists,” per a GMA 7 report.
Visitors to the trade fair had to pay a P700 entrance fee to see the legendary Kalinga artist, and another P2,500 for a tattoo by her or her apprentices.
Citem would later explain in its statement that “all proceeds from the tattoo of Whang-Od and her successors during the event were completely handled by the Kalinga elders.”
It further said that the invitation for Whang-Od’s participation in the event was coursed through “proper channels which include the Kalinga community of elders (Whang-Od included),” and other concerned agencies such as the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples.
Whang-Od was also provided round-the-clock medical care and monitoring by a joint team of doctors from the Department of Health and St. Luke’s Medical Center, and the trip to and from Manila was secured by elements of the Philippine Air Force and Philippine Army, according to Citem. All in all, it was a “tremendous collaborative effort,” Citem said.
Still. Given Whang-Od’s elderly state, was her gruelling schedule at the trade fair truly what one would have his or her grandmother go through, for instance?
The contract Whang-Od and her niece signed with the organizers stipulated “two-day live tattooing in Manila FAME and speaking engagement for Create Philippines.”
She agreed to those conditions, it is true. But Citem itself should have known better than to let a supposed centenarian, and one of the last native artists of her kind, to even work at all in this setting.
Had Whang-Od done one or two tattoo sessions, that would have counted as a demonstration. But multiple sessions over two days with paying clients obviously already qualified as work — and in an urban setting at that, far from the rooted, traditional environment of her community in Buscalan, Kalinga, the locus of her art.
Must a contract like that even be offered an old woman who represents the last, fragile living link to an irreplaceable native tradition?
Her very presence at the trade fair, working, actually made of her not only a commercial venture but also a curiosity, a display of the “other.”
At the end of the day, despite her much advanced age and venerable stature — despite, in fact, being the putative honoree of the event — Whang-Od appeared to still need to earn her keep.
Was this really the best way to celebrate her artistry and the culture of her community—plopped down in a mall-like venue, where visitors could essentially order an authentic Kalinga tattoo as if they were ordering their coffee for the day?
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