Faith in Fairness

by Patrick D. Flores

The title of the exhibition strikes at the core of this latest foray of Emmanuel Garibay into the realm of the sacred.  The artist in his corpus has keenly reflected on the profound implications of spiritual life in the Philippines. It is common to come across the characterization of Christianity or Catholicism in the Philippines as “folk” or “split-level.” Along with the intense mestizaje in the culture is the heightened degree of hybridity in the translation of the foreign.  It is also not seldom to hear the notion that western religion has been woven into the ethnographic fabric so intricately that the figure of outside and the ground of inside have seamlessly meshed, giving credence to theories of assimilation or  that vexing word, adaptation. The contrary has, however, been argued as well: that belief in a colonial religion had been a decisive break, a rupture and not a synthesis of so many translations from ingenious indigenes.

Garibay – an attentive student of art, sociology, and divinity — nuances this conversation by proposing the idea of “irreverence,” as extensively contemplated. In the history of images in Philippine art, such an impulse has led to either iconoclasm or scatology. For instance, in the work of Manuel Ocampo and Mideo Cruz, the critique of institutional doctrine or dogma or orthodoxy is so thoroughgoing and resolute, it unerringly wounds the “culture” in the same vein. Alfredo Esquillo, for his part, has conscientiously traced the devotional path of this religion, reliving the Passion as a pervasive trope in the quest for salvation and renewal.

In this exhibition, Garibay grapples with the phrase “walang sinasanto” with his usual ponderous elaborations, painting after painting, hinting at the span of so many years of thinking, revising, patiently waiting for epiphanies. Perhaps, when the artist paints, he prays, too: that is, he “waits” like in a cenacle that is his studio where both the banal and the sublime mingle and morph. In this room of expectation, the gift of intimacy suffuses the creative atmosphere. The phrase “walang sinasanto” is at once brazen and chastening, either way challenging the conceit of whatever power resides in a person or institution — and the posture of the latter.

On the one hand, deeming nothing or no one sacred means deeming everything or everyone human, animating them, rendering them intimate. In this process of intimating or making intimate, the sacred becomes an intimate, co-suffering with the sufferant. Ethnography confirms this relationship, explaining that when a Catholic Filipino, for instance, seeks succor, he or she speaks to a kin or as a kin, in a way obliging the agent of succor to reciprocate with affinity. The plea for sympathy is nearly guaranteed by devotion. Such reciprocation is anticipated and is deserved because the supplicant has earned it through acts of imitation, of suffering with the sacred, of taking on the habits of the sacred, who has become verisimilarly vulnerable. This is one meaning of “walang sinasanto.” The other alludes to a loss of this intimacy, of the ethico-moral valence of the sacred human who has secured the rights of equivalence with the erstwhile divine. This loss is degenerative, creating conditions of the miserable and the decadent. In other words, it breeds corruption. The artist rails against this loss and links it up with the festering ills of the culture and the country.

With these two positions inflecting each other, Garibay tries to find the most compelling imagery and stroke to enliven the complexity of the ties between the sacred and the human. With regard to the critique of indulgence, of the mimicry of power and its excesses, the critic Alice Guillermo crafts the acute phrase “subtle jaundiced tone” to describe the chromatic climate of this critique. The tinge of jaundice is recurring in his oeuvre, layered with a haze of slight sulfur. It conjures a toxic environment and a diseased body politic.  Because the bent is polemical, there is to be gleaned here a cogent pedagogical moment in the social types that are propped up as embodiments of the dramatis personae in what is clearly a struggle against inequity.  This effort to teach the public through the political picture can be traced to the artist’s seasons as an activist in the eighties through the nineties and his practice as a diligent interlocutor of religion.  The logic of the editorial cartoon and the mural is apparent, a device that addresses the urgency of the commentary on the news and foibles of the day and largely makes use of parody to cut the indiscretion of authority to size and the hubris of humanity into pieces. Thus, there is this sense of blur sometimes, a fragmentation or disintegration of the tectonic structure that holds “man” and the “world” precariously together.

