Within the Filipino diaspora, I met Santiago "Santi" Bose (1949 -2002). In the summer of 2000 when he served as visiting artist-in-residence at the Pacific Bridge Gallery in Oakland, CA, I spent two days with him in intense conversation. I never saw him again, but those two days sufficed to provide the inspiration for an entire book on art and poetry, My Romance (Giraffe Books, 2002, see http://www.oovrag.com/books/romance.shtml).
My Romance features essays on 17 artists. Though only five of the artists are Filipino, I preferred for the book to be published in the Philippines to reflect what Santi told me during our two days together. Santi passionately believed that the Filipino artist needs to be as aware and open as possible to the diverse influences in the universe, including but not only Filipino. Such exposure, he felt, would enhance the nature of that Filipino artist's work. As he put it and as I quoted him in my Preface to My Romance: "When I bring in art magazines from around the world to the artists in Baguio, it's because I wish them to have a bigger concept of the worldto look at the Philippines and their art from many angles. I believe art empowers people, gives them a stronger vision of looking at their environment."
"Native Song" by Santiago Bose is one of the paintings he exhibited during his residency at the Pacific Bridge Gallery in a two-person show with Carlos Villa entitled "The Spirit That Dwells Within."
Santi's message is significant partly because it is impossible to assail his loyalty to his Filipino culture; that is, no one who knew him would confuse his interest in Western art with Eurocentrism. Santi was among the early pioneers in incorporating Philippine indigenous materials into art. His paintings, collages and assemblages blossomed with such "found" matter as bamboo, grass, fiber and organic materials, as well as juxtapositions between Western imagery and Philippine pre-Hispanic symbols like the bulul. Consequently, his art manifested his goal of "debunk[ing] cultural imperialism. He explains this in an essay published in Memories of Overdevelopment (ed. Wayne Baerwaldt). Here's an excerpt:
"The training of artists in Western modes propagates the use of materials and tools that are expensive and rare. But the contemporary Filipino artist is liberated from paying the West every time he creates. The idea of art as 'property' or commodity is challenged, its prominence questioned. The idea of artist as individual creator is also challenged, and a sense of community opens up new possibilities. The artist is taught to be self-reliant, and using available materials and local concepts, he expands his visual vocabulary. This makes his art relevant to a broad spectrum of society, making it clear whose interest it serves."
The artist who wrote the above was the man who first met me by visiting me in an apartment whose walls were laden with paintings, all of which were created by non-Filipinos. He looked around (paid particular attention to a portrait by Gregory Gillespie whom he admired and remembered from his New York days), and listened as I babbled enthusiastically about each work. With hindsight, I realize now how closely he must have paid attention to how my environment reflects my work. Breezily, I chattered about how I rise from bed each morning, walk a few feet away to my writing studio, and be perfectly happy there all day, sometimes forgetting to leave for a breath of fresh air. This lifestyle continues today: even when not working on my own writings, about 95% of my literary "business" is conducted through the internet. Thus, I spend most of my waking hours at home, surrounded by paintings and other gifts created by visual artists, and engaged in an ongoing dialogue with them. This partly explains why, as I know I told Santi, a distinct majority of my poems and fictions are inspired by the visual arts.
Patientlyand quite unbelievably now since, unbeknownst to me, Santi was (in)famous for his sense of humorSanti didn't once crack a grin over my blather. He listened to me talk about this artist, that artist, that style, that movement, that development, this methodologynone of which I could apply to a Filipino artist. Then, our conversation moved along these lines:
Santi: We need someone like you to write on Filipino artists.
Me: I'm not an art critic. I just blather
Santi: We need someone like you to write on Filipino artists.
Santi: We need someone like you to write on Filipino artists.
Then, before he left the Bay Area, he had a friend (Eduardo Datangelo) drop off a gift: a drawing against hand-made paper, which now graces a wall near me: an open hand against a white "X" painted against a brown backdrop.
After months of mulling over his message, I decided to write on Filipino artists with more focusthus leading to My Romance, and my decision to write arts-related essays for OurOwnVoice. If the point of being a Poet is not to write poems but to try to live life in a better way, I felt that Santi's idea of drawing attention to Filipino artists was a worthy goal (and synergistic with my own desire to draw attention to Filipino writers).
