Monuments, conflicted memories
Some visitors to the main hall of the National Museum of Fine Arts are surprised to find an impressive monument of marble and bronze standing between Juan Luna’s “Spoliarium” and Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo’s “Assassination of Governor Bustamante.” If they do not care to act on their surprise by reading the wall texts or asking Google, they will not know that the monument commemorates Arthur Fergusson (1859-1908), an American colonial official whose statue once stood on Plaza Fergusson in front of Ermita Church.
The monument by Spanish sculptor Mariano Benlliure shares space in the hall that celebrates the two greatest Filipino painters of the 19th century because they were classmates at the Spanish Academy in Rome. All three were awarded medals in the 1884 Exposición Nacional de Bellas Artes in Madrid: Luna, First Class or Gold medal for “Spoliarium”; Resurreccion Hidalgo, Second Class or Silver Medal for “Jovenes cristianas expuestas al populacho” (Christian maidens exposed to the mob); Benlliure, Second Class (Silver) medal for “Accidente.”
These medals placed Luna and Hidalgo, indios from Filipinas, at par with or even greater than their Spanish peers. They had become world-class. Then as now, we take pride in Luna and Hidalgo in the same way that we share in Lea Salonga’s triumph on the West End and Broadway, Manny Pacquiao’s conquest of world boxing, and, last but not least, weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz bringing home the first Olympic gold to a proud and grateful nation. They made us proud.A photograph taken in Rome, circa 1881, shows Juan Luna, Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo, Miguel Zaragoza, and Pedro Alejandro Paterno with the Benlliure brothers Mariano and Juan of Valencia, Spain. Who would have known these art students would later become famous? Not in the photo is Jose Benlliure who made a copy of Luna’s “Spoliarium” that used to hang in the prewar National Museum before it was destroyed in the 1945 Battle for Manila. The Fergusson monument is one of only three known works by Benlliure in the Philippines today. The other two are a portrait of Juan Luna in the University of Santo Tomas Museum and a portrait of Pedro Paterno in a private collection.
After four months at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, I look at Fergusson differently, in the context of the ongoing revision of museum and library records and catalog entries that situate the past in political correctness. Any and all racist or derogatory language is deleted or reworded. Deirdre de la Cruz and Ricky Punzalan co-direct the Recollect-Reconnect project that seeks to decolonize the University of Michigan Philippine collections to bring out their true worth.
Fergusson was said to have died of a heart attack while walking home from his office in the Ayuntamiento in Intramuros to the suburb of San Miguel on Jan. 30, 1908. As a testament to their loss, Fergusson Memorial Association commissioned the Benlliure monument that was completed in Spain in 1912 and shipped to Manila for its unveiling on Nov. 15, 1913. If you go around the monument, you will find a lot of pockmarks left by bullets and shelling during the 1945 Battle for Manila. My friend Tina Cuyugan related that when her father and uncles were boys, they created a small bomb from toy gun gunpowder and exploded it on the monument one night in 1920. Their homemade bomb is supposed to have blasted away one of Fergusson’s ears. Since Fergusson’s ears are intact, I presume it must have been restored or the boys over-imagined the damage they caused.
The decolonization of Plaza Fergusson came about when the City of Manila commissioned an atrocious image of the Virgin of Ermita (Nuestra Señora de Guia or Our Lady of Guidance) from the late Eduardo Castrillo. The plaza in front of Ermita Church was renamed in her honor. Fergusson was then given to the United States Embassy where it was preserved on the grounds facing Manila Bay until its loan, six years ago, to the National Museum. The plaza was further decolonized by being renamed Plaza Guerrero in honor of the poet Fernando Ma. Guerrero and by extension the other Guerrero writers from Ermita: National Artist Wilfrido Ma., diplomat Leon Ma., and essayist Carmen Guerrero Nakpil. Monuments are erected to boost memory, but when memories are conflicted, monuments with contested histories are removed or relocated just like Fergusson’s. Do we leave history, then, to the eye of the beholder?
Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org