Garibay, however, does not only dwell on negation. He endeavors to reconstruct sacred life, perhaps to pursue the vocation of art in the context of religion and its spiritual impulse: not to “hark back to an imagined lost paradise” but to “depict within space and time, imaginatively and provisionally…the final transfiguration of the cosmos.”[1] A salient part of this transfiguration is the way the spiritual permeates everyday life through juxtaposition and the persistent presence of religious personage in the quotidian situation, the motif of the stigmata, and the citation of the Biblical scenography dissolving into historical passage. Iconographies that whirl in the cultural scape are refunctioned through a heady mix of the tableau and the collage to reference both miracle and legerdemain.

A recent book on the anthropology of Christianity edited by an astute scholar who has done work on “power and intimacy” in the Bicol peninsula points to the tension in the religion’s investments in incarnation and resurrection as well as the duality that has never failed to bedevil. On the one hand, according to Fenella Cannell, “the mediation of the power of a God withdrawn from the world of mortal men…becomes a key trope in the anthropology of Christianity.” On the other, quoting the anthropologist of the “gift” Marcel Mauss, “it is Christians who have made a metaphysical entity of the ‘moral person’ after they become aware of its religious power.” This conception of the “human person” is Christianity’s legacy of “radical discontinuity” between “man and the “world.”[2]

Garibay confronts these contradictions and labors towards an idiom that intuit the ecology in which they play out. While the complexion of his painting is expressionist, self-conscious about the properties of material, he is able to create translucent planes where strata of details congeal or interpenetrate each other seemingly in defiance of paint’s density. Among these are traces of bodies and their displaced parts; others are religious vessels and indices of church and creed in suspended animation or instances of apparition, sometimes straying into the daily grind like some inveterate specter.  Distortion is a key procedure as well, a method of seeing and constitution of form, giving the artist the opportunity to exemplify a distorted view or a distorted sight within a range of ramifications: parody, caricature, grotesquerie, the carnivalesque, abstraction, and so on. There is attenuation, hyperbole, hectic dismemberment of the corporeal and the redistribution of “flesh.” There is a drastic “reformation” of the socius and the bios. In an interview, we come to understand that the core of Garibay’s belief lies in the belongingness of Christ among what Shakespeare would describe as the quintessence of dust, a nativity that is abject: “I see more affirmation in my faith as a Christian because one of the things I realize is something very radical about Christianity. For instance, the birth of Jesus to me is a very radical statement about a king being born among the poor.”[3] To locate fate among the dispossessed inevitably prompts Garibay to portray the “mass” in various circumstances: in the jeepney, in feasts and humble repasts, in the squalor of slums, in rallies in dense streets. This “mass” is pivotal in the movement of a possible revolution, a radicality to which the artist’s Christ aspires.

Perhaps in anticipation of his future sorties into a new series of paintings, a conversation with the thoughts of the philosopher Giorgio Agamben might prove productive. Agamben relates how the basis of life in freedom is the precondition to its inclusion in that contingent life: “The proximity between the sphere of sovereignty and the sphere of the sacred…is not simply the secularized residue of the originary religious character of every political power, nor merely the attempt to grant the latter a theological foundation. And this proximity is just as little the consequence of the ‘sacred’ – that is, august and accursed – character that inexplicably belongs to life as such…Life is sacred only insofar as it is taken into sovereign exception, and to have exchanged a juridico-political phenomenon…for a genuinely religious phenomenon…human life is included in the political order in being exposed to an unconditional capacity to be killed.”[4] Therefore: “Walang sinasanto.” No one is “spared.”

It is in these levels of proximities in “life” that its sacredness is threatened and fulfilled, refused and replenished: the epistle of Garibay to a critical, helplessly hopeful faithful.

 

Endnotes

 

[1] Begbie, Jeremy. 1997. Ed. Colin E. Gunton. “Christianity and the Cultures: Christianity and the Arts.” The Cambridge Companion to Christian Doctrine. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 116.

[2] Cannell, Fenella, ed. 2006. “Introduction.” The Anthropology of Christianity. Durham: Duke University Press, p. 18.

[3] Interview with Emmanuel Garibay by Daniel Nicholas. New Haven: Overseas Ministries Study Center, no publication details.

[4] Agamben, Giorgio. 1998.  Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford: Stanford University Press, p.  85.