But why did Santi take me so seriously? Why did he push me to this path? It's not enough, I think, to say that he must have seen my potential as an art writer. Nor would it suffice, I believe, for his attention to reflect his concern that there are insufficient writers (at least outside the Philippines) covering Filipino artists. I believe his encouragement for me to turn what was then a still haphazardly-based interest on my part to a more focused goal relates to something larger. And I suspect that that larger issue has to do with what moved him to create a particular series melding performance art and photography. Beginning in 1997, Santi started having photographs taken of himself in various locations and with various people around the world, but with his face covered with a sheet of paper or a piece of cloth.
According to his daughter Lilledeshan, Santi began the photographs in Indonesia before continuing to other sites, including Canada, the U.S., Portugal, Australia and the Philippines. The latter was described by Alfred "Krip" Yuson in one of his Philippine Star columns covering Santi's death:
"In January 2000, at a book launch at the Filipinas Heritage Library where then Veep GMA (Gloria Macapagal Arroyo) was the guest of honor, Santi handed me his camera for a photo-op of them together. La Gloria was surprised when right before the click, Santi covered his face with a sheet of paper. No telling if she was amused, although Santi did try to explain that it would be part of a series of photos he planned to be taken of him with important personages, but always with his face covered."
The notice in Krip's column introduced me to this particular project by Santi. Upon reading of it, I recognized the simmer suddenly thrumming deep within my belly. It is a physical effect I often feel when confronted by great works of art, a visceral response that I'd felt before when I first read the poems of Jose Garcia Villa, when I strolled through the Uffizi with its trove of luminous paintings, when I first drank a glass of the 1950 Petrus (a wet shimmer), when I paused (and stayed a while) before several Jackson Pollock paintings during his retrospective at New York's Museum Of Modern Art, when I moved slowly (as if in a dream) from one ancient statue to another in Greece, when I heard Whitney Houston sing the National Anthem during a Super Bowl, and so many other heart-felt experiences engendered by the arts. I felt this same belly-simmer as I considered the conceptual underpinnings to Santi's projectthat its simplicity is deceptive because it actually manifested much of the complexities of life in the diaspora.
Santi understood the Filipino diaspora, its toll on diasporic Filipinos who may not even be aware of the costs they pay for having lost touch with their culture. As someone who left the Philippines at age ten and grew up "Americanized" in Los Angeles and New York, I had grown away from my birthland's culture. But it wasn't something Santi criticized. If anything, he saw its possibilities. For instance, he saw in me someone who, by being steeped in contemporary American art, can discuss Filipino artists along a different model than the Eurocentric critic who would look at Filipino art from a colonizing world view. Nonetheless, I didn't fully understand this aspect of my own potential until it received confirmation from different sources, including Stephanie Syjuco and Leny Mendoza Strobel.
I had written several times on Bay Area-based artist Syjuco's works (including an article for OurOwnVoice at http://www.oovrag.com/~oov/essays/essay2002b-7.shtml). Stephanie responded to my coverage by appreciating specifically how my writing correlated her works within the context of global contemporary art without diluting Filipino references.
Similarly, when decolonialism scholar Strobel reviewed My Romance (available at www.filipinoamericanlit.com), she specifically noted how my article on Paul Pfeiffer recuperated the Filipino aspects to Pfeiffer's works that were being ignored by American and European critics after Pfeiffer came to their attention as a result of having won the prestigious 2000-2001 Bucksbaum Award.
It was heartening to receive this type of confirmation as I have never forgotten my own experience as a young poet. One of the most famous Filipino writers (famous in both the Filipino and non-Filipino literary communities) once told me within my first year of being a poet that I was talented enough not to need to contextualize myself as an Asian American (or Filipino American) writer, and can simply promote myself as a writer. The implication was that for me to contextualize myself with my ethnicity was to limit my audience and, thus, "success."
But I have never seen the need to limit myself to this false binary. I see no reason why an ethnic-American artist needs to dilute one's cultural framework in order to succeed in an arena not solely focused on ethnicity. It is from such a position that I not only behave as a poet but also write as an art reviewer of Filipino artists. Santi understood this by honoring the indigenous Filipino culture while still keeping au courant with such western art masters as Mondrian, the Dutch painters, among many others. By remaining open to experiences during his international travels, Santi enlarged what it meant to be a Filipino artist.
So many have written of Santi since his deathpeople who were far more intimate with and knowledgeable about him. In fact, it wasn't until after his death and the subsequent outpouring of messages and media coverage from his numerous friends, acquaintances and admirers that I realized: I never knew Santiago Bose. I never directly experienced, for one, his sense of humor that encouraged his relatives and compatriots to turn his funeral into one large party. I never even knew he was a "ladies' man" as he was on good behavior with me. In fact, I joked to his friend, the poet Luis Cabalquinto, that "it seems I may be the only Pinay he never made a pass at."
To which Luis gallantly replied, "I'm sure it had nothing to do with losing your charm, but with his approaching payback time and just losing it." (Then Luis went on to regale me with yet another story of Santi charming yet another lady.)
Santi's "good behavior" showed how carefuland focusedhe was with me during the two days we shared togther. He sensed my passion for the visual artsthe fountain for the majority of my creative writing effortsand he responded to that with utmost seriousness. It was a seriousness that included an agenda he didn't bother to hide as he trusted that I would recognize its value. He wanted me to write continuously on Filipino artists. He felt someone needed to write more about Filipino artistsa different version of "payback time."
Thus, I offer this last "payback time" for Santiago Bose by meditating on his series involving photographs where he hid his face. There are many implications to this particular body of work. By placing himself in situations of hiding his face, he embodied the difficult, complicated space of the diaspora where Filipinos experience invisibility, objectification and racism. Certainly, one may mask one's face out of fear.
One also may cover one's face to symbolize how others project their preconceptions about ethnic minorities. By offering a white page instead of his face, Santi was offering a blank space still waiting for its images, text, and/or colors. The viewer, thus, sees a mirror. The viewer is the one to make up the image on Santi's face, which is to say, the viewer is the one to define who "Santiago Bose" is supposed to be. By offering up the definition of his identity to the viewer, Santi created a space where the viewer then either responds with indifference, or also the worst of best parts of one's nature.
A possibilitybut all too rare a possibilityis that the viewer might take the time, care and respect to look behind the page to see Santi's real face. But how many people in the diaspora bother to look at Filipinos as who they are besides the contexts prevalent in the diaspora which often are not their choice? When a Filipino travels beyond the Philippine borders, how often are they seen as human? In Greece, for instance, a dictionary there defined "Filipina" as "maid." Even today, traveling throughout the U.S., I am sometimes asked, "Do you speak English?" because of the color of my skin.
And why did Santi cover his page with a white page? Why not a brown page? Would it be to raise the specter of assimilation, certainly not an unusual mode of behavior among certain Filipino immigrants to the U.S. or other Western countries?
Ultimately, however, Santi's approach engenders that great question that I believe all great arts asks of its viewers: "What does this work of art say about who I, the viewer, am?" What a viewer chooses to say about who Santi is will say more about that viewer than Santiago Bose. That is the nature of the image presented by Santi through this series.
Consequently, Santi not only directly addressed Filipino culture (the implications of the diaspora) but he found a formal approach that allowed him to meet the "aesthetic" test of whether form equals content. In turn, by meeting this threshold, this body of work becomes even more effective.
It seems fitting to me that the last photograph of this series is of Santi in his coffin. The first time I saw this image, it felled me to my knees out of grief and not just admiration. The image, to me, symbolizes how Santi departed from us before he found peace for the internal conflicts that ravaged him. A blank-faced man traveling around the globe may be considered a metaphor for how Santi felt compelled always to leave the Philippines because he could not find sufficient support there for his art, notwithstanding the recognition he has received. The reasons are many and complicated. Some are financial. But, as I would learn from the media coverage following his death, he also got into conflicts with other Filipino artists, such that he ended his life dissatisfied with other artists in his hometown Baguio City.
But though Santi felt compelled to leave the Philippines, this doesn't mean that he found an alternative Home. A blank-faced man also symbolizes the loneliness of traveling around the world. So it does seem appropriate that he would have a white blank page over his face as he laid in his coffin. With no apologies at all for any sentimental implications, I am forced to conclude from the image that he will find his Home in the Afterwards, that he brought the white page with him there as it may be the only place where, finally, he can take off permanently the empty white space, the empty page, and never ever again have to hide his face.
When I look at this last photograph of Santi in his coffin, I see a "Filipino Artist"not a "Filipino," not an "Artist," but specifically a "Filipino Artist." Only in the Afterwards might Santiago Bose become an individual human being versus a role model for 20th century Filipino artistry. The face in the coffin had to be hidden: Santi willingly had sacrificed his face, his very personhood, for his Art.
Photos of Santiago Bose from the family album of Lilledeshan Bose.
© Eileen R. Tabios