The fabric of our history
There is, in the ethnographic section of the National Museum, a piece of cloth woven from abaca and bearing a design and patterns using natural dyes. Recovered from a wooden coffin inside a disturbed cave in the island of Banton off the coast of Romblon, the deteriorated length of cloth is believed to have been used as a death shroud. Along with other pieces of ceramics, glass beads, combs and bracelets found in the same coffin, the cloth has been dated to as far back as the 13th-14th centuries. It is believed to be the oldest piece of textile in the Philippines.
Our weaving traditions—along with allied arts and crafts like embroidery, beading, embellishment, ornamentation, even jewelry design and craftsmanship—has been established as dating back to centuries before the arrival of the Spanish. But in the exhibit called “Hibla ng Lahing Filipino: The Artistry of Philippine Textiles,” that history is also shown to have “woven together” traditions and skills, artistry and sensibility that inspired our ancestors across the islands.
“This is a story of the ties that connect and bind Filipinos, and across generations, reinforce common identities and reflect many forms of social relationships—a story told through Philippine traditional textiles,” says an introduction to a guide to the exhibit, curated by the National Museum’s Ana Maria Theresa P. Labrador.
Sen. Loren Legarda, who initiated the collection and organization of the material as the author of the Philippine Tropical Fabrics Law, says the “Hibla” exhibit is “not only an effort to celebrate indigenous artistry through textiles and provide more Filipinos the opportunity to discover priceless information about our heritage.” It is also, she adds, “an attempt to bring the challenge of nurturing our weaving traditions into the national stage, to a wider audience.”
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TRUE to the intent to “explore the similarity and diversity of our traditional textiles,” the “Hibla” exhibit is not organized according to geographical divisions or the ethnic origins of the creators, but according to the stages of weaving and crafting the cloth into wearable and ceremonial outfits.
Thus, the exhibit opens with an exploration of the plants and fibers that our ancestors used to weave cloth and extract dyes. A section displays the various looms employed to weave strands of abaca, piña, even bark—to present-day cotton, jusi and native silk—into lengths of cloth. Another section displays the similarities in themes and images, and the cross-pollination of patterns, colors and even techniques among different tribes.
Through the years, says the exhibit guide, folk “came to see [cloth] as a significant expression of social and political identity. It is the potential of cloth to be transformed, among other things, into clothing that makes it a powerful emblem. As an article of clothing, its nearness to the body initiates the self-representation that ultimately contributes to group identification.”
So powerful is this function, points out Labrador, that an elderly Bagobo, known as Datu Oscar, the subject of a large full-color portrait taken by Wig Tysmans, expressed hesitation and resistance about wearing an ensemble of a bark-based and red-dyed upper and lower garment with a head cover because it was identified with “head hunters” who took human sacrifices. He refused to acknowledge it as being “Bagobo,” but was finally persuaded to pose for the photographer, even if his facial expression makes clear his discomfort with the outfit.
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THE “Hibla” exhibit takes its place in the old National Museum quarters devoted to aspects of Philippine culture and identity. (The art pieces are now on display at the old Senate building, now a part of the National Museum.)
Another exhibit in the complex features the ancient Philippine form of writing, the “baybayin,” that was still in use in the early years of the Spanish period. But so resilient are Filipinos, says Labrador, that “they wanted to join the rest of the world and adopted the Roman alphabet.” Part of the gradual waning of interest in and use of the native alphabet may also have been the policy among the Spanish missionaries to study, translate, adopt and use the different Philippine languages in their preaching and teaching.
Still, the “baybayin” exhibit contains items that use samples of the old alphabet, including peso bills that bear imprints of the ancient text, although efforts are underway to revive and popularize the ancient script among present-day Pinoys.
Labrador also walked us through an exhibit on climate change, likewise under the auspices of Senator Legarda, who also chairs the Senate committee on climate change adaptation, that teaches young students who visit the museum about the need to protect the environment and adopt resilient solutions to cope with negative impacts on families and communities.
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BEFORE taking the short drive to the Museum, Legarda and her companions met us at a restaurant just across from San Agustin Church that’s called “Ristorante delle Mitre.” Unknown to us then, the lunch set the tone perfectly for our museum visit, since the restaurant was inspired by the culinary “favorites” of various church personalities that became a walk through Filipino culture and history, too.
Legarda had her firm favorites—seafood kare-kare, pasta primavera, sinigang, leche flan—and with added items like crispy pata and green salads, the meal became a showcase of Filipino culinary artistry as well, even if the dishes forsook the fancy embellishments that weigh down the dishes of fancier establishments.
It was indeed a “filling” afternoon, for all the senses, and for the soul!
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