Kris-Crossing Mindanao

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In a recent event of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts held in a big provincial city, the mayor began his speech by wanting to acknowledge the NCCA but fell short of it. He could not remember what NCCA meant. He tried to but stopped midway when he realized NCCA was not the National Institute for Cultural “… er, never mind.” Actually, that would have been progress enough compared to those who still refer to the commission as the NCAA. So much for American student athletics.

The pattern is repeated elsewhere in the country. Is it evidence that the NCCA remains largely an unknown and obscure government agency? That should hardly be the case when we realize that it has just turned 25 years old this year.


Part of its elusiveness to fame is the fact that it does quiet, often-unannounced work among the marginalized groups of the country, the lumad (indigenous peoples) and the Moro ethnolinguistic groups. For example, one bright spot in the 25-year history of the NCCA is the institutionalization of what it calls the Gamaba. That is the acronym for Gawad Manlilikha ng Bayan (National Living Treasures Award). If the Order of National Artist has become controversially news-generating (especially the last one where the previous Malacañang produced not only fake but unethical awardees), the Gamaba on the other hand bestows awards on people whose names do not land in front-page headlines. Ginaw Bilog and Salinta Monon, for example, may be no stars to you. A Tagabawa Bagobo, Salinta was one of the country’s foremost traditional weavers who was conferred the honor in Malacañang. She died in 2009. Ginaw Bilog, a Hanunuo Mangyan from Oriental Mindoro who is an ambahan poet, was awarded in 1993. By conferring the award, we are not even sure that there are those who will follow the age-old tradition after them. In some cases, they are the last of their people. In any case, by bestowing the Gamaba, government makes a statement of pride for a distinctive heritage form of our ancient indigenous civilizations “that colonial rule had nearly succeeded in destroying.”

Created by Republic Act No. 7356 on April 3, 1992, the NCCA is our government’s de facto Department of Culture. Yet it is not a national line agency, which partly explains its obscurity. Its chair, who has to be elected from among the members of the board, four of whom must come from the private sector representing artists and cultural workers from across the country, is not appointed by Malacañang. That is to ensure insulation from any political agenda should one be a presidential appointee. Despite that, it has not been uncommon to have chairpersons who think of their cultural philosophies as ivory towers worthy of national imposition.

The NCCA chair, in fact, is only a de facto minister of culture and is not a member of the presidential Cabinet. That partly explains as well why most occupants of Malacañang put a very low premium on arts and culture. No president of the country has ever stated her or his legislative agenda for arts and culture in a State of the Nation Address. We have yet to see Aquino take up the challenge.

Another reason for unknown-ness, if I may coin the word, is the fact that as the country’s primary agency for arts and culture, it is painfully tasked with representations. Representation has not always been an anthropological bed of roses. The Filipino ethos for arts and culture for instance has always been Manila-centric. Here is where the NCCA has to walk a tightrope. It may talk about  pinakbet  but its version may be the Manila one and not the Ilocano  pinakebbet. The NCCA has yet to fully realize that not everything constituting Filipino identity is defined by Manila. In showcasing indigenous ritual and lore, does it seek, as the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act subscribes, their Free, Prior and Informed Consent? Or does it only interpret what is indigenous according to Manila’s image of it?

As primary coordinating body of our national cultural agencies—namely the National Museum of the Philippines, National Library of the Philippines, National Archives of the Philippines, National Historical Commission of the Philippines, Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino, and the Cultural Center of the Philippines—the NCCA leadership has often been known to commit boo-boos in coordination. It has yet to master that art.

It thus becomes dangerous to think of creating a Department of Culture that assumes power to dictate on all the cultural mores of the country. Our NCCA is probably the only government agency that has a semi-government character. Under its 19 national committees are representatives of the private sector on the various arts and culture concerns of the country. Yet there have been times when the committee members are the most marginalized in the NCCA’s hierarchy of decision-makers.

On its 25th year, the NCCA leadership can perhaps learn from Jaime C. Laya who was once its chair, who wrote: “Filipinos, they say, have a terrible sense of history. Whatever has happened in the past is easily forgotten. So insensitive are we of our history that we tend to forget the struggles and sacrifices of those who came before us. So confident are we of our individual selves that we ignore the lessons our forebears have passed on.”

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