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‘Bulilit na Kafamfangan’

I was at Holy Angel University (HAU) in Angeles City last Monday to do some research in the Center for Kapampangan Studies, one of the most active local history institutions in the country. Before rolling up my sleeves for work, I asked to see their museum that included a gallery with an interactive exhibit on Pinatubo, and another on National Artist Vicente Manansala.

Remnants of a life such as an old TV, medals and plaques, faded photos, and used shoes would only be interesting for a junk shop, but curating these ordinary objects into a recreation of the artist’s studio made each item relevant. Manansala’s palette, brushes, crumpled paint tubes, used India ink bottles, etc., complement the sketches and studies on the walls, providing insight into the artist’s creative process. Ten minutes in that gallery was a eureka moment, looking back and appreciating Manansala’s paintings in the National Museum and the Ateneo Art Gallery, his large-scale metal sculptures in Far Eastern University, and his large depictions of the Stations of the Cross that adorn the UP Chapel in Diliman that were completed with the assistance of the young Ang Kiukok, later declared National Artist too.

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Teodoro Agoncillo always reminded his students that history was based on written records, that “no document [meant] no history.” Yet, Agoncillo also advised his students to recreate the past through other means: interviews, visiting historic places, or lifting insight from objects as detectives dust and lift fingerprints from a crime scene.

The Manansala Gallery in HAU will surely be joined by another to house a collection of 515 original sketches and watercolors by E. Aguilar Cruz, journalist, diplomat, and artist who was born in Magalang in 1915. A selection of these sketches and short recollections by people who knew the artist was published as “E. Aguilar Cruz: Stories and Sketches Drawn from Memory.” The book, launched last Monday, forms the basis for further research, not just into Cruz but other artists who trace their roots back to Pampanga: Benedicto and Salvador Cabrera, Allan Cosio, Dan Dizon, Vicente Alvarez Dizon, Tony Perez, and many more.

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One Kapampangan artist who deserves to be better known is Galo Ocampo (1913-1985) who designed the modern stained glass windows that adorn the Manila Cathedral and Santo Domingo Church. As one of the earliest Filipino heraldic experts, he designed symbols of the state in use today like the coat of arms of the Philippines and the seal of the president of the Philippines. A pity that he squandered much of his life in administration, his thankless years as National Museum director was better spent on his art.

I never met Ocampo and only got to know of him from a sheaf of letters shared by a gallerist in the mid-1980s. His meditations written from his home in Arlington, Virginia, referred to his landmark work, “Brown Madonna,” in the UST Museum that caused a stir when it was unveiled in 1938. He did not depict Mary and Jesus as foreign white people but as brown Filipinos. The Virgin was not garbed in the iconographic flowing blue and white European gown but in a baro’t saya. Home to the holy family, seen in the background, a bahay kubo. I wonder who has his correspondence as well as the autobiography he worked on together with his garden:

“… like almost everybody here, I have a vegetable garden of giant tomatoes, three-foot-long sitao, ampalaya, snowpeas, and squash which I grow on five-foot stakes. God makes my plants grow; I just water them religiously every afternoon … Every time I want to stretch my back from painting, I go out to our garden and attend (and talk) to my vegetables! Through gardening, I developed a reverence for life, for persistence, and the generous bounty of nature … Gardening is akin to giving birth—it is a thrill to watch the seed of my sitao sprout, mature, and thrive, for did I not once plant the seed of my Brown Madonna in 1938 and look at the products I generated of Filipino Madonnas now, where before there were only the Italian Madonnas and Bambinos of the renaissance.”

Looking back on his life and work, he once said in jest: “Sa wikang kafamfangan, ‘may tinatago pala itong bulilit na kafamfangan na ito…’” For those who think the Kapampangan bulilit is Gloria Arroyo, think again. Galo Ocampo should be pulled out of the dustbin of art history and out of the shadow of Hernando R. Ocampo, to be given his due not just by his province, but by the nation as well.

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Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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