From ‘epal’ to art | Inquirer Opinion
Looking Back

From ‘epal’ to art

When used for the right purpose, computer printing on tarpaulin is one of the technological advances of our time, but when used to inflict the names and faces of “epal” politicians on us, tarpaulin advertisements become the visual curse of our time. Tarpaulin will never rise to the level of art, but self-promotion, or the need to leave one’s mark in the world, sometimes gives birth to World Heritage sites like the pyramids in Eygpt and Mexico or the Taj Mahal in India. In the Philippines, we have the iconic Marcos-era buildings that inspired the term “edifice complex,” describing one of Imelda Marcos’ afflictions.

On the way up to Baguio City, on the zigzag road, you are greeted by a huge stone lion that has since become a major landmark and photo-opportunity spot. When an alternative route to Baguio, the Marcos Highway, was built, a similar landmark was erected, this time the stone image of Ferdinand Marcos’ face, in a feeble attempt to copy the great American presidents’ images carved on the side of Mount Rushmore. When the Marcos bust was destroyed in 2002, it made me wonder: How would we react if it was the work of National Artist Guillermo Tolentino or Napoleon Abueva?


National Artist Vicente Manansala made many murals: at the University of the Philippines’ Palma Hall lobby, the UP Chapel (Stations of the Cross), the National Press Club dining room, and the International Rice Research Institute cafeteria. But the controversial one is at the Philippine Heart Center, which depicts Imelda Marcos, the hospital founder, as the fountain of all blessings to the country. It is surprising that the mural was neither destroyed nor placed in storage following the People Power revolt in 1986. The reversible solution was to temporarily cover Imelda Marcos’ image with a the hospital logo. Politics sometimes determines what is good or bad art.

A mural by National Artist Carlos “Botong” V. Francisco adorns the grand hall leading to the Office of the Mayor of Manila at Manila City Hall. It traces the history of Manila from its pre-Spanish beginnings and Raja Soliman to Mayor Antonio “Yeba” Villegas, who commissioned the work during his term. Botong painted what would have taken hundreds of pages in a book to narrate, thus proving that a picture is indeed worth a thousand words. When Villegas stepped down, his successor wanted to deface the Botong mural but was prevailed upon to merely cover the offensive part with whitewashed plywood. The central panel of this mural shows Mayor Villegas, the seal of the city of Manila, and the ancient districts that now comprise modern Manila. During the Spanish period, “Manila” meant the small area enclosed by the walls of Intramuros (literally “within the walls”). Ermita, Binondo, Santa Cruz, Malate, Quiapo, etc. were outside the walls or “extramuros,” and were considered arrabales (suburbs) of Spanish Manila.


Botong’s narrative moves chronologically and clockwise from the right, just above the door to the mayor’s office. He chose five key figures in the history of the city and painted around them details or vignettes of Manila in their time. First is Raja Soliman, followed by the founding of Spanish Manila. By the two doors facing the central panel are Francisco Balagtas, surrounded by scenes from “Florante at Laura,” and Jose Rizal sitting pensively around scenes from “Noli Me Tangere” and “El Filibusterismo.” The fourth figure is Andres Bonifacio shouting his men on to revolution; this is followed by the Filipino-American War, the Commonwealth of the Philippines, the Japanese occupation, and the rebuilding of postwar Manila with the fifth figure, Mayor Villegas.

Botong painted a long history with many layers. It takes patience and many hours to tease out God from the details. For example, if you look beyond the defiant Soliman who wears chain mail and carabao-horn armor, you may notice a small green water plant (Ixora Manila) by his feet that gave the city its name (“may nila”). However, Villegas confused us by adding a “d,” to give us: Maynilad, Maharnilad, and Lagusnilad.

We know from history that Soliman was one of the last rulers of pre-Spanish Manila. He is also known as Rajamore, or Raja Mura, or simply Rahang Mura (young raja) to differentiate him from Raja Matanda (old raja) who ruled Manila jointly with him. Spanish chronicles note that in 1570, Soliman declared he was not subservient like the pintados of the Visayas and denied Martin de Goiti permission to settle in Manila. Despite a peace pact between Soliman and the Spaniards, hostilities broke out and led to the burning of Soliman’s house and the wooden palisades around it.

In 1571 Soliman was convinced by Raja Matanda and Lakandula to accept a peace pact with Legaspi allowing Spanish settlement in the burned part of Manila, the site of Soliman’s palisades, present-day Fort Santiago. In addition Spaniards were allowed to collect tribute from the natives, except the rulers and their descendants. In 1574 Soliman and Lakandula led a revolt following a grant of their land to an encomendero. Negotiations between Geronimo Marin and Soliman are recorded, but after the peace pact Soliman disappears from historical records altogether. Nevertheless, Soliman lives in Botong’s art, in an iconic image that forms part of Carlos V. Francisco’s History of Manila that has survived politics, changing tastes, and deterioration through time.

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TAGS: art, Carlos “Botong” V. Francisco, City of Manila, Epal, Guillermo tolentino, Manila City Hall, Marcos Highway, Napoleon Abueva, National Artist, Vicente Manansala, visual arts
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