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‘Bulul’ and Filipino identity

/ 12:14 AM February 17, 2016

All tourist shops in Baguio City carry souvenir items that are examples of a long tradition of wood carving in the Cordilleras. The most familiar are: the man in the barrel; a contraption in the shape of a naked woman where nuts are cracked between her legs; giant rosaries; and spoons and forks transported to and displayed in lowland Christian homes, where children grow up imagining that ancient Filipinos were giants.

Then there are the pairs of dark wooden figures, seated, standing or dancing, known as bulul. Traditionally, these figures are installed in rice granaries to protect the staple grain from rats, thieves and spoilage. Sometimes they are credited for an increase in the rice harvest, or even magically increasing rice in storage. Once upon a time, bulul were carved such that, to the trained eye, it was possible to tell, stylistically, what part of the Cordilleras these were from. Today, bulul are mass-produced for the tourist market. Taken out of their original context, they have lost their ritual significance and have been reduced to tacky tourist souvenirs or an integral part of interior decoration.

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According to a myth recited during the activation of the bulul, summarized in English by George Ellis, there was once a deity called Humidhid living in Daiya, an upstream region in Ifugao. Humidhid was disturbed by the crying of a narra tree that wanted to be carved into bulul. He cut the tree and made several bulul that he brought into his house. When these bulul became too demanding of food and wine, he threw them into the river where they floated downstream to Lagud and were forgotten.

Many years later, Humidhid’s daughter, Bugan, followed her lime container that fell into the river and reached Lagud where it was returned to her by a bulul. They fell in love, got married and had children. One of the children of Bugan and the bulul went upstream to visit Humidhid, who realized that the bulul had become human (or rather half-human). He advised his grandchildren to carve bulul whenever they travelled to earth for protection. So it came to be that one of Humidhid’s grandchildren carved bulul out of a narra tree, and it later demanded too much food and drink. Humidhid appeared to his grandchild in a vision and advised that the bulul be given a separate house. Thus were bulul placed in granaries.

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For two decades now, Eduardo Olbes has been creating works in stone that express his reflections in a foreign country on the land and culture of his birth. As an expatriate Filipino artist in Mexico, he looks within from the outside. One day he looked at an Ifugao bulul that has been in his bedroom for over 30 years, a souvenir from home, and realized that it was similar to a work percolating in his mind for some time. He copied the wooden figure in white carrara marble, black and green jadeite, red jasper, and other materials as an experiment. And like God in the Genesis story, he looked at his work and saw that it was good—well, at least good enough for an ongoing exhibit at Silverlens Gallery on Pasong Tamo that I visited last weekend.

Traditionally carved in narra, a bulul executed in stone attains a different nature, a different character. It is still recognizable as a bulul from the Philippines, but reworked in Mexican stone in a different context, it expresses a process of reinvention not new to Olbes who, in 1995, reworked the images of 10th-century pre-Spanish Philippine gold funerary masks into stark and striking works of gold on obsidian.

At first glance, a bulul in black stone resembles the wooden types darkened by age and soot, and bathed in fresh chicken or boar’s blood and rice wine offerings poured over their heads over generations. But a bulul in white stone could be mistaken as a sculpture inspired by Brancusi when the design is actually drawn from images, experiences and memories of the artist’s youth in the Philippines—deep-seated reminiscences that remind the artist and the public that sees his work that he is Filipino, that his work, though made in Mexico from a variety of Mexican stones, are Filipino in spirit.

A bulul in stone by Olbes is different from the originals in Philippine hardwood because of the sensuous nature of the material: smooth and cold to the touch, with a surface that conceals and reveals more than the eye can see. Paul Gauguin is said to have owned an ancient Mexican mirror fashioned from black obsidian that he used before painting. Gauguin looked beyond his reflection in the mirror into the veins and grains of the stone, immersing his eyes in darkness that later contrasted with the mixed paints on his palette producing the intense colors of his canvases.

In ancient China, mirrors were fashioned from bronze, and in Mexico from obsidian. They were used: to examine a person’s physical appearance, ward off evil, and peer into the future. Twenty-first-century Olbes works in stone take on another reflexive property—that of looking into the past as a way to understanding the present. By drawing on the image of the bulul, reinventing it in a new and foreign material, Olbes makes us look back on our pre-Spanish roots; by peering into the stone far beyond our reflection, we might find ourselves and that elusive thing we call Filipino identity.

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TAGS: Baguio City, bulul, culture, History, Humidhid, identity